Writer and Author

Tag: Media (Page 2 of 3)

An Issue of Privacy

The big legal story of the day is definitely the action being taken by convicted serial rapist Michael Murray to safeguard his privacy.

49-year-old Murray, who raped four women in a six day period in 1995, says he has been hounded by the press since his release from prison last year.  He says he can’t take part in any meaningful rehabilitation programme when there are snappers hiding in the bushes wherever he goes and can’t even stay living in the same place.  They say the public has the right to know where a serial sex offender is living.

Today was only the first day of the case so there’ll be a long wait to see what the court rules.  It’ll be a judgement that anyone who covers the courts or crime will be watching with interest.  Crime stories are big news in Ireland.  Covering the big trials over the past few years I’ve grown used to seeing scrums outside the court after a verdict that would rival those usually reserved for Hollywood stars.  Certainly a lot of the more paparazzi shots that appear in the papers are to do with crime lords rather than movie stars. 

I’d be out of work if that interest wasn’t there but when it comes to privacy there’s a whole different can of worms.  When photographers chase musicians or actresses they’re chasing people who signed up for the chase.  Sudden celebrity might come as a shock but if you do something that requires you to perform in front of (hopefully) large crowds it kind of goes with the territory.

Those who commit crimes don’t tend to do it for an audience.  They might crave some form of notoriety through their actions but it’s not really the same thing.  Yet once they’ve been identified and especially once they’ve been caught and tried, they become a rather magnetic news story.  This newsworthiness isn’t something that will fade with their looks.  Once they’re convicted they are indelibly linked to their crime.  If the crime was awful, tragic or extravagant then public interest in it will remain and so will journalistic interest.

Take Wayne O’Donoghue for example.  Convicted in 2006 to four years for the manslaughter of his 11-year-old neighbour Robert Holohan, O’Donoghue was released from prison in February 2008 after serving three years.  It had been a trial that hit all the front pages and passed into legal history when his mother Majella made certain allegations in her victim impact statement. Because of these comments this is a trial that tends to be raised any time there’s a discussion about victim impact statements and it remains fresh in the public mind.

Wayne O’Donoghue left the country after his release but as recently as this January the Sunday World ran a story about his new girlfriend.  Joe O’Reilly’s girlfriend Nicki Pelley has been a regular tabloid fixture, photographed every now and then because she stuck by the man who was convicted of the brutal murder of his wife Rachel.

As long as the names of those convicted sell papers when they appear on the front page the press will keep their interest.  That’s how newspapers work.  When Sharon Collins, the subject of my first book Devil in the Red Dress, is released from jail the photographers will be waiting to see if her proposed victim PJ Howard is waiting to whisk her off to some Spanish villa.  When Eamonn Lillis (subject of the latest book) has served his time there’ll be those wanting to see what he does next.  There’ll probably also be those who are curious to see whether his former mistress Jean Treacy gets the Italian wedding she was planning while she was cheating on her fiancé with Lillis.  The list goes on and on.

This is the nature of news.  If something’s a story it’s a story.  It might not be pleasant for those caught in the crosshairs but that’s the way it works.  It may seem sordid or even rather repellent but these stories have been filling newspapers as long as there have been newspapers.  But however you feel about the examples I’ve given what about those who have committed the really, really bad stuff…like Michael Murray, who raped four women in less than a week and whose own counsel describes as an “abnormal risk to the community”? 

He served time for his crimes, his debt to society as decided by the courts.  Is he entitled to privacy?  A quick Google throws up some of the stories that obviously caused offence, stories of day trips to Bray, security alerts.  When you look at the results Google throws up it certain gives the impression that he has had very little time since his release when he wasn’t being watched by a press posse.  He’s not the first to receive this treatment but depending on the outcome of this case he could be one of the last. 

These are the stories that lead to calls for a sex offenders register, for the public to have more, not less information about who lives close to them.  But privacy is the right of every individual and that causes a problem.  It’s going to be very interesting indeed to see how the Michael Murray case works out.  I’m sure it won’t be the last time I post on the subject.

Web Savvy Jurors a Threat to Justice?

Earlier this week the Independent reported that a High Court judge warned about the risks of jurors googling background on a trial they were involved in or even an accused.  It’s an issue that goes right to the core of the Irish justice system.  We have a system here where an accused person is given the absolute presumption of innocence.  As a journalist covering the courts it’s something that I have to take into account every working day.

It’s this presumption that means those accused of a crime are on bail before they are sentenced (unless they are considered too much of a flight risk or are serving time for another crime).  If they are on remand it’s that reason that photographers must crop their shots so that prison guards and handcuffs are not shown.  When we write colour on a trial we have to avoid using inflammatory adjectives to describe the accused, they can’t watch something slyly or have a hooded brow for example.  It doesn’t matter if the only reason we’re there to cover a trial is because of whatever crime the accused has previously committed, as far as reporting it concerned he or she is as innocent as the driven snow until the twelve in the jury box decide otherwise.

This is where the Internet posses a problem.  Once something is written in cyber space it’s frozen in time.  It’s possible to take down content that would be prejudicial in a fresh trial but it’s almost impossible to police the on line chatter that accompanies almost any high profile trial.  A bit of judicious googling can unearth all sorts of dirt on almost anyone these days.  If you’ve broken the law in a sufficiently interesting manner to make the papers then the record of your crime will hang around for all to see.  It’s where journalists find a lot of background but we’re not the only ones with the pass to the net.  Anyone can do it and there isn’t really any way of stopping someone of doing it if they’re serving on a jury.

