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Tag: Ronald McManus (Page 2 of 4)

Waiting for a Second Day

The Melissa Mahon jury have gone home for a second night…and we are no closer to finding out whether they will convict or acquit Ronnie Dunbar.

He denies murdering the Sligo teenager in September 2006 and also threatening to kill his daughter Samantha Conroy.

Today was a frustrating one even by the standards of jury waits.  I’ve no idea how it was for the jury but for the rest of us it was a day of waiting and moving about and waiting some more.  The jury resumed their deliberations this morning at around 10.45 and we settled down to passing the time.

The knock came at around midday that put an end to the tranquillity of the waiting process.  The jury had a question.  We all reassembled glad of the break.  That’s when the trouble began.  They wanted to see the video footage of Samantha’s evidence, specifically the part of her cross examination when she was asked about statements made by her younger sister that conflicted with her account.

Now the playing back of video evidence is a fairly unusual request.  For starters video evidence doesn’t usually exist.  All court proceedings are audio recorded but only when the evidence is given by video link does a visual record exist.  Since Samantha gave her evidence in this way it was a reasonable request from the jury.

Nothing was going to be that simple though so the jury were sent away to an early lunch while the technical practicalities were dealt with.

Because of the peculiarities of the technological set up in the Four Courts, video link evidence can only be heard in one of two courtrooms.  Court 16, where we initially heard Samantha’s evidence and Court 23.  Court 16 was otherwise occupied so we all trooped over to Court 23.

Court 23 is in a building of it’s own across the yard in the centre of the courts complex.  So after lunch we all trooped over and took our seats.  It took until around 3 o’clock before the jury were called back to see the evidence they had requested.

We sat and watched the evidence.  Once again we saw Samantha, caught from an unflattering angle below, with her head cocked to one side as she answered the questions put to her by defence counsel Brendan Grehan, who appeared in a little box at the side of the screen.

Once again we heard her answers as her sister’s statement was read out to her, the definite shake of the head as she said certain things didn’t happen, the quizzical frown at the things she said she couldn’t remember.  The jury listened intently, every now and then murmuring amongst themselves as the recording played out.

After about half an hour the section finished and we waited to see them sent out again.  But the foreman spoke up – there was another bit they wanted to see, a further section of cross examination from the previous Friday to the evidence we had just heard.  This bit was when Samantha was asked about another statement her sister had made, in which she claimed that Melissa had died downstairs in the house after being strangled by herself, Samantha and their father.

This request meant that the jury were sent back to their room and proceedings once again stopped.  After a delay of some 45 minutes they were brought back in. The judge, Mr Justice Barry White, told them there was a problem.  The discs the evidence was recorded on were not labelled with the date and time they had been recorded.  It had taken some time to find the relevant evidence.  But once found it was discovered that an audio only copy existed.  For the moment at least, there were no pictures.

The matter couldn’t be sorted out this afternoon.  It would take time to find a solution.  So the jury were sent to their homes at a little after 4.  And tomorrow we’ll assemble back in Court 2 to find out where we’ll be hearing the evidence.

This is turning into a very long jury wait.

The First Day of Waiting

The jury went out in the trial of Ronnie Dunbar today.  He’s accused of the murder of Sligo teenager Melissa Mahon in September 2006.  He denies both that charge and a second one of threatening to kill his daughter Samantha Conroy.

We had heard closing speeches from both the prosecution and defence on Thursday before the court rose for the weekend.  This morning Judge Barry White finished his charge.  After five weeks of evidence it was widely expected that the charge would go on for some time.  A judges charge takes two parts.  First the outlining of the law required by the jury to reach their decision – the definitions of murder, manslaughter, direct evidence, circumstantial evidence, corroboration…these are the usual things that fall under necessary law for a murder trial.  I’m not going into the definitions here – I’m a journalist not a lawyer and even though I’ve heard each definition dozens of times I’m not going to put them down in writing just yet.

