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Tag: Sara Neligan

The Dark Side of Love

Maybe it’s because I spend a large chunk of my working life writing about disastrous relationships but I’ve never been one for sugary romance. In fairness I was of a fairly cynical bent before I ever set foot in a courtroom but the last six years have not helped! The avalanche of cherubs, roses and all shades of pink that erupts so soon after Christmas these days just puts me in mind of the dentist. I listen to Jacques Brel singing Ne Me Quitte Pas and I think of barring orders and don’t get me started on the kind of stalking popularised by blokes of  a vampire persuasion (see Twilight or Buffy  for copious examples).

Perhaps this is why I’ve always liked films that look at the twisted side of love.  Last night I was watching the unusual Hammer thriller Straight on Till Morning.

Straight on Till Morning

Hammer’s Straight on Till Morning

Staring Rita Tushingham and Shane Briant it’s as dysfunctional a love story as you can get.  Brenda, who writes children’s stories in her spare time, leaves her home in Liverpool to go and get knocked up. Unfortunately the first bloke who gives this “ugly duckling” a second glance in swinging London happens to be a serial killer with a Peter Pan complex. He likes her coz she’s not that attractive. She likes him because he’s got a pulse. It’s not going to end well. Made in 1972, it was probably cashing in on previous successes in this very specific genre, but it’s an interesting film nonetheless, though rather stuck in its time. This isn’t Hammer’s usual fare. It really is a love story, although a twisted one and the frequent referencing of  J.M. Barrie’s book gives a literate shorthand to some psychological complexity.

Straight on Till Morning though, pales in comparison with earlier explorations of this kind of theme. Another of my favourites is the 1965 adaptation of John Fowles’ The Collector.

The Collector Poster

 

I read the book when I first moved away from home and it’s story of a lepidopterist stalker left me paranoid for weeks afterwards. The film, starring Terence Stamp and Samantha Eggar, is a damn good literary adaptation. I still think its one of the most unsettling accounts of obsession. Freddie Clegg has watched art student Miranda Grey for half her life and becomes convinced that if he could only get her attention she could fall in love with him.  When he comes into a large sum of money he decides to take action.

But to my mind the best of the bunch is the brilliant and unsettling Peeping Tom, directed by Michael Powell of Powell and Pressburger fame,

Peeping Tom

 

Made in 1960 this was the film that arguable brought Powell’s career to an end.  The story of quiet, monumentally screwed up cameraman Mark, played by Carl Boehm with Anna Massey as his lodger Helen, was too dark for critics and audiences alike. It is a brutal story, though relatively tame by modern standards, but it’s also a brilliant examination of the cinematographer’s gaze and the distance both filmmakers and cinema audiences have from the subject.  Once again, the central relationship at the heart of the film is a dark reflection of romantic love.

But it’s worth remembering that all three of these films are disturbing echoes of a reality that is all too common. I’ve seen way to many trials of men who killed their partner because she threatened to leave.  In reality I always struggle to understand the mind of someone who would want to possess another human being to that extent. In many ways obsession is far scarier than any monster or psychopath. But there seems to be a fine line between desirable romantic passion and the time to change your phone numbers and notify the gardai.  But then at this time of year I’m always the one pointing out that anonymous Valentines cards are really quite a creepy idea. But then, I don’t do sugary romance…

A few thoughts on International Women’s Day

I’ve been spending most of my time recently lost in the past. At the moment I’m researching crimes from so far back they’re in another world.  If you were accused of a crime back then there was no chance of a retrial and if you were convicted of murder then your fate dangled at the end of a rope, a ghoulish spectacle for day trippers.

Life was brutal, shorter, bleaker.  Cholera and typhoid swept Britain and Ireland and infant mortality was high.  I’m looking at a time when there was no such thing as universal suffrage, to vote in an election you had to have land, and be a man.  Women belonged to their husbands, on the day of their marriage everything they owned passed to him, they could not divorce their husbands if he was unfaithful and on divorce they could lose even the right to their own children.

It’s like looking into another world.  Now we can take for granted the right to vote and the position of the mother, given special protection in Article 41.2, is seen as so inalienable it can be to the detriment of the rights of the father.  In a few short generations, women’s lives have changed utterly.  We have more freedom, more of a voice, more opportunities than our grandmothers did, and even many more than our mothers’ generation.