Now judges might not have to warn juries about the perils of the Internet but I can think of at least two trials off hand where the jury was told each night not to Google at the same time they were told not to read the newspaper or broadcast coverage of the trial.  That’s really all a judge can practically do but it begs to be seen whether that will remain to be enough.  The jury trial is a funny thing.  I can’t think of a fairer alternative than having your fate decided by twelve of your peers but it’s never just that simple.  Juries come back with bizarre decisions sometimes, or they’ve obviously not misunderstood some aspect of the trial or the charge but in the end what alternative is there? 

We put an awful lot of responsibilities on juries.  For so many people it’s just time away from work and an intrusion into the smooth routine of life but it’s vital.  Civilian juries are used precisely because they don’t have all the baggage and assumptions that a jury of legal bods would have.  If you watch too many trials the cynicism starts to eat away at you and that presumption of innocence is a far harder thing to accept.  Of course judges every day rule objectively on all kinds of things but criminal justice in particular isn’t a matter of academic point scoring.  We have juries partly to bring their humanity to proceedings. But that means we also have to trust them to play by the rules and observe the rules of their job.

This is one of those issues that exists in the hinterland between the man of the street juror and the legal tomes of the barrister.  It’s human nature to peek where you’re not supposed to and I’m would be more surprised if jurors didn’t have a quick look on line.  The tendency to gossip is assumed by the law.  It’s the reason why the judge who swears in the juries on a Monday asks the jury panel if they have any connection with any of the places connected to a case.  We assume they fess up if they do just as we assume they will be honour bound not to go online as soon as they get back from a day in court.

And that’s the thing.  When you talk to people who’ve served on juries the one thing they all say is that they felt the need to do the right thing.  They took their responsibility seriously.  Now maybe I just have a particularly dutiful bunch of friends but it would seem to be fairly safe to assume that every jury will have at least someone who’s taking it seriously.  You only have to watch the jury during a judge’s charge, when they realise that the ball is very nearly in their court and they will have to make a decision that will affect another human being’s life, to see that the majority do take it very seriously indeed.  Juries are frequently discharged because someone admits talking to someone they shouldn’t or reading something they shouldn’t or even playing hurling with one of the gardai involved in the case.  These things happen a lot.  Surely that proves that jurors have enough sense to know what they should do and to put their hands up when it’s not done?

There will always be dodgy stuff on the net and it’s not necessarily the stuff blurted out on message boards.  When a guilty verdict has been passed the media are fully within their rights to carry all the details they’ve been sitting on during the trial.  All the sly looks and handcuffs and previous convictions.  And once this stuff is out there, it’s out there.  With regards to juries there seem to be only two choices.  Either trust that they will do what they are supposed to and avoid googling the names of the accused or perhaps the victim, or sequester them for the course of the trial to make sure they restrain themselves.

The law has changed several times regarding sequestering.  Juries are no longer required to stay together from the moment they have been sworn and for more than a year they are not even required to stay together once they have started their deliberations.  The law changed recently to allow jurors to go home to their families each night.  The court is trusting them not to discuss with husbands and wives and mothers and fathers and children and siblings and friends the often disturbing things they have heard during the day.  We expect them not to unburden themselves to those they love because it’s the right thing to do.  Surely that’s a harder prohibition than simply avoiding checking something?  Surely if they can be trusted not to do one thing they can be trusted not to do the other?

The law is going to have to look at all the technological changes that have come into our lives in recent years.  This is only one area that will require a cool, clinical eye turned over it to make a decision that’s not a knee jerk reaction from people who don’t really understand the modern ever connected world we live in but that’s an informed response to issues and problems that simply haven’t existed before now.  It’ll be interesting to watch.

Ricin in the News Again

Lat week in the UK a father and son were jailed on terrorist charges.  They were by all accounts a nasty pair – neo nazi thugs who planned to overthrow the Government.  But what made me pause as I was flicking through the news headlines was the method they had decided to wreak havoc with…that favourite of extremists and conspiracy theorists…Saddam Hussein’s biological weapon of choice…the third most lethal toxin known to man…RICIN.

I know more than I would ever wish to about this particular poison thanks to the research I did when I was writing Devil in the Red Dress.  The toxin had formed a crucial part of the prosecution case against both Sharon Collins & Essam Eid, it was the one thing that raised Eid’s involvement to more than a rather unsuccessful con artist.  In the summer of 2008 we spent days in a rather stuffy courtroom in the Four Courts listening to the details of how ricin was found in Eid’s cell in Limerick prison and how the army were scrambled into action and the services of an elite lab in the UK were drafted in to test the microscopic traces found in a contact lens case under Eid’s bed.

It was only when I started researching the book that I realised what a thorny issue ricin is.  Ever since UN weapons inspectors found that Saddam Hussein had been stockpiling the stuff it’s been popping up in newspaper headlines with an infamy it hasn’t enjoyed since it was used to off Bulgarian writer Georgi Markov in a memorable piece of cold war skulduggery.  The assassination using a rigged umbrella as Markov was crossing Waterloo Bridge has passed into the popular consciousness and has appeared in countless spy movies over the years.  What people don’t tend to remember is that another Bulgarian dissident was attacked at around the same time and lived.  Ricin has it’s problems as a method of assassination and hasn’t been used as often as you might think.

