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Tag: Ronnie Dunbar (Page 2 of 4)

A Broken Heart and the Faithful Followers

I was rather distracted today.  Too distracted to really register the Sun front page with the news that Ronnie Dunbar has dumped the women who yesterday was on two front pages pledging her undying love.  Apparently he nobly wants her to “go and live her life”.  Jordan and Peter Andre eat your heart out!

I know that people who are convicted of killing someone frequently have someone whose faith in them never wavers, someone who will wait until the ends of time to be reunited with them, who believes wholeheartedly in their innocence (one would hope).  Look at Nikki Pelley waiting for Joe O’Reilly no matter what comments it brought down on her. Or a case I have a particular interest in, Sharon Collins, who can rest assured, until we hear to the contrary, that P.J. Howard, the man she hired a hitman to kill, will be waiting for her release in five or so years time.

It happens all the time and they do say that love is blind but it always amazes me quite how blind it can be, or how steadfast…that’s probably showing a disturbing degree of cynicism but it kind of goes with the territory when you’re down the courts all day.

Killers of Little Girls

Ronnie Dunbar’s women were all over the media today.  Melissa Mahon, who the jury yesterday convicted him of killing, his daughters, Shirley, Samantha and their younger sister, whose testimony helped to convict him.  The Herald carried an interview with the girl’s mother, Lisa Conroy, speaking of her life of hell with Ronnie from her home in London. She told the paper that she had met Ronnie when she was a vulnerable 15-year-old who looked to Ronnie as her “knight in shining armour”, ready to sweep her away from the care home she hated…an obviously mirroring of Melissa’s infatuation talked about at length during the trial.

Most of the papers also carried big pictures of Ruth Nooney, who gave evidence during the trial about some of Dunbar’s more bizarre beliefs – that he would become the king of a new world order.  She spoke, apparently to anyone who would listen, about her reignited love for Ronnie and her wish to marry him so that they could be a family together with the child she had born him.

The coverage suggested a harem of damaged, vulnerable women, some of whom had survived, others who had remained under his spell.  There was no doubt to anyone who sat through the court case that Dunbar is something of a control freak…the constant stream of notes he passed to his defence team were a constant reminder.  The parade of women who appeared in the pages of this morning’s papers underline this further.

Dunbar wasn’t the only killer of a young girl to make the news today.  Gerald Barry, who was convicted of the murder of Swiss student Manuela Riedo a couple of months ago, today pleaded guilty to the rape of a French student only two months before he took Manuela’s life.

Manuela and Melissa were two very different teenagers.  17-year-old Manuela was the only child of doting parents who had let travel without them for the first time in her life for that ill fated trip to Galway.  Melissa, three years her junior, had lived more in her short life than Manuela ever had a chance to.  The youngest of ten children, with parents who had a far more detached attitude to child rearing, she was on a rapid downward spiral for the last months of her life.

Yet despite the differences, obvious though they may be, both girls are now dead at the hands of predatory men.  Barry is the kind of sex killer little girls are warned about the way children in more innocent times were threatened with the bogey man.  Dunbar is a danger of a far more subtle kind.  A man who could appear a knight in shining armour but who didn’t limit his relationship to the purely paternal.  The jury found him guilty of manslaughter, unable to find the intent necessary for a murder conviction but satisfied he was responsible for Melissa’s death.

In fairly quick succession we have heard the tales of two young deaths.  I hope it’s a long time before I have to cover another trial where the victim is so young, with so much life ahead of them.

Finally the Verdict

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.

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.

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