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Tag: Marius Swajkos

Postscript to a Brutal Story

Sean Keogh was sentenced to four years in jail today.  He was convicted earlier this month for his part in the murders of Polish men Pawel Kalite and Marius Szwajkos in Drimnagh in February 2008.  His co-accused in that trial, 19-year-old David Curran, is already serving a life sentence for the murders.  Curran was the one who wielded the screwdriver that left both men brain dead within seconds.

Throughout the trial it was obvious that Keogh was very much the afterthought in this trial.  His part in the attack was really little more than a henchman and it wasn’t until the very end of the trial when the DPP dramatically introduced a new charge of assault which Keogh instantly pleaded guilty to.  He had admitted himself that he had kicked Pawel Kalite in the head and face as he lay on the pavement outside his house, fatally wounded.

Whenever there’s a co-accused whose part in proceedings is relatively cut and dried they will always appear to be something of an after thought in the trial.  It was the same with Essam Eid during the Devil trial.  It was always Sharon Collins’ legal team who stood up to fight every legal challenge.  She had a lot more to fight for.  Eid had been caught red handed.  So in this trial Curran was the one who had been seen with the screwdriver.  He was the one who had done the deed.  Even when he was charged with murder Keogh was never really cast as anything more than a tagger on, a follower, nothing more than a henchman to Curran’s brutal villain.

Fighting a murder charge on “common design” or “joint enterprise”; the legislation that allows the get away driver to be charged with robbery even if he never set foot in the bank, is always a tricky one.  In the case of Keogh it was certainly a tricky one to convince a jury on.  And in the end they weren’t convinced.

It emerged today that Keogh had a much longer record than Curran.  Keogh had been a regular of the children’s courts and the circuit and district courts, racking up 75 previous convictions.  They weren’t major crimes, mainly the kinds of charges you hear for a habitual joy rider.  He’s someone who’s drifted from one misdemeanour to another until his out of control path led him into real trouble.  This was a trial that shone a spotlight on the lives of some teenagers in sink estates all over, brutal, senseless and frequently brief.  A life filled with drink, drugs and petty crime with little or no respect for life, their own or others.  A depressing view but an all too common one in the daily business of the criminal courts. 

Sean Keogh kicked the head of a dying man – hard enough to break his teeth – yet it’s all too easy to dismiss him as the hapless henchman.  His crime is after all one of assault, not of murder.  But the sheer, depressing brutality of this case is going to stick.  Even if it’s a horribly familiar tale.

Back to the Subject of Sentencing

The subject of sentencing seems to be in the air this week.  I was reading an interesting post from Hazel Larkin this morning within minutes of  reading two letters (here and here) in today’s Irish Independent and it got me thinking.

It’s very easy to get upset about some of the sentences handed down in Irish courts.  When you see rapists routinely sentenced to ten years or less, as in the particularly brutal case from Clare that was sentenced yesterday, it can be hard to see how the punishment fits the crime.  But blaming the judges, as the letters to the Indo did today isn’t the answer.  It’s a far more complicated situation than that and the judges are the least of the problem.

I’ve been covering the courts for more than four years, I’ve written on sentencing here on several occasions but it’s a subject that is just going to run and run.  It can be very hard to fathom how a rapist, whose crime is deemed serious enough for the highest criminal court, the Central, is frequently handed a lower sentence than someone convicted of a drugs crime in the lower Circuit Courts.  This isn’t because Central Criminal Court judges are softer than their Circuit Court counterparts, it’s the way the law is constructed.

There exists in Irish law a presumption of degrees.  For example, if someone is convicted of possession of drugs worth more than €13,000, with the presumption that he has them for sale or supply, he must serve a mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years.  This is all very well.  If you take the drugs of the streets you might end up saving lives – or they could end up with the dubious delights of the Head Shop and you as government are left with another hole to plug.

The minimum sentence is all very well in principal, if you assume that everyone caught with vast quantities of drugs is a nasty predatory drug dealer but those guys very seldom seem to end up in court.  What you see instead are the pawns, the hopeless drug addicts whose debt has climbed too high or the hapless third world dupes who see a better future for their families with the proceeds of acting as a drug mule.  I’ve seen plenty of people who were as much victims of the drugs as the end users but all were sentenced to a mandatory ten year turn.