This hasn’t stopped the countless ricin recipes from cropping up on the Internet.  They would have you believe that the production of ricin is nothing more than a simple home chemistry experiment, barely more complicated than the old adding a mint to a bottle of cola to cause a plume of fizz several feet high (and don’t try that one at home children, it might not be life threatening but it certainly makes a hell of a mess).  It’s the ease of production that makes ricin so attractive to your average nut.  There aren’t many chemical weapons you can cook up in your kitchen after all.  That’s certainly what Essam Eid thought when he cooked it up using a coffee filter and a blender in his Las Vegas kitchen and it seems that’s what appealed to Ian and Nicky Davidson when they were looking for something to get rid of “Zionist” politicians.

But it’s not as simple as that.  This is one of those cases where what you find on the Internet might not be what it appears.  Certainly the most common recipe, the one that appears on most of the right wing forums (like I said, been places researching that book that would turn your stomach – I’m sure I’m on some form of security watch list at this stage (if I am then  – Hello Boys, do say Hi sometime.)  I ended up spending way too long on the ricin research portion of the book.  Not because I found it overly fascinating but because it’s so difficult to find straight answers and I’m not a bio chemist.  You see the most common recipe was actually written by a fifteen year old.  You can tell by the spelling and the confusion about basic chemistry.  I’m not going start linking to the recipes, before you start wondering.  I’ll get to the why later.

Now this first recipe that I’m talking about goes back to the newsgroups in the early days of the Internet.  It doesn’t make ricin.  At best it makes castor bean mash (castor beans are the main ingredient in ricin recipes – even the ones that actually work).  Castor bean mash has been used as a fertiliser by American farmers since the 1950s.  It contains about 2% ricin, slightly more than the beans do in their natural state.

Then there’s the so-called Al Qaeda recipe which has cropped up in another high profile terror trial. Except in that ricin trial there actually wasn’t any ricin.  There is a recipe floating around on line that is supposedly written by Muslim extremists but this also doesn’t actually make ricin, at least not the kind of pure stuff that you’d need for chemical weapon purposes or any other purposes.  It makes a good fertiliser though.

Ricin is arguably the big bad wolf of the Internet.  Recipes are easy to find but don’t deliver what they claim.  The press and the authorities will periodically lament the ease with which such a deadly toxin can be made and the nutcases take notes and get onto Google.  Don’t get me wrong, ricin is a very nasty substance indeed.  If it kills you it will do so almost cell by cell and the death it brings will be truly agonising.  It’s one of the three most deadly toxins known and is more deadly gram for gram than anthrax or arsenic.  But as a murder weapon it’s less than impressive, which is probably why Markov has the distinction of being the only high profile, provable ricin assassination.  Ricin is also a pretty lousy weapon of mass destruction.  There are all kinds of problems with getting it out there, although apparently Saddam had his weapons guys working on that one.

What ricin does have is the instant fear factor.  It doesn’t matter that the vast majority of cases that come to light were making use of these bogus recipes or that the white powder they had made was once again little more than fertiliser.  I’m being deliberately vague in this post.  The recipes I’m not going near because despite their uselessness there are still deluded souls out there who cook them up with murderous intent and I cover trials, I don’t want to end up as evidence in one.  I’m also not going into detail to back up my argument because – well – it’s all in the book, there’s a whole chapter on this and I’ve no wish to repeat myself.

But seeing a trial like the Davidson one brings home the draw this stuff has and how many people believe it really is that easy to make.  It was almost impossible when I was doing the research to get anyone official to talk dispassionately about the whole ricin thing.  I understand why.  It is a scary substance and there’s always the chance that someone, somewhere will one day make it right. And as long as they’re cooking up ricin they’re not making something that actually kills.  For all the times ricin has appeared in the news over the past few years it’s always been because the means of making it was found never because it’s killed anyone.  But it’s always irritated me that this wooliness exists. 

It might not matter in the long run whether the nuts cooking up castor beans in their kitchens are on a hiding to nothing, what probably matters in the end is that they think they are making one of the most deadly poisons known to man and they intend to use it.  But I can’t help thinking that it should be reported right and the media at least shouldn’t just accept the deadliness of the white powder in a case.  You very seldom see the actual percentage of ricin in a sample made public, if it was ever tested for in the first place.  Most tests check for the existence of ricin, which you will have if you have castor beans.  What would be more useful is if they had the percentage of ricin.  Then you could tell if the guy in the dock was just a rather dumb crackpot or someone really dangerous.  But then, the guy in the dock is usually the dumb guy, the one whose plan had the fatal flaw that led to his capture.  The really clever ones don’t tend to end up in the dock.

The Lure of a Dangerous Man

Eamonn Lillis hit the front pages again today.  The Sun were running a story about the letters he’s allegedly been receiving in jail.  It seems extraordinary that there are women out there who would set their cap at a man convicted of killing his wife but I don’t know why I’m surprised.  It’s an age old story.