The second part of the charge is the summary of the main points of evidence.  This is the bit that can take a while.  Mr Justice Barry White has this part of his charge down to a fine art though.  I’ve never seen anyone summarise so neatly and so quickly – despite all indications to the contrary with so much evidence to wade through – he had everything precisely put by the time we rose for lunch.

After the charge you have the requisitions, when the barristers get to tell the judge the bits they feel he missed.  They can take a while but not often with Judge White so the jury retired to their room a little before three.

As soon as that door closes, that’s the moment the jury wait starts.  All the speeches have been made, there’s nothing more to argue.  It’s now all down to the twelve men and women of the jury to come to their decision.  All the rest of us; press, barristers, gardai, courts staff, not to mention the accused, can do is wait.  And wait we do.

A jury wait is a curious thing.  It’s unlike any other kind of waiting I know.  That knock on the door can come at any time so even though the general atmosphere is relaxed and chatty there’s an air of tension.  On the one hand everything happens along old established routine the final outcome rests in the hands of those twelve individuals who, in all probability, know nothing of the ritual and their legal knowledge is restricted to what they might have read in books, newspapers or on TV.

I’ve written here before about what an unexpected beast a jury is and I’ll stand by that assumption.  Once that door closes behind the last of the twelve everyone in the court is locked to their whim.  We get a break when they do, we wait while they deliberate.  Everyone is in the same boat.  We wait for their decision.

This is the time when people chat, pass round sweets, share newspapers.  No matter how organised you are going into a jury wait with a stack of stuff to do, you will end up doing precious little of it. The underlying tension does it’s work and it’s almost impossible to focus.  Everyone tries to guess when the verdict will come but it’s a pointless exercise.  You might as well try the old chestnut, how long is a piece of string.

So far the jury have been deliberating for just over two hours.  There was a moment of excitment when three of them appeared at the wood panelled door leading to their room, but all they wanted was a smoke break.  They’ve long gone home now but we’ll be back in position tomorrow morning bright and early.

The Depressing Monotony of Murder

So the inquest of Swiss student Manuela Riedo took place in Galway yesterday.  Earlier this year Gerald Barry was convicted of her murder after one of the most emotional trials I’ve ever covered.

The 17-year-old had only been in Ireland for three days when Barry dragged her off the path she was taking to meet friends in Galway city and horrifically raped and murdered her.  From the time of the murder this was a crime that caused utter outrage across the country.  It has scarcely been out of the news since Barry was found guilty with news that an Irish businessman had donated money to set up a foundation in her memory.  There’s to be a fund-raising concert in her home town of Bern later in the summer and her parents were back in Ireland only last week to launch the foundation.

They have been back to Galway many times since their daughter’s death and after the trial spoke of the firm friendships they’ve made there and the people who supported them.  They weren’t at the inquest.  I don’t blame them.  During the trial I wrote about her father’s tears as he spent his birthday listening to the post mortem evidence.  Manuela was Hans Peter and Arlette Riedo’s only child.  The trip to Galway was her first trip alone.  It was an unspeakable tragedy that she should have encountered an animal like Barry on that trip.

The inquest jury warned against taking the shortcut Manuela took that night.  During the trial there were several journos who knew Galway well, all knew the route known locally as the Line, knew how desolate it was in broad daylight, let alone after dark.  The days when you could walk the isolated byways of Ireland in safety are long gone – if they were ever there in the first place and not simply the product of sugar coated nostalgia.

It would be naive to think that murder and rape only became an issue in Ireland in recent years.  Of course they didn’t.  But it’s an undeniable fact that they have become a more frequent occurrence than they may have been in simpler times.  When I first started working in the courts I worked for a specialist news agency down there.  My boss told me that when he started that beat, over twenty years ago the agency could tick over with just him and maybe one other person.  Murders were few and far between – noted events when they happened.

These days there will frequently be as many as three happening at once.  This week for example there was the Ronnie Dunbar trial, the trial of Gary Campion, who’s accused of a murder in Limerick (that one’s been going for over two months out in Clover Hill) and Noel Cawley who’s accused of killing a pensioner in a robbery.  That’s just the murders – there are even more rapes going through the courts.