Then you have the rape cases.  Cases as I’ve said which are tried in the highest criminal court, it’s put up there with murder.  Yet there is no minimum sentence for rape.  A grown man who forces himself on a woman or, in some cases, on a young child, can walk away after three or four years.  Even if that attack goes hand in hand with false imprisonment, violent assault or psychological manipulation and entrapment.  I’ve seen a lot of incest cases where the now adult victim has had to endure years of systematic abuse then relived it on the stand only to see their abuser sentenced for one or two years because he’s now an old man.

It doesn’t seem fair that drugs are deemed worse than sexual crimes. After all there aren’t that many people who take drugs who are forced to take them against their will, who are threatened and terrorised until they snort that cocaine or whatever.  I’m not belittling those ravaged by addiction just making the point that those who are raped are never in a situation where they asked for it and very often are never in a situation where they can walk away.  It’s not something that abstention will wipe away and it’s never, ever sought for a rush.  Fine, drugs wreck lives.  But rape destroys them.  If there’s a minimum of ten years for some drugs offences shouldn’t there be a minimum for sex offences?

I’ve sat through a lot of both kinds of trials and I’m well aware that there are differences in degree, just as there are different kinds of killings but I can’t help but agree with those who say that for Central Criminal Court crimes the minimum sentences do not match the crimes.  There are many reasons why the sentences for rape or manslaughter are the length they are.  Judges have a complex way of arriving at their sentences. There’s the range of imprisonment for the crime in hand, then the mitigating factors that must reduce that term, with the sole exception of murder which earns a mandatory life sentence.

If the judge, who has sat through the entire trial, feels that a stiffer sentence than usual is fitting he must still bear in mind the Court of Criminal Appeal which has frequently overturned the longer sentences. 

Each rape trial is different just as each murder trial and each manslaughter trial is different and it’s right that there is flexibility in sentencing but surely a violent rape should be classed the same as a murder if we’re going to be serious about prison being a deterrent.  There are of course other factors in play as well, including the obligatory one quarter off their sentence that the convicted receive as a matter of course.  It was an nice idea, a carrot rather than a stick to ensure good behaviour but when those being jailed are guilty of some of the most heinous crimes committed in the country surely there should be a mechanism to remove the carrot?

I remember the sentencing of Gerald Barry for rape last year.  Barry had been convicted of the murder of Swiss student Manuela Riedo in March last year but it was only a couple of months later in July when a few of us gathered in Galway to hear Mr Justice Paul Carney sentence him for two ground of rape.  Barry had raped a French student just weeks before he killed Manuela in a hauntingly similar attack.  Judge Carney handed down two life sentences.  He said then that he did not think the time off should come into force for men like Barry.  He’s a judge who’s frequently outspoken.  But the wheels of justice move exceedingly slowly and many of the things he’s spoken out about are still very much in force.

I can also remember a sentencing for a very nasty case of child abuse where the judge had wanted to hand down consecutive sentences, which given the multiple counts, would have added up to more than 100 years.  Sadly there are strict rules governing whether sentences should be consecutive or concurrent (that is whether they run one after the other or at the same time) which means that consecutive sentences are a rarity, no matter how vicious the crime.  It’s these same rules that mean that David Curran will effectively serve one life sentence even though he killed both Pawel Kalite and Marius Szwajkos.

There definitely needs to be reform of the sentencing for certain crimes in Irish courts.  But from what I’ve seen it’s rarely the judges who operate from the coalface who are most at fault, it’s the appeal judges who base their decisions on a transcript or the politicians who pass the laws.  There’s a reason why the crimes that tend to be highlighted on the voters doorsteps or those that make the headlines – gangs and drugs principally – are the ones that get the draconian measures.  It’s time that someone who wasn’t after votes looked at the law and made the changes that could make Irish law as fair as it has the potential to be.  This is by and large a great system, but it’s things like this that make people think it can’t be trusted.