Lillis is actually one of the better prospects out there.  He was convicted of manslaughter so he’ll be out in a few years and when he gets out he’ll be returning to a €2 million nest egg from his share of the sale of the company Celine Cawley set up, Toytown Films and his wife’s estate.  But the fact remains that he killed his wife, and he was cheating on her at the time of his death.  He’s hardly the kind of guy that makes prime marriage material.  He was described during the trial as a lap dog, a meek and mild  mannered man who was very much in his wife’s shadow.  He’s not the obvious sexy bit of rough, the romantic bad boy that stops women in their tracks.  Sitting in court watching him on the stand, his lips primly pursed, his delivery clipped and almost mousily quiet he faded into the background of the court.

Granted we were told during the trial that he could be a charmer when he wished to be, we all saw his mistress Jean Treacy sashay the length of the courtroom to give her evidence, the much younger women who told of racing pulses and passionate trysts in supermarket carparks.  We had all seen the pictures of his wife when she was a young model, a stunning brunette who could have had any man she chose.  But the Lillis we saw in court wasn’t a romantic charmer. 

He was a grey little man who nervously bit his lip when the evidence seemed damning; whose “excuse me” when  faced with a gaggle of hacks at the end of the day was almost a whisper; who had to be told repeatedly while giving his evidence to raise his voice as the jury couldn’t hear him.  The image of the man who wasn’t there is born out by school friends who describe a quiet child and even his close friends speaking at his sentencing described his strength as his ability to listen. So not the Byronic tortured anti hero then, at best the worm that turned.  Yet there are those whose desire has been awakened who will write him love letters to read in his prison cell.

These aren’t letters from an existing paramour, we’re not talking about the continuing devotion of a mistress, like Nicki Pelley’s faith in convicted wife murderer Joe O’Reilly, or even the ever faithful PJ Howard, the stoutest champion of the Devil in the Red Dress herself, Sharon Collins, despite the fact she tried to hire a hitman to off his and his two sons.  No, Lillis’s admirers have probably never met the man they fancy.  They’re that strange breed who court convicted killers.

Maybe it’s the sparkle of celebrity that makes them want to get close to the man who spawned so many headlines, maybe they’re danger seekers who want to grab the tiger by the tail, maybe it’s another reason, sadder and darker altogether, that this is the best they can hope for, a relationship indelibly tainted before it’s even begun.

We’ve all seen the stories from the States, the death row weddings, the sacks of mails for serial killers.  We don’t have those kinds of killers here.  Murder in Ireland tends to be a much more domestic affair so maybe Eamonn Lillis is the best of a bad lot. I’m sure he’s not the only high profile wife killer to get these letters and he certainly won’t be the last. As a species we are fascinated with death – I would be out of a job if that wasn’t true.  The high profile murder trials always attract the largest crowds, this is just an extension of that.  I spend too much of my time sitting in courtrooms to share the fascination though.  I wonder what Lillis thinks of the letters.  We’ll probably never know.

Broadcasting from the Water Cooler?

Twitter’s got itself in the news again this weekend. Once again people have had cause to realise what a powerful tool for the dissemination of information the social networking site is.  At this stage Twitter has become mainstream and yet it’s still new enough that the issues it raises – the reliability of it as a source, the ethics of news breaking so quickly, the awesome power of this brand new form of broadcasting – are still to be hammered out satisfactorily.

The latest thing to throw the spotlight on the little blue bird is of course the way that the death of Gerry Ryan, one of Ireland’s foremost figures of broadcasting, spread like wildfire even before the news had been officially confirmed.

In fairness there’s always been a way of doing these things. Stories have to be confirmed before they’re made public and I can still vividly remember spending a very late night as a journalism student watching the Sky newsreader struggle not to break the news of Princess Diana’s death.  We had happened across the story quite early on, when it was still a serious car accident in Paris involving a man and a woman. Even with those meagre details it was obvious from the prominence the story was being given that someone very well known had been in the crash and we decided to stay with the story.

Eventually they confirmed the fact that it was Diana but it was a considerable time before they confirmed she was dead.  I remember watching the newsreader’s face crumble for a split second as the early confirmation came in his ear but he carried on for more than half an hour before he could share the news with his audience.

Twitter is as ever present as those 24 hour news bulletins but it’s far more anarchic in the way it operates. It’s not treated as the on air studio, it’s more the office water cooler.  People go there to vent and to comment and to enjoy a freedom that isn’t normally available to working journalists outside the ranks of colleagues who physically share the scene. Maybe we shouldn’t think of it that way but we do, that’s just the way it works.

Journalists are naturally gossipy creatures and it ‘s the most natural thing in the world for us to want to share what we know around the water cooler.  But with Twitter the water cooler has moved into that on air studio and broadcasting has become open to everyone.  There’s a very good reason for that bright red ON AIR light in any studio. It reminds us that people are listening.  With Twitter there’s no red light and sometimes people are going to forget.  It’s natural and it’s human nature.

There are good reasons why news organisations hold back on reporting deaths.  The main one is to allow the family the basic human dignity of hearing the news directly.  It’s brutal enough when news like that is broken by the arrival of sympathetic gardai, to hear it at the same time of hundreds of thousands of other people is just too cruel. However, when the death is as high profile as that of Gerry Ryan journalistic instincts can over ride caution.  It’s hard to describe what it means to break a story if you’re not a journalist but it’s such an intrinsic part of the job it becomes an almost physical urge that goes beyond merely doing the job you’re paid for. It’s the heart of what we do and that race to the finish can be – I hesitate to say addictive because I don’t want to be taken up wrong but it’s probably the best word for that feeling.