I’m not going into why there are so many more serious crimes going through the courts.  There are a multitude of reasons, some obvious, some less so, some proven, others mere speculation. But the fact remains that the prevalence of these cases is a fact of modern life.  We know about the growth of gang violence, that accounts for some of it.  Random, drunken fights that went too far is another factor.  Money increasingly seems to play a part.  When it comes down to it though people kill for the same reasons they always have.  If these days there is less value placed on human life…well as I say, I’m not getting into that here – it pays the bills after all.

It’s sad that these days murder is no longer so unusual that any loss of life is a news event.  Dozens of trials pass through the courts that get little or no media attention.  They are usually the trials where drink was involved, and young men with volatile tempers. Trials that are in danger of blending into one another after a while if you watch enough of them.  It’s easy to forget when you cover nothing but murder that each death is a private tragedy for the families involved.  It’s easy to dehumanise the accused, to make assumptions.

Some trials will always get more interest, they have a “hook” to pique the interest of the media.  It could be the victim, a pretty schoolgirl like Manuela or an attractive young mother like Rachel O’Reilly.  It could be fact the accused came from a background where violence is less likely to be so overt, like Dublin 4 resident Finn Colclough or the killing of Brian Murphy outside Annabel’s nightclub.  These are the trial that make the headlines, the one’s I’ll usually be covering, but there are many others that don’t register.

When I was working for the agency I got to see the other trials.  The ones that go on in empty courtrooms while the main event is happening on the other side of the Round Hall.  I would usually be the only journalist there.  The stories I wrote each evening would often not be used.  But each trial was the story of a life that had been cut short, at the wrong time, by someone who didn’t have the right to do so.  A violent death is always a tragedy.  It’s just not always a story…sadly.

The Final Stage…

I’m very aware that I haven’t yet updated the sad story of Melissa Mahon.  Anyone who has been looking for the latest in the trial of the man accused of murdering the Sligo teenager in 2006, either online or in today’s newspapers propably already knows that the trial is in it’s final stages.

I’ve said as much here.  Yesterday we heard the closing speeches from both the prosecution and defence. The final setting out of the case for and against the condemned man.

As the prosecution would have it there is a very strong case against Ronald McManus or Dunbar, the 44-year-old father of five who stands accused of the crime.  We know that Melissa’s bones were found on the banks of Lough Gill 18 months after she disappeared in September 2006.  Two of the accused’s daughters say that their father did the dreadful dead and what’s more, forced them to help him dispose of the body.  The prosecution say that it is obvious that the accused is a guilty man and that the various accounts of an indecent affair between him and the 14-year-old which may or may not have resulted in her being pregnant are proof positive of a dastardly  motive.

The defence on the other hand say not so fast.  They say that while Ronnie Dunbar or McManus may be an arrogant, controlling beligerant man, who defys his counsel’s advise on how to dress and flies the flag of the victim of a witchhunt for all to see, this does not mean he is a murderer.  They say that expecting the jury to take the word of the conflicting accounts of two wordly teenage girls is a step too far and definitely not quite cricket.

At this stage in proceedings it’s all down to those six men and six women who make up the jury.  Once the judge has finished his charge they will go up into their room and play 12 Angry Men and all that is left for the rest of us, be we press or gardai or the accused, is to wait it out until they come to a decision.

So that’s where I’ll be next week.  After a month of intense activity it all boils down the the inevitable, the waiting.

The Beginning of the End…Legally Speaking

Today the prosecution case came to a close.  The jury now have all the evidence in front of them to decide whether the Director of Public Prosecutions has made a sufficient case against Ronnie Dunbar.  Over the next few days we will hear the final arguments from the prosecution and defence.  Then the judge, Mr Justice Barry White will summarise the evidence and charge the jury before they begin their deliberations.

It’s been a long trial.  It’s not quite over yet but these are the beginnings of the final stages.  In a matter of days Dunbar will find out whether he has been deemed innocent or guilty.