But while there’s been incredible progress, the world we live in still has a very long way to go before there is true equality for the sexes.  I work in a job where most of my colleagues are women but only to a certain level.  Apart from one or two notable exceptions, the majority of judges in the courts, or editors in the newspapers are men.  Most of the senior barristers are men and most of the senior gardai are men.  It’s changing, of course, but for a large chunk of the rest of my working life that’s the way it’s going to be.

85% of the politicians who pass the laws that govern what goes on in the courts are men, which might possibly have something to do with the fact that sentences for sexual crimes are so pathetically low.  Domestic abuse is still rife and women still die all too often at the hands of their partners.  I still spend most of my time writing about this violence against women as it takes up so much of the courts’ time.

But this is the First World, the civilised bit.  The inequalities I see around me are miniscule compared with those that women have to face in other parts of the globe.  We’ve come a long way in a hundred years or so, but there’s a hell of a long way still to go.  There are plenty of places on earth where women would recognise the strange world I’m finding in my research as pretty close to their own reality.

Yet I meet so many young women who see feminism as a dirty word and would be embarrassed to apply it to themselves.  They see the race as won, the fight as fought, and simply accept the status quo as something that can’t be changed.  For a long time I was more reticent about saying what I thought, not wanting to appear strident, or even, god forbid, unattractive.  I’ve laughed along with sexist jokes for fear of being branded a kill joy.  I’ve fluttered my eyelashes and bitten my tongue, pretending to be one of the lads.  Don’t get me wrong, I’ve not got a problem with men.  This has nothing to do with which gender is better, it’s about equality.  And it’s important to say it.

It would be nice to live in a world where feminism was no longer necessary, where everyone played to their strengths and not their stereotypes.  It would be nice if everyone judged everyone else according to who they actually were, not what they seemed to be.  But that’s the foreign country and far more distant than my world of hangings, cholera and bridal chattels.  That’s why International Women’s Day is still important a hundred years after it was started and why I’ll keep banging on about rape sentencing and women who die at the hands of the men who claim to love them.

A Line in the Sand

This Thursday, November 25th, is the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women.  It marks the start of a global campaign of 16 Days of Action.  Here in Ireland the campaign is being spearheaded by Women’s Aid with events running around the country.

Working in the courts you see the grim effects of this violence on a daily basis.  Any regular readers of this blog will know my views on sentencing for sex crimes and on the men who murder the women they are supposed to love.  There has to be a proper line drawn in the sand to show that violence against women is utterly unacceptable.  As long as men like Anton Mulder think they can get away with killing their wives with nothing more than a slap on the wrist that message hasn’t got through.

So many of the trials I’ve covered have been of men accused of killing women.  Colleen Mulder, Karen Guinee, Rachel O’Reilly, Siobhan Kearney, Jean Gilbert, Celine Cawley and Sara Neligan all died at the hands of those who were supposed to love them.  But it’s not just loved ones that kill.  The list of victims can be added to, Melissa Mahon, Manuela Riedo, Mamie Walsh, Rebecca French; a litany of women killed by men.  There are countless other women who can’t be named.  Women who lived but who were subjected to such brutality that their lives have been shattered.

I’ve written a post over on The Anti-Room blog on the subject of sentencing for sex crimes.  It’s an important issue.  We need to draw that line in the sand and say it’s not acceptable if it’s ever going to stop.

A Busy Year…

It’s the last day of the year and the end of the decade to boot.  Time to take stock and look back over the last twelve months with mixed feelings…whatever else 2009 has been it’s seldom been boring.  There have been opportunities and set backs but on the whole I think we’re going out with a bang.  It may have been used as a curse in the past but I’d rather live in Interesting Times than dull ones!

In terms of the courts it’s been a very interesting year.  In terms of both trials, and legislation that will affect both how I do my job and what happens in the trials I cover, there’s been a lot fitted into the past 12 months.  I’ll try at touch the main points but feel free to comment if I’ve missed anything.  I’ve linked back to my posts on the subject where they exist.  With the longer trials the name of both the victim and the accused should be prominent in the tag cloud to the right.

The year started off quietly enough.  In January Brian McBarron pleaded guilty to the murder of his girlfriend, nurse Sara Neligan, daughter of the prominent former consultant surgeon, Mr Maurice Neligan.  Sara had planned to leave him so he stabbed her.  He told gardai “she belonged to me.”