Twitter is the kind of place where you want to share a story that big. The first journalist to really break the news was Sunday Business Post journalist Adrian Weckler, he’s written about what happened on his blog here.  There are a lot of Irish journos on Twitter these days and everyone jumped on the story.  As the details emerged the debate was already raging about whether Weckler had been right to confirm the details before there had been any official confirmation.  Una Mullally, writing in the Sunday Tribune, has written about what happened and she goes into far more detail than I’m going to.  I know that the news broke where I was, in court, through Twitter but I was late to the story and didn’t get involved.

This isn’t the first time Irish media news has broken on Twitter.  When the INN news agency took the decision to close last year Twitter somehow got the story before the journalists were informed they were about to lose their jobs.  The news spread from Twitter into the mainstream media, just as it did on Friday, and staff listening to the news while they waited for a meeting with management to start, first heard they were out on their ears.

Journalism as we know it is changing rapidly. It’s easy to forget how loud a megaphone Twitter gives you.  I’ve been an active user of Twitter for well over a year and I’ve made friends and contacts there I would have found it very difficult to find anywhere else.  I’m fairly evangelistic about it, I tweet trials and during the recent Eamonn Lillis trial earlier this year that live tweeting really came into it’s own.  I was tweeting from my personal account and being listened to by people in so many different newsrooms not to mention the general public.  It makes you realise that Twitter is more than just a social tool.  It’s a very powerful broadcasting medium.

Now I’m no longer the only journalist tweeting updates from the trials I cover and it’s only a matter of time before the subject comes up for debate within the courtroom. Social media is raising brand new questions about the nature of broadcasting and how journalism is done and some day it’ll need to be discussed properly and ruled on. But I’m not going into the whole issue of live blogging and tweeting in courtrooms. Another time maybe.

What it all boils down to is that the old journalistic adage “If in doubt leave it out”.  If you put out news on Twitter it WILL spread.  If you’re not willing to stand by what you said or have any doubt about it’s veracity don’t Tweet it.  Most of us would do that anyway but there are times on Twitter when you know that your information is solid and you’re left with the decision of whether to share it.

Since we all became our own publishers these questions have become a lot more pressing.  It’s going to be a while before they are all hammered out and even when the talking’s all been done it remains to be seen whether news will ever go back to being something that could be easily embargoed by tacit agreement.  We’re going to see a lot more leaks like this, it’s simply the nature of the beast.

The Lure of the Financial Affairs of the Convicted

Yesterday in the  High Court the ongoing story of Eamonn Lillis made a brief appearance.  Lillis is serving his time in Wheatfield Prison in Dublin, anyone who reads the papers knows that his prisoner number is now 55511 and that he shares a landing with such high profile names as David Bourke and Finn Colclough.

But this latest twist in the story was of a far more practical nature.  As Celine Cawley’s husband, Lillis was automatically the executor of her estate.  Yesterday he relinquished that right and the role of executor was instead handed over to Celine’s brother and sister, Chris Cawley and Susanna Coonan.

A woman dies and the husband is accused of killing her these small details of a person’s death take on a new significance.  Whether convicted of murder or manslaughter or even acquitted, once the husband has been looked at in this way small matters of probate become front page news.  It’s actually quite unusual to see a story like this one, where the paper work has been filed at an early stage after conviction and matters appear to be running smoothly.

Compare the headlines in today’s papers, like this one or this, with the kind of stories that have appeared in the past.  Joe O’Reilly had a five year battle with his wife’s family over what name should be put on her tombstone. Brian Kearney has hit the headlines for his attempted sale of the Hotel Salvia in Mallorca that he ran with his wife Siobhan.  Both men were convicted of murdering their wives.

There were plenty of indignant front pages about attempts by John O’Brien to reclaim items belonging to his wife Meg Walsh, that gardai had seized when they were investigating him for her murder.  Despite the fact that Mr O’Brien was acquitted of the crime his involvement in these matters has continued to generate substantial column inches.

Eamonn Lillis is the latest man to enter the exclusive club of high profile Irish wife killers.  He was convicted last month of her manslaughter.  Despite the fact that a jury of his peers have decided he did not intend to kill his wife, although he was responsible for her death, his financial affairs especially those that are in some way connected with his wife, will continue to make news.

There has already been indignant coverage of the fact that Lillis will inherit half his wife’s estate and a half share of the money raised from the sale of her company Toytown Films.  I can see why these stories hit the headlines I’ve just seldom seen a case when the headlines is because someone isn’t doing something rather than because they are.

But then the Lillis case has been an unusual one in a lot of ways.

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In completely unrelated news tonight I am a contributor on a new TV3 series on Irish television called Aftermath.  I was in last night’s episode talking about the murder of Swiss student Manuela Riedo in Galway.  The episode is now up online on the TV3 website if you fancy a look.