All that is still to come though.  Today we heard the final pieces of the prosecution case.  After days of scientists who were part of the complicated DNA testing procedure and various people who played football or went fishing with the accused we heard from two witnesses with fresh evidence…or at least evidence we’d only heard about in passing before.

This morning Detective Garda William O’Neill took the stand to explain the sheets of phone evidence that the jury will have to wade through. The colour coded sheets they have been given show the calls and text messages sent and received by phones belonging to Dunbar and Melissa Mahon.

Dunbar denies the murder of the Sligo teenager and also a second charge of threatening to kill his daughter Samantha, somewhere in Sligo in September 2006.

Det Sgt O’Neill explained the calls, highlighting certain times and dates that have particular relevance to the prosecution’s case.  The jury heard earlier in the trial that Melissa was bought a pay as you go O2 mobile by her social worker on August 29th 2006.  Today we heard that the first call she made was to Dunbar’s youngest daughter, who texted her back seconds later.  Soon afterwards Melissa’s phone texted the one registered to Ronnie Dunbar and again got a reply.

There were plenty of calls between the two phones in the two and a half weeks that followed, until Melissa’s disappearance.  During that time just over half of the texts made by Dunbar’s phone were to Melissa’s, some 65 in total.  Her phone was equally active, sending 87 text messages over the same two and a half weeks.  By contrast in the same period Dunbar’s phone had texted his girlfriend at the time, Angelique Dupois, 27 times.  He had rung her 19 times, compared to 33 times for Melissa.

Dunbar told gardai in interviews that the last time he spoke to Melissa was when she called him from the house of Hugh Fergus, the Leitrim man whose doorstep she had turned up on after running away from her foster family the night before she disappeared.  He later received a text from the phone belonging to Melissa’s social worker from Melissa telling him she was OK and not to worry.

According to today’s evidence there were several further calls between Dunbar’s phone and Melissa’s.  The following morning there were several calls and texts, some lasting several minutes.  The last call from Melissa’s phone that was answered and did not go to her message minder was at 10.52 on the morning of September 14th, the day she disappeared.

There was one further call from Dunbar’s phone to Melissa’s.  Several days later on September 19th at 11.40 p.m. there was a call that went straight to message.

The jury also heard from journalist Niall Delaney, who works for local station Ocean FM.  He told the court that he interviewed Dunbar on February 19th last year.  Dunbar had been keen to speak to him after reports had appeared in the Sunday World naming him as the chief suspect in Melissa’s murder.  Mr Delaney refused to reveal the “local source” who gave him Dunbar’s number but an interview was arranged for a neutral venue and the conversation lasted for around an hour and a half.

Mr Delaney told the court that Dunbar had made three specific requests.  The first was that everything must be recorded,  including the car ride, even stuff not meant for broadcast.  He also asked that the journalist spoke to his youngest daughter by phone and also insisted that he interviewed her and broadcast the subsequent recording.

We had all been wondering how any journalist had agreed to talk to such a young teen who had been allegedly involved in such a serious crime but today Mr Delaney said that he had never had any intention of broadcasting the interview, and had only conducted it to appease her father.

He said that while he was with Dunbar, the girl had rung her father’s phone.  Dunbar had told her to speak to the journalist and had handed the phone over.  This was when the interview had been arranged.

These were the final pieces in the prosecution case.  All that’s left now is the speeches.  They start tomorrow.

Tying Up Loose Ends

As the prosecution nears it’s end the evidence tends to get rather bitty and difficult to categorise.  This is the stage of the trial where all the loose ends are tied up and witness’s appear to show the continuity of the case or to back up previous bits of evidence.

We’ve had a day of quite a lot of that.  But apart from that we heard the last of the interviews Ronnie Dunbar had with gardai.  When I say we heard the interview, that’s not absolutely accurate.  We hear the transcript or that interview that has been agreed between the prosecution and defence and cleared of all the extraneous material that can crop up in these kinds of interviews.  The sort of stuff that has no relevance to the matter in hand.