When Children Kill

One of the most shocking things about the Drimnagh murder trial was the youth of the person accused of a savage, brutal attack that left two innocent men dead in seconds.  David Curran was only 17 when he murdered Pawel Kalite and Marius Szwajkos, too young to be named in the initial reports of his arrest.

He young enough to still be a young man when he’s released from his life sentence and when that verdict was handed down, as I’ve already mentioned here, he looked a lot younger than his now 19 years.  When I first started to cover the trial, in the second week, I initially thought, just based on the faces of the two accused sitting in front of me, that Curran was the one accused of the lesser crime of joint enterprise. 

I’ve sat near a fair number of killers over the past few years and it’s still surprising how ordinary those convicted of killing another human being tend to look but when the killer is still little more than a child it’s all the more shocking.

I’ve written at length here about Finn Colclough, who was 17 when he fatally stabbed 18-year-old Sean Nolan while Sean was out celebrating the end of secondary school.  Colclough was convicted of manslaughter not murder and earlier this year the Court of Criminal Appeal reduced his 10 year sentence by suspending the last two years of it.  It was a trial that provoked a vocal reaction from those who observed it.  There was, and I think still is, a perception that justice was not served in some way because Colclough came from a well off family and lived on the exclusive Waterloo Road in Dublin 4.

I’ve always said that manslaughter was the correct verdict in that trial and I haven’t changed my mind.  But after the Drimnagh trial I can’t help comparing Finn Colclough and David Curran.  Both had been mixing their drinks and both had smoked cannabis.  Both could perhaps have done with considerably more parental supervision and both took an action in the heat of the moment that resulted in an innocent man’s death.

There are, of course, several key differences that go a long way to explaining the different sentences.  Sean Nolan died from two stab wounds that, according the the pathologist, were consistent with the knives still being held while Colclough tried to push Sean away from him in a struggle.  Pawel Kalite and Marius Szwajkos died from almost identical wounds to the temple, caused by a screwdriver wielded at head height.  Curran’s attack showed a devastating aggression that obviously left the jury in no doubt that his actions were murder not manslaughter.

But you can’t help playing “What If” with the two cases.  What if Curran had come from Waterloo Road not Drimnagh.  It’s unlikely he would have spent his days robbing and getting out of his head on benzodiazepines but what’s to say he wouldn’t have still been binge drinking and getting stoned on joints.  He might not have left school so abruptly at the age of 15. 

Colclough had managed to stay in school, despite crippling OCD and ADHD when he was younger, because of the intervention of his parents.  If Colclough had been born in Drimnagh rather than the Waterloo Road would his crime still have been manslaughter?  Would he have acted the same and would the jury have reacted the same?

I’ve commented before on the similarities between cases but I suppose this time I’m more interested in the differences.  Both were 17 when they took a life and both looked startlingly young and vulnerable in court.  But Colclough faced his trial with his parents sitting with him in the court while Curran faced the verdict alone.  Curran did a horrible, grotesque and brutal thing and took two lives for no reason but because of where he’s from, the life he was living, we assume he is a feral monster, a simmering time bomb waiting to provide a cautionary tale of youth gone wild.  If he had been born into more affluent surroundings I wonder would the jury have found his defence teams explanation of the mind warping effects of benzodiazepines and alcohol more palatable.

The verdicts were what they were and the facts of the two cases stand but it’s interesting to compare the two trials. I’ve received a lot of criticism on this blog for showing any compassion for Colclough but I notice that hasn’t been the case so far with Curran.  Considering he is guilty of the worse crime I think that’s interesting.  I’m not coming to any conclusions on this just asking some question that might not even have answers.  But I know that whenever I cover the trial of someone so young I start to wonder…what if.

Snapshots of a life

The thing about murder trials, one of the things anyway, is that you only see fragments of the story.  The trial is a narrative all right, but one of a moment in time.  An extraordinary, brutal event that gets picked over in minute detail, so the picture we get of both the accused and, often more so, the deceased is how they are frozen, in that moment of time.