Concessions and Lies

Eamonn Lillis told gardai and the emergency services that both he and his wife, Celine Cawley, had been attacked by a masked attacker in their Howth home.  He said that this balaclava’d and gloved man had hit his wife over the head with a brick and then turned on him.

This morning, after prosecution counsel Mary Ellen Ring had finished her opening speech, Mr Lillis’s counsel, Brendan Grehan stood up to make a number of concessions.  It’s normal enough to hear that the defence aren’t going to argue over the conditions of their client’s arrest or the way the scene what preserved and the evidence gathered, the technicalities of the investigation of a serious crime.  In total Mr Grehan made eight concessions that there had been no hiccups in how the gardai did their job.  Then he came to the ninth admission.

Mr Lillis, he said, admitted lying to gardai and emergency services about the circumstances in which his wife had suffered the injuries that led to her death.  There had been no burglary, no intruder, no one apart from him in the house when she was injured.

According to the prosecution’s opening speech, the post mortem evidence will show that Celine Cawley died from a combination of factors, three blows to the head with a blunt object and more mundane complications after a fall when the now obese former model had been unable to breath after falling unconscious on her front.

We were also told, in the prosecution’s opening argument, that Mr Lillis had been having an affair in the months before his wife’s death.  Gardai had discovered a significant amount of phone traffic from phones belonging to Mr Lillis to phones belonging to a woman called Jean Treacy.

Ms Treacy is sure to be a major witness, as we have been told that she will also tell the court about the account Mr Lillis gave her about his wife’s death…a fight that turned physical, an icy deck and a fatal slip.  But so far all we’ve heard is the outline of the prosecution case, the evidence will come later.

The new courthouse, which will be officially opened by the President of Ireland at the weekend, is hosting it’s first murder trial.  As proceedings got underway today there were some noticeable teething troubles.  Soon after the jury had taken their seats there was a loud alarm and a disembodied voice began to announce an evacuation but was quickly cut of in mid sentence.  But despite the technical gripes there are certain new high tech whizz bangs that certainly add to the experience of the initial rather dry evidence.

The first couple of witnesses in a criminal trial are almost always maps and photographs.  Before the trial goes any further the jury are provided with maps of the area in question and photographs of places or objects that are going to be referred to by subsequent witnesses.  Normally if you’re sitting in the body of the court this evidence is rather dull.  They don’t hand out maps to the whole courtroom and it’s the same with the photos so unless you’ve got extremely good eyesight there’s a lot of talking about things you can’t see.

Now though, the maps and photographs appear on large screens behind the judge.  We can all see the high hedge that surrounds the house on Windgate Road in Howth.  The trappings of a privileged life of the occupants are visible to all; the large garden, stables, hot tub.  We can also all see the bright red stain that covers part of the decking outside the kitchen,

Crime scene photos are always uncomfortable windows on a tragedy, the flotsam and jetsam of normal lives mixed in with the detritus left by the emergency services.  On the kitchen table a portable oxygen mask sits beside a black woman’s handbag and the Irish Times.  The sad remnants of a Christmas cut short are visible in each picture, tinsel draped over pictures, a Christmas tree standing forlornly in the corner of the living room. 

In an upstairs bedroom the gloved hand of one of the garda forensics team holds a grey top.  A bedside table home to a scatter of change, a Lotto ticket and a watch that we are later shown has traces of blood and tissue on it.

In her opening speech, Mary Ellen Ring told us that Mr Lillis had called the emergency services shortly after 10 o’clock on the morning of December 15th 2008.  After lunch we heard a recording of that call.  Mr Lillis’s voice rang across the courtroom, sounding strangely high pitched and almost hysterical.  We listened as he was led through the CPR procedure by the emergency phone operator from Dublin Fire Brigade.  He could be heard breathing raggedly and deeply as he listened to the instructions, his voice rising even higher as his actions failed to get a response.

We also head from members of the fire brigade and gardai who responded to Mr Lillis’s frantic call.  Garda Colum Murray described arriving first on the scene and being greeted by a Mr Lillis who was “very unsteady on his feet” and “not making much sense”.  Mr Lillis also had visible injuries, scratches to his right cheek and two bruises on his left cheek and forehead that looked as if they had been made by a heavy object.

Barbara Cahill, from Kilbarrack Fire Station also arrived at the scene that morning.  She told the court how she had needed to salt the slippery decking after one of her colleagues slipped and fell on the icy surface.

The trial will continue tomorrow and the story will develop.

Once Again the Irish Courts Ignore the Press

New-Court-House.3 Photo by Michael Stamp

Today the Central Criminal Court sat for the first time in the new Criminal Courts of Justice Complex at Parkgate Street in Dublin.  The €140 million complex is the largest major court development since the Four Courts were built in the 18th Century.

It’s a massive complex – 23,000 square feet which house 22 courts and 450 rooms.  In January, all criminal matters will be dealt with there – the Central, Circuit, District and Special criminal courts will all move in, leaving the Four Courts the preserve of civil matters.

It’s an impressive building – large, airy and imposing.  There are state of the art jury facilities, cells and victim support quarters.  Today in Court 6 photographers and cameramen were allowed in to mark the historic moment when Mr Justice Paul Carney took his seat to preside over the first list.

There were a couple of initial teething problems.  As the first trial got underway the witnesses had to affirm as they were sworn in because no one had thought to bring a Bible into the new complex.  There were delays as prisoners were brought up from the cells but matters by and large continued without a major hitch.