This is why an interview we are told took three hours only takes moments to read.  Apart from anything else a garda interview is a tedious thing to watch.  It does happen.  Every interview is recorded on video and the courts have screens where the video can be played.  It’s only when you’ve sat through one of these interviews that you realise how long the process is in real life.  Gardai, as we’re frequently reminded during the course of a trial, are not stenographers.  Even so, one of them will have to take a written note of the interview.  This slows things down considerably.  The person being interviewed will be asked to repeat themselves, the interview will stop altogether to catch up with the cramping hand of the garda taking the note.

When the transcript is read in court however, it’s not the gardai that get the hand cramp, it’s the press.  No matter how good your shorthand it’s never quite good enough for the speeds reached during this particular bit of evidence.  Anyway, for the second day we heard the interviews Ronnie Dunbar had with gardai.  Once again the defence focused on the fact that he had strenuously denied all the allegations.  Once again the spectre of trial by media reared into view.

Detective Sergeant Paul Casey told defence counsel Brendan Grehan very firmly that he had other concerns when he was investigating a murder than what the press were writing.  When he interviewed Dunbar, in April 2008, he asked him why he had given an interview to a local paper, The Sligo Weekender.  Dunbar told him it was to put his side of the story.  He said consistently through his questioning that he felt he had been made a scapegoat by gardai and by the national media.

“They named me as a prime suspect.  They wanted to down me.”  Det Sgt Kenny denied that the gardai had waited ten weeks to charge Dunbar to allow the media to break him. Mr Grehan put it to him that the gardai had hoped “he would top himself or that somebody else would top him or that the gardai were hoping he would just come in an admit it.”  Det Sgt Kenny agreed that Dunbar had a “major grievance” but said this had not been gardai’s first concern as they were investigating the murder of a 14-year-old girl.

Ronnie Dunbar, also known as Ronald McManus denies the murder of Melissa Mahon and also threatening to kill his daughter Samantha on an unknown date in September 2006 in Sligo County.

Detective Inspector John O’Reilly denied that gardai had tipped off media about when Dunbar would be led across the street.  He told Mr Grehan that the angry crowd of members of the public had not been anywhere near 100 strong but that he had considered the situation volatile enough to bring Dunbar the short journey by car rather than on foot.  He said that there had been no gardai tip off to the press.  They had simply known when Dunbar was arrested and what time the gardai would have had to arrest or charge him…something they would have found out from the Gardai Press Office not the detectives working on the case.

Tomorrow the prosecution case is expected to come a close.  What happens next is anybody’s guess.  We’ll just have to wait and see.  But one thing is clear.  This story is finally near to drawing to a close.  By the end of next week we may have a conclusion.

The Spectre of Trial by Media

Once again today we heard allegations of how badly the media had behaved in the initial stages of the investigation against Ronnie Dunbar.  The idea that the Irish media step out of line when a man is accused of murder is not new.  Just look at the trial of Joe O’Reilly.  If anyone had a reason to take certain elements of the Irish press to task about the way he had been treated before he was charged with the murder of his wife Rachel, Joe O’Reilly was that man.  There was open surprise in some circles that this was not a ground for his appeal given the circumstances.

Ronnie Dunbar is undoubtedly the latest man to stand trial in the higher courts in Ireland who has endured the media spotlight before his arrest.  It’s something that obviously causes him much resentment, or at least it did when he was being questioned by gardai last year.

Today we heard the transcripts of some of those interviews.  A necessary part of any trial, the garda interviews are frequently one of the last major pieces of evidence to make up the prosecution case.  Since the accused person is under no obligation to take the stand in their own defence it’s frequently the only time we actually get the opportunity to hear their side of the story, to get an idea of how they speak, how they conduct themselves under pressure.

One thing was crystal clear from the interview transcripts…that Ronnie Dunbar denies the murder of 14-year-old Melissa Mahon or any knowledge of her death.  This didn’t come as much of a surprise.  It is after all the basis for a trial that starts with a plea of not guilty.  In this case there is no equivocation, no half way point, it’s black and white, yes or no…did you kill her…no.

