It was just after lunch when the knock came. There wasn’t even time for the jury to be sent back to their deliberations after the hour’s break. They all filed in just after 2 o’clock. The courtroom was filling up as the principal parties, the press and the various curious onlookers prepared for the afternoon of waiting.
The benches were still filling up when a quiet little knock came from the panelled door in the corner of the courtroom. The registrar opened it and peered round, coming back almost immediately. As he mouthed the word “verdict” to the judge’s tippstaff an excited murmur went round the room.
When we’d risen for lunch, a little before 1 the jury had been told that when they come back they would be instructed on the rules necessary for them to come to a majority verdict. They had been deliberating for a total of five hours and twenty eight minutes over a three day period. Well whatever they had had for lunch had obviously helped because they had come back unanimously agreed.
It took a few more minutes for the final stragglers to come into the courtroom and for the judge to take his seat. At just after 2.15 the jury took their seats and the issue paper was handed to the registrar. They looked grave, tired. One or two of the women appeared to be wiping away tears.
The court was silent as the registrar unfolded the issue paper and showed it to the judge. He turned to the court and announced the verdict. On the first count, that of murdering Sligo teenager Melissa Mahon on an unknown date in September 2006 somewhere in Sligo County the jury had found the defendant Ronnie Dunbar not guilty of murder but guilty of manslaughter.
There was a surprised silence. This was not what anyone was expecting. The registrar continued. On the second count, of threatening to kill his daughter Samantha Conroy, the verdict was not guilty. The silence continued as the verdict sunk in. No one reacted for several minutes.
The accused stared straight ahead. Melissa’s family sat in silence. The gardai stood and looked at each other. The assembled press were looking around the court, trying to see all reactions simultaneously.
The judge, Mr Justice Barry White, told the jury that he was grateful for their attention to the case. He told them he knew it had been a “distasteful, sordid and squalid” case to sit through and that he was excusing them from further jury service for life. There was no set sentence for manslaughter, he said, so the sentence hearing would take place on another date. The jury were welcome to wait and hear when that date would be but they were now free to go.
Silently the jury filed out of their box and went upstairs to collect their belongings. They emerged a few minutes later and were largely ignored as they filed towards the door.
The accused was led away by his defence team, to discuss what, if anything needed to be done before the sentence hearing. The judge left the court while the discussions took place and the babble began.
The Mahon family gathered together talking earnestly and quietly. The press gathered in little huddles discussing the verdict with surprise.
Eventually Dunbar came back in with his defence team and the sentence date was set for July 6th. Now the initial shock of the verdict had worn off he looked relaxed and happy, beaming over at the press who looked at him curiously.
The judge asked the prosecution to provide him with examples of similar manslaughter cases so he could decide his sentence. Particularly ones concerning the unlawful killing of a 14-year-old. Defence counsel Brendan Grehan SC suggested that the issue of involuntary manslaughter be raised because the jury had found that Dunbar had not intended to kill or seriously harm Melissa.
Justice White quickly replied that the jury’s decision showed merely that they were not “satisfied beyond reasonable doubt that the accused intended to kill or cause serious injury”.
After a trial that’s lasted almost six weeks an unexpected verdict comes as a shock. The atmosphere in the courtroom takes on a strange almost fragmented feel as people try to make sense of what just happened. The feeling of anti climax is immense.
I’m not going to comment on the jury’s decision. Not today. I’m still trying to get my head around it. But for those involved, the two families, those who gave evidence, those who played some part in the story that was told before the court I’m sure coming to terms will be far harder.