If you are a journalist however the new courts pose quite significant problems.  Once again the concept of designated seating for the media has been ignored and a single bench provided, if we’re lucky enough to get to it before someone else is sitting there.

The new media rooms, which we had been promised such great things about, turned out to be two bunkers on the ground floor, next to the toilets.  Low ceilinged, with no windows whatsoever the new rooms are little more than boxes.

While other offices are equipped with sinks and ample space for kettles and other necessities of office life, the press rooms have no such facilities.  The one provided for print, radio and photographers has space for a mere ten people (little use in a high profile trial which can easily attract 40 or 50 journalists on any one day).  There are only plug sockets on one side of the room.  Even if your battery holds up there’s no reception for phones or 3G modems.  One of the more venerable reporters on the scene commented that facilities had been better for the press in the 1950s.

The TV journalists fare little better.  RTE  and TV3 will have to share a room only slightly larger than the box shared by print reporters, radio and photographers.  Hardly ideal when a deadline is approaching for everyone.

There was a great feeling of anger and disappointment from the press benches today.  We had been promised the sun, moon and stars with the new facilities but now found ourselves longing for the old media room in the Four Courts.  We might get locked out once the office staff go home at 4.30 (a major problem if you’re waiting for a jury until 7 or so) but they actually have windows and over the years people have brought in a kettle, microwave etc.  It’s quite civilised.  It’s even bigger than the space we’ve been given now.

The most depressing thing about the paltry facilities is that they don’t really come as a surprise.  the Irish Courts Service tends to tolerate journalists at best.  We’re seen as an inconvenience, a drain on resources.  The idea that we are representatives of the public and our presence ensures that justice is carried out in public – as laid down in Article 34.1 of the Irish Constitution – is simply not considered.  In the case of certain trials, like rape, where the general public are banned from the court, we’re the only public representatives allowed in. 

In Irish courts the press frequently have to argue their right to attend and the grudging facilities provided in the new courts are symptomatic.  We don’t have automatic rights to see certain court documents but rely instead on the kindness of court staff and barristers.

While there are court staff who will bend over backwards to help the press they are in the minority.  Sadly the attitude that we are little more than vermin seems to be spreading and matters will only get worse as familiar faces retire and are replaced with new blood.

Whatever you might think of the individual media outlets in Ireland it’s a sad state of affairs when a country’s media are disregarded to this extent.  Court stories have always made up a large part of the news since the earliest days of the media and it’s right and proper that they do.  We don’t simply follow trials to pick over the lurid details of the latest high profile murders.  Court stories also cover miscarriages of justice, shine a light on injustices, show the failings of the state – and the rest. 

In a country where the Taoiseach will say publically that Freedom of Information is a waste of resources and so many of those in power have shown utter disregard for the good of the electorate there needs to be greater transparency not less.  The press weren’t consulted on what facilities were needed in the new courts and the attitude is that we should make do with crumbs.  Ultimately though this isn’t to do with the lack of a view from the press room, it’s to do with something far more fundamental.  I’m writing this from a personal perspective but this stuff is important and these attitudes shouldn’t be allowed to continue.

A Book Recommendation

A former colleague of mine has just brought out a book on the trial of Ronnie Dunbar for the murder of Sligo teenager Melissa Mahon.

The Ronnie Dunbar trial was one of the most disturbing trials we’ve had in recent years.  I wrote about it extensively here as I covered it for the Sunday Independent.  Dunbar was a charismatic accused, an intense heavily tattooed figure who believed that one day he was to be the King of a new world order which he would rule with his dogs and his will.

He told his teenage daughters and Melissa that these tattoos could banish demons and ghosts.  It was two years before Melissa’s skeleton remains were found on the shores of Lough Gill in Sligo, weathered by the elements and gnawed by wild animals.  It was only then that Dunbar’s daughters came forward to tell a harrowing story of murder, terror and concealment that would form the basis for the prosecution case against their father.

Dunbar was the person that the vulnerable Melissa had run to when her fraught homelife was too much.  Someone she trusted and looked up to…someone who she loved and allegedly told people was her lover.

Bronagh has set out the whole story of this extraordinary case.  So if you want a good read…you know where to go.

Lively Debate

Last night I went  to the inaugural Insight Debate at the National College of Ireland.  It’s not something I’d normally have gone to (my college days are long behind me and there never seems to be any time) but as the motion was “this house believes that the scales of justice are tilted towards the criminal” I made the effort.

Given the day job it was a subject that I’m more than familiar with and one that often comes up in the courts   – prolonged exposure to the court beat tends to send people either to the right or the left so discussions can get heated.  Even in the controlled circumstances of a formal debate structure like last night, things got heated.

The lecture theatre was packed and there were plenty of familiar faces dotted around.  I was live tweeting the debate, trying to get as many of the main points as I could but once the discussion was opened to the floor it was almost impossible to keep up.

This is a subject that will always get people’s blood up. Crime is something that affects everyone living in a society and we can’t avoid the latest escapades of a bewildering array of miscreants that seem to keep some red tops in business.   Now granted, for me, a substantial drop in the crime rate would be fairly disastrous for the bank balance but it’s impossible to sit through trial after trial, especially at Circuit Court level, without forming some opinions about whether or not the criminal justice system works or not.