It’s logical it should be like that of course.  We are watching a dissection of that moment as the prosecution make their case but if you are writing about the story of the trial you are frequently left with very two dimensional main characters.  Very often the deceased are the biggest mystery of all.  They are the centre of proceedings but only as an abstract, an idea, maybe even a catalyst.  They frequently have very little part in the story of their death while their killer, or those accused of that, sit in full view for us to scrutinise every twitch and glance.

It is the accused that we hear about as the prosecution seek to prove they are capable of the act they are accused of and the defence try to prove they’re not.

Yesterday I wrote about one of those fragments of insight, today I’ll write about another.  Today we gathered to hear the victim impact statements written by the families of Pawel Kalite and Marius Szwajkos.  Throughout the trial of David Curran and Sean Keogh, accused of their brutal killings, the Polish men have been little more than cyphers.

We have heard that they might both have been drinking vodka in the privacy of their bedrooms that Saturday evening in February 2008.  We have heard that Pawel was incensed by being attacked by a pack of teenagers and had pulled on heavy boots before going out in anger.

Today we had the first inkling that the picture painted might have been distorted by what was to follow.  The former boss of both men, Alan Kennedy, stood up to read the victim impact statements on behalf of the families.  Before he started he addressed the court.  It might interest us to know, he said, that it was a Polish custom to take off the shoes as soon as you entered the house.  A simple statement, something he had learnt as he became closer to the families in the wake of the tragedy but one that had an obvious weight to those listening to him.

The implication was that Pawel had not been pulling on heavy boots to go and fight but simply outdoor footwear as he prepared to leave the house.  The proximity to the violence of his death had given it an ominous edge that it should never had said.  He read the statements with a catch in his voice, describing 29-year-old Pawel, who we had been told had been on his way to tangle with the teens who had cheeked him, when he met his death.

Pawel wasn’t like that, said his family.  He was gentle, kind and sensible.  Growing up from a small and sickly child with a smiling face to a man in love, who had called his aunt the day he died to arrange a trip to research house loans.  He had met the woman he wanted to marry and wanted to move back to Poland to be with her.

He had loved his job and his life in Ireland and had been working on his English, travelling around the country to soak up the Irish culture.  His savage death was like a screwdriver to the heart, they said, a wound that would never heal.

Marius’s family remembered the 27-year-old graduate with a masters degree in Mechanical Engineering who had rebuilt a 30 year old Volkswagen Beetle from a shell and made his sister handmade leather bags.  His sister wrote about the time he had rebuilt another car for his father and how she still expected to hear his voice on the phone.

She quoted a Polish poem “Let us hurry to love people, they leave us too soon.”

Curran listened to both statements with his characteristic fast rocking.  He seemed a little harder this morning, mouthing angrily at his family, who had been absent when he learnt his fate, telling them to “fuck off”.  The frightened child of yesterday was gone in that moment.  He’ll be fixed in the public consciousness from now on as an irredeemable monster.  He sealed that fate for himself as soon as he swung that screwdriver but it’s always depressing to see a life wasted so totally so young.  Now those he killed have been fleshed out as the restrictions of the justice system have been played out, he will always be that monster.

The Kalite family and the Szwajkos family will have to come to terms with their loss, it can never be undone.  At least now they can redress the balance and flesh out the memory of the men they knew.

It’s always the same with murder. In the aftermath of the crime, when any suspects are still being investigated and arrests are yet to be made, it is only the victim.  It is they who build the tragedy to it’s greatest heights as the media seek to show the light that’s just been extinguished.  By the time we get to the trial though the accused is the focus and the victim fades into a fragmented part of the story.

It was particularly noticeable in the last trial I covered, that of Eamonn Lillis who was convicted back in February of the manslaughter of his wife Celine Cawley.  During the trial Celine, who he had hit over the head with a brick, was painted as a shrieking harpy as the defence painted a picture of the lapdog who eventually snapped and bit the hand that fed him.  It was only after the verdict, once again with a victim impact statement, that another side to her character was shown and the court caricature became a flesh and blood woman who was loved and missed by her family.

It’s the nature of the criminal trial and really can’t be helped but it must be so hard for victims families, sitting and listening not only to the forensic details that reduce a living person to a bundle of medical data, but also to what would amount to a character assassination in any other circumstances.

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