Ronnie Dunbar told gardai he had no knowledge of the Sligo teenager after the last time he saw her, which he told them was around the time of his birthday on September 10th.  She had thrown a present over the back wall of his house, he told gardai.  A shaving set.  He hadn’t let her into the house and had only spoken to her once more…when she rang him distraught from a stranger’s house in Leitrim the night before her disappearance.

We have heard throughout the trial that Melissa Mahon was a troubled teen.  We knew she had made allegations against both her parents and was a regular run away.  We know that she ran to the Dunbar household when she was upset and that she was extremely close to Ronnie Dunbar and two of his daughters.

Ronnie Dunbar told gardai that Melissa had never stayed the night in his house when he was there.  He said they had a father daughter relationship.  He had only ever wanted to help her get away from the terrible treatment she suffered at the hands of her parents.  They treated her as no better than an “animal” he told gardai.

He was not happy about being asked about her disappearance, according to defence counsel Brendan Grehan.  Dunbar had repeatedly told gardai he was only a scapegoat left to face the public wrath after the social services and gardai failed the vulnerable little girl.

He had been “hung out to dry” by gardai and the media over the ten weeks it had taken gardai to charge him, Mr Grehan alleged.  Dunbar was equally forceful to gardai in his interviews.  He had been subjected to trial by media he said, pure and simple.  He was an innocent man…the phrase repeated again and again to each question where the gardai attempted to get his comment about the account his daughters had aleady given gardai, the account that had led to the recovery of Melissa’s body from Lough Gill.

Dunbar was not alone today.  Family and friends had come out in force.  As the interviews were read out, Dunbar took his usual notes, in small spidery handwriting across sheet after sheet of cream coloured paper.  Today though he had a sympathetic face to look to when the going got tough.  His sister Julie listened to the interview evidence, her eyes rarely leaving her brother’s face.  Dunbar often glanced over at her, holding her gaze when he took a break from note writing.

Both brother and sister studiously avoided looking at the press today as we sat in a row between them on their opposite sides of the court room.  The media have not exactly been bathed in glory with the way this story is being told.  We aren’t exactly flavour of the month.  The suggestion today was that a concerted effort between the gardai and the press had led to a baying mob to greet the accused as he was led across the road from the garda station to the county court house.

Any case where the victim is defined by their youth is going to be contentious and, to a certain extent, sensational.  This one is not even at an end and the issue of press conduct is once again at the forefront.  I spend too much time working the court beat not to worry about public perception.  This trial is most likely not going to cover us in glory, even if no one actually stepped over any line.  But that’s a story for another day.  The trial continues.

The King of the Battlefield

Ronnie Dunbar was to be king of a new world order it emerged today.  His ex fiancée, Ruth Nooney, told the court today that he had told her there was a new world coming and “when it kicked off” there would be a battlefield.  He would be the king of that battlefield and would bring the trusted strong with him.  She wasn’t one of them though, he thought she had “flirty eyes”.

This isn’t the first time in the trial that we have heard weird and wild allegations about Dunbar’s personal beliefs.  We’ve already heard, from another ex squeeze Angelique Sheridan (or Dupois, it depends who you talk to), that Ronnie had claimed to have performed an exorcism on Melissa Mahon because she was possessed by evil spirits.  Ms Sheridan had appeared very worried that her boyfriend was some kind of “demon hunter”.

Today’s claims were no less bizarre.  According to Ms Nooney, Dunbar frequently spoke about this “new world”.  He also told her about how his ancestors had had something to do with Parkes Castle, a 17th Century Castle on the shores of Lough Gill, not that far from where Melissa Mahon’s bones were found.

Dunbar, who’s charged as Ronald McManus, denies murdering the Sligo teen or threatening to kill his daughter Samantha on an unknown date in September 2006 somewhere in Sligo.

Today his ex told the court that he had often brought Melissa up in conversation.  After telling her that he had not been having a relationship with the 14-year-old, he said that he had been trying to get her away from her abusive father.  She said he had been worried about becoming a scapegoat for the social workers and gardai who he considered, had not done their jobs.