As I said, it’s a topic that comes up fairly frequently among my colleagues and I’ve often heard the opinion that working the court beat can actually make you sleep safer in your bed.  It really is a case of the devil you know.  You realise that the gardai, for the most part, do their jobs well and there are a lot less miscarriages of justice than you might previously have thought.  Even though I’ve written here about some of the more peculiar decisions that are made in the courts, the reason I comment on them is because they are peculiar.

More often than not once you’ve sat through the horrific details of some crime with the absolute certainty that the tattooed thug beside you did everything he was accused of and probably more, you have the satisfaction of seeing a conviction at the end of it.  Juries might be subject to certain flights of lunacy on occasion but for the vast majority of the time the bad guys go to jail and the innocent men walk free.  It doesn’t always work but it mostly does and it’s the safest system we have.  Having 12 random men and women who will not look on court proceeding with the jaundiced eyes that familiarity can breed, is a hell of a lot fairer for all concerned than any alternative I can think of.

It was fascinating to watch the debate and hear the comments that came from the floor.  Certain issues stood out through repitition and showed current preoccupations.  Rather unsurprisingly the subject of white collar crime was a recurring theme.  It seemed to be a general consensus that many in the audience, regardless of which side of the motion they came down on, would rather see the prisons full of bankers than many of the others who currently lodge there.  I could be wrong but I think that every speaker made a crack about John O’Donoghue’s ignominious departure from the post of Ceann Comhairle earlier this week.  I get the feeling though that jokes about expenses are going to be satirical currency for many months, if not years, to come.

The idea of treating those who end up in the criminal justice system through disadvantage and drug addiction with a degree of compassion is one you see a lot in the Circuit courts.  The idea that there are people who wouldn’t commit crimes if they could kick the drugs comes easily if you listen to sentencing after sentencing where the defence mitigation speech sounds the same.  Education for those in the lowest economic groups and access for treatment for those who become addicted to expensive drug habits with no way to support them, would appear to be a no brainer.

The idea that those involved in the criminal justice system need to be treated like human beings instead of numbers arose on both sides of the debate.  The more vulnerable amoung those accused of crimes deserve a way to get themselves out of the hole they are in and the system needs it’s checks and balances to ensure that those accused of a crime get a properly fair trial.  We’re back to the jury on this, and the presumption of innocence.

This presumption is the cornerstone of Irish justice.  It’s the way we do things here and it’s a far more dignified way to treat those in the dock.  Even the dock in Irish courts no longer exists so that the accused is not stigmatised by having a set place to sit.  OK so in practice they all sit in the same place, that seat formally known as the dock, but the principal is there.

The presumption of innocence seems to be the hardest part for those affected by crime to grasp.  Why should someone who you know has done you wrong, because you were there or because you know the facts of the case, get to be treated like an innocent man.

I know it can be difficult for victims families in a murder trial when the accused swans in through the Four Courts gates ahead of them each morning before the trial.  They find it galling to watch the defence successfully exclude reams of evidence that make up part of the complex case the gardai have painstakingly built.  I can’t comment on the wrongs and rights of the evidence and the bail but while a trial is ongoing all you can if you are there to see justice for your loved one, is trust that things will work out.  Most of the time they do.

It must be hard to watch someone you believe to be guilty treated with kid gloves but better that than an innocent man treated like the devil himself.

The flip side of this issue, which was returned to time and again by both the audience and the team proposing the motion, is that of victims rights.  Ger Philpott from Advocates for Victims of Homicide (AdVic), spoke movingly of his experiences of the justice system as he watched the trial of the men accused of the murder of his nephew Russell Deane.

I’ve seen mothers of those killed thrown out of the court for crying as the story of their child’s last moments is recounted to the court.  I know why their displays of emotion don’t play well with the defence but it’s always one of the most awkward bits of a trial when it happens.  Victims don’t really have a place in the prosecution of a case.  If they weren’t around for the events leading to their relation’s death they might not even be called as a witness. Often the only thing they can do is provide a victim impact statement at the very end, once a conviction has been secured.  I’ve seen some very nasty characters indeed milk their status as an innocent defendant as a blatant way of twisting the hearts of  their victims even more.

Crime by it’s very nature hurts those it happens to.  Those wounds run deep and the criminal justice system doesn’t always help the healing process – one of the points thrown up the the audience was that even data protection legislation conspires against victims of violent crime and their families.  Under these rules the gardai are forbidden from passing on their details to some of the support groups set up expressly to help them.

It was perhaps inevitable that the ayes would have it and the motion would pass.  Our justice system is a complex thing built over centuries, in need of modernisation and streamlining perhaps but for the moment it’s the one we have to work with.  When we read about the criminal gangs who maim, kill and wreak lives,  then terrify those who could be witnesses to send them away it’s hard not to feel that this world we live in is a dark one indeed.  We can be passionate about human rights and justice but if crime comes into your life it’s hard to keep that objectivity.  It was great to see the subject debated so thoroughly though.  It’s always good to challenge viewpoints and I’ll look forward to the next debate with interest.

I’m just playing around with some of the ideas thrown out last night here.  I’m not saying which side I voted for merely continuing the discussion.  Feel free to join in!

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