The same month serial child rapist Philip Sullivan had his life sentence overturned by the Court of Criminal Appeal.

In February, a familiar face, Kathleen Mulhall, mother of the infamous Scissor Sisters, pleaded guilty to concealing evidence about her daughters gruesome murder of their mother’s Kenyan boyfriend, Farah Swelah Noor.  She was sentenced in May to five years in prison.

March began with the passing into law of the Legal Services Ombudsman Act 2009 setting up the office of Legal Services Ombudsman to oversee complaints by and about members of the legal profession.  The office will also be responsible for making the public aware of what complaint procedures are available against solicitors and barristers.

In the Central Criminal Court a run of high profile murder trials began in March with that of Gerald Barry, the brutal killer and rapist who would be sentenced to life for the murder of Swiss student Manuela Riedo.

The Barry trial was swiftly followed by that of wife killer David Bourke.  Bourke had murdered his wife, Jean Gilbert, when she left him for an old flame.

In April we entered the strange world of Ronnie Dunbar, the man on trial for the murder of Sligo teenager Melissa Mahon.  Melissa herself was a waif like figure throughout the trial as we heard about her infatuation with Dunbar, also known as McManus.  We heard how her short unhappy life spiralled out of control in a few months in 2006.  Dunbar was eventually found guilty of her manslaughter and later sentenced to a life term.

After that run of trials things got a lot quieter in the courts.  During the summer break I was working on my first novel and a world away from murder.  During July though a rash of legal legislation was written into law that will definitely have an impact on the day job.

First up was the Criminal Justice (Surveillance) Act which controversially allows for covert surveillance to be used in prosecutions.  This kind of evidence will undoubtedly become a major part of any gangland trials that come to court from now on.

A couple of weeks later the Criminal Justice (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act introduced new laws governing the owning and use of guns.  Aimed at tackling violent crimes it also introduced new laws on knives and gave gardai greater search powers.

Hot on it’s heels came two highly discussed Acts.  The Criminal Justice (Amendment) Act allowed for gangland trials to take place without a jury in the Special Criminal Court (previously used only for paramilitary trials).  The three Criminal Justice Acts will all have an effect on how gangland trials are conducted…it’ll be interesting.

Passing into law the same day as the Criminal Justice (Amendment) Act was the long awaited Defamation Act. I’m not going to go into a full analysis of the new Act, which replaces the 1961 Act but there are a few points of difference.  Slander and libel are no more, they’ve been replaced by the cover all term of defamation – which’ll make life easier for anyone studying law as part of a journalism course in the future.  The act also allows a judge to direct a jury on the amount of damages they can award and allows the defendant to make submissions to mitigate damages.

But where the Defamation Act really hit the headlines was the controversial clause that makes blasphemy a criminal offence for the first time in Ireland.  We’ll just have to wait and see if that clause has any practical implications but many people felt that simply writing in what is essentially a religious law in the 21st Century was a dangerous step backwards.

The biggest development of year, court reporting wise was probably the completion of the place where I will be working from now on.  The Criminal Courts of Justice are now finished and they’ve been given a test run and we’ll all be moving in once the new term starts in a little more than a week.

New Criminal Courts of Justice photo by Michael Stamp all rights reserved.

To go with the new courts a new piece of legislation, the Courts and Court Officers Act was brought in in November, to make changes to bail for those on trial and also to make provisions for those in custody in the same circumstances.  A final bit of t-crossing and i-dotting before the big move.

So that’s a round up of the trials and legislation that shaped my year.  2010 is getting off to a lively start with the trial of Eamonn Lillis, accused of the murder of his wife, former Bond girl Celine Cawley.  It’ll be the first big trial in the new courts so it looks like there will be more interesting times ahead.

I’ll be back tomorrow looking forward instead of back.  Until then, a very happy new year to all my readers.  I hope 2010 brings you everything you’re looking for.


I Wanted to Take Her With Me, She Belonged to Me

Today the Neligan family watched their daughter’s killer sentenced to life in prison.  Brian McBarron’s mother sobbed audibly as her 26-year-old son sat impassively as the sentence was handed down.  Sara Neligan had died from knife wounds inflicted on her by the man who supposedly loved her.

She was seen by a friend with bruises on her arms some weeks before she died.  She told the same friend that she planned to leave him and made plans to catch the 7.30 train to Wexford.  She never made it.