Dunbar allegedly told her that he had received a call from someone saying “Dad, Dad, Dad” but it wasn’t one of his daughters.  He had often asked her, Ms Nooney said, about whether she thought Melissa was alive or dead and had talked about travelling to England to find her.

Ms Nooney said she and Dunbar had been madly in love although she had left him after a conversation with her social worker in which Dunbar was mentioned.  On the stand today she painted a picture of a rather controlling man who hadn’t liked her drinking or talking with other men.  He had brought her to the gym and they spent most of their time together.

Two of Dunbar’s daughters had had a serious problem with their relationship and Ms Nooney said that she had needed to call the gardai after Samantha, the middle daughter, had attacked her with a penknife and kicked her door in.  The youngest daughter was more affectionate though.  As had happened with Angelique, the previous year, the girl had quickly formed the habit of spending most nights with her father’s partner.  Ms Nooney told the court that she had even turned a downstairs playroom into a bedroom for the girl.

She told the court that she and Dunbar had gone for almost daily walks.  The route was always the same, to Slishwood, where they would sit looking out over Lough Gill and talking.  On two occasions Dunbar had stopped the car at a vantage point over Lough Gill, opposite Parkes Castle, looking out to the side of the lake where Melissa’s bones were lying undiscovered in the undergrowth.

The relationship ended after Ms Nooney had a conversation with her social worker at the end of 2007.  Dunbar’s name was mentioned and after this conversation the relationship was over.  What she learnt wasn’t shared with the court but Ms Nooney told the court she didn’t even pack, she just left.

The trial continues on Monday.

A Day When Not a Lot Happened.

Today was another day of bits and bobs in the Ronnie Dunbar murder trial.  He denies murdering Sligo teenager Melissa Mahon in September 2006 somewhere in Sligo and in recent days the trial has been bogged down with legal minutiae.

Once again the subject of Melissa’s dental records was raised.  These records from a practise near her previous home in Walthamstow in England, were used as the basis for comparison with the teeth found as part of the skeletal remains on the shores of Lough Gill.  It was these records that led a forensic odontologist to declare that the bones were indeed those of Melissa Mahon.  Today we heard from two more dentists who either didn’t treat Melissa in person or who couldn’t remember the then 8 year old.  They added very little to the information already before the court.

We also heard from the manager of the sports centre in Collooney where Dunbar went to play indoor football once a week on a Thursday, between 7 & 8.  These times are important because Dunbar’s two daughters say that they were brought to one of these practises after dumping Melissa’s body into the River Bonet on the day she died.  Out of this evidence we learnt that Melissa wore prominent eye make-up and the two Conroy girls were “pleasantly loud” when they came with their father to watch him play.

There was one other football related witness, a local garda who denied he was distancing himself from Dunbar.  He acknowledged going to the birthday party that has been mentioned several times during this week’s evidence.  We know it was for a man called “Big Mick” and that Dunbar was there socialising with his many friends.

Finally there was a meteorologist who told us that there were thundery showers in Ireland over several days in September 2006.

In any court case you will get these kinds of witnesses.  There mainly to dot the “i”s and cross the “t”s, who add little to the storyline the prosecution are building.  What they offer are small insights that sometimes bolster the story as a whole, sometimes not.  They are essential for a legal case, which must, after all be proven beyond all reasonable doubt but they don’t lend themselves to snappy headlines.  It’s just as well legal proceedings are aimed at the jury rather than the press bench.

The court rose early for lunch to allow the prosecution and defence time to prepare for a larger piece of evidence in the afternoon but as things turned out this larger piece of evidence was never started.  Trials frequently stop and start for any number of reasons, they often go into hiatus for hours or even days.  Sometimes barristers have to make applications to the judge, which must be done in the absence of the jury.  Sometimes there are matters that need to be dealt with in the absence of judge or jury.  This was the case today.  As a result I have very little to write about this afternoon.

This is the reality of court reporting.  Sometimes an awful lot happens and sometimes very little.  The trial will continue tomorrow and hopefully we’ll move on to that big bit of evidence.  But nothing is certain in this kind of job so we’ll just have to wait and see.

A Day of Bits & Pieces

The wheels of justice move slowly.  Sometimes they move very slowly indeed.  Covering a court case from start to finish mean you frequently have to sit through days where nothing happens, very, very slowly.  It’s easy to forget as a journalist that the requirements of a court case are very different to our requirements for a story.  While we might take a line from here and a line from there, the prosecution have to do the hard work of attempting to prove their case beyond reasonable doubt.

What this means in practise is that sometimes a relatively simple point gets proved from several different angles.  Instead of one witness saying something is so, you might have a dozen also saying the same thing.  It all depends how many were there to see what particular piece of evidence is being proved.  From a legal point of view there’s also a necessity to prove how A got to B and how a particular piece of evidence made it’s way to court.

Today was one of those days of proving things.  We started off with Melissa Mahon’s dentist when she was 8 or 9 who provided the fillings that formed part of the identification by the dental expert earlier in the week.  He couldn’t remember treating Melissa, it was back in 2001 and the original notes had been destroyed but he  confirmed that the frightened child had been referred to his practice because she needed baby teeth extracting and would have been too nervous to have the treatment without the heavier sedatement offered by his practice.

We also heard from members of Ronnie Dunbar’s soccer playing friends.  Four or five middle aged men who met once or twice or even three times a week to kick a ball around.  We had previously heard, when his two younger daughters gave evidence last week that Ronnie would often get lifts to practice and would always bring his daughters with him.  Both girls maintain that their father took them with him to football practise after dumping Melissa’s body in the River Bonet.  According to their accounts they were picked up at 8 o’clock.  Each one of the witnesses today confirmed that Thursday night football in Collooney, the fixture in question, ran from 7 until 8.

Ronnie Dunbar, charged under the name Ronald McManus denies murdering Melissa Mahon on an unknown date between September 14th and 30th 2006 somewhere in Sligo.  He also denies threatening to kill his daughter, Samantha Conroy.

The men also told of an occurrence one practice when Melissa had accompanied the Dunbars to football.  According to one witness, Melissa and Samantha had run into the toilets at the sports centre and had held the door shut so that Samantha’s younger sister could not get in.  The girl lost her temper and she and Melissa had a hair-pulling fight that spilled out of the centre after football was over.  They had to be split up by their father twice, one witness told the court.

We also heard from various witnesses who took the stand to confirm that Ronnie Dunbar had been interested in buying an old barge that had been moored on the River Bonet near the spot where Melissa’s body was allegedly dumped.  The barge is long sunk, something to do with the influx of different nationalities who had started frequenting the river in recent years according to it’s owner.  The blue rope that tethered it is still there, clearly visible in the crime scene photographs.

Forensic Anthropologist Laureen Buckley gave the most disturbing evidence of the day, painting a grim picture of the wildlife that came down out of the woods on the shores of Lough Gill and tore the body in the sleeping bag apart.  Ribs and leg bones showed distinct signs of chewing, she told the court, and had apparently been torn away from the body.  She suggested that the reason for the scattering of the bones over such a long distance was due to the fact that the foxes that came down to feast had taken their plunder into more sheltered areas.  The hands and feet, missing from the partial skeleton, would have been the most portable and were long gone by the time the remains were discovered in February 2008.

The head would have been one of the first things to go, rolling away from the body back into the lake where it was found.  It was this skull, damaged and partial as it was that gave the clearest indication of how long the body had been submerged.  Ms Buckley estimated two years.

This scenario was broadly in keeping with the evidence from Lieutenant Commander Brian Hevers of the Irish Navy who described the journey the body could have taken, carried along by the Bonet as it became lighter with decomposition, to be deposited on the shore of Lough Gill, not far away from the river mouth.  He estimated this journey would have been over relatively quickly, taking a maximum of three weeks.

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