He told gardai when interviewed that he had wanted to take her with him when he killed himself.  A blue nylon rope was found tied in a noose above the bed where Sara’s bloody body lay.  He told gardai that he didn’t know what had happened to him.  “I just went out of my mind”.

He went to the kitchen, grabbed a knife and slit Sara’s throat as she sat on the sofa.  The 33-year-old intensive care nurse put up a fight and managed to make it as far as the bathroom but McBarron had followed her there.  He stabbed her “a good few times”.  A post mortem revealed that she had suffered three fatal stab wound to her chest and neck as well as the slash to her throat.  Sara died where she lay in the bathroom.

He moved her body to the bedroom and laid her on the bed.  He estimated he had spent around an hour cleaning out the apartment and threw out three bags of bloodstained clothes – both hers and his.  CCTV footage from the Wintergarden Apartments on Pearse Street where the couple lived showed him making the trip to dispose of the incriminating evidence at around 2 o’clock in the morning.

The following afternoon he went to the local hardware shop to buy some rope.  But he didn’t hang himself.  He stayed in the flat with Sara’s body until he let gardai into the apartment at around 8 o’clock that evening.

He always admitted the killing, saying today, in a statement read to the court by his barrister Richard Kean SC that Sara was “a beautiful and talented young woman who had the world to live for”.  She didn’t deserve to die that way, he went on.

Sara Neligan became the latest woman whose partner was convicted of her murder.  She joins women like Colleen Mulder, Karen Guinee and Siobhan Kearney, who were killed because they wanted to leave the relationship.  Sadly, she will not be the last.

She and McBarron had met in Waterford some months before her death.  On the night of her murder they went for dinner in the Holiday Inn beside their apartment building.  The last sighting of her alive was by the CCTV cameras that watched her walking across the complex towards her apartment.

McBarron told gardai they didn’t argue that night but admitted he knew of her plan to take the early morning strain to Wexford.  He told gardai when they charged him with Sara’s murder that he was “deeply sorry” for what he had done.

Sara was the middle daughter of retired cardiac consultant Maurice Neligan and his GP wife, Patricia.  In a victim impact statement read to the court by prosecution barrister Paul Coffey SC her family described her as “a beautiful, kind, caring and dignified young woman” who had died “long before her proper time”.

She worked as a nurse at the Mater Hospital, the place where her father had been a consultant for many years.  She could not have known, when she moved in with McBarron, that he was capable of killing her, even though, as the court heard today, he had a previous conviction for assault causing harm.

Speaking afterwards, family friend and solicitor, the Sheriff of Dublin Brendan Walsh spoke to journalists gathered outside the Four Courts.  After watching the photographers chase Mr Neligan down the road to get that perfect shot he asked for the family’s privacy to be respected.

People stay in abusive relationships for any number of reasons, sometimes simply because it’s all too easy to ignore the confrontations when the heat has died down.  There will always be men who think of women as possessions and would rather kill them than think of them having a life without them.  Over the past couple of years, cases like this have appeared before the Irish courts with depressing regularity.

Working in the Four Courts you see far too many cases like this and eventually familiarity breeds desensitisation and you stop getting annoyed by the sheer waste of it all.  You get to see trials like this as nothing more than a familiar story guaranteed to shift newsprint.  But every now and then the stark reminder breaks through the cynical veneer and you realise that there are way too many of these trials these days.

Hearing the sentiment read out so clearly in court is enough to widen the cracks as the killer’s words “she belonged to me”, “I wanted to take her with me” become shocking “gold plated” news…until this trial slips inevitably into obscurity and the latest tragedy takes it’s place.

Back to Work…

On Monday I’ll be back in court for the first time this year.  The trial of Brian McBarron is listed to start, the man accused of the murder of Sara Neligan, the daughter of prominent former heart surgeon, Maurice Neligan.

I’ve posted here before about the kind of trials that make news editors prick up their ears and this is one that ticks all the boxes.  The fact that Sara’s father is well known in media circles and has commanded more than the odd headline himself over the years with his outspoken criticism of the failings in the Health Service, will guarantee that the press benches will be full on Monday morning.

I’m not going to go into any further detail about the trial today.  I’ve written a short piece for this week’s Sunday Independent which gives a brief outline of the facts and I don’t want to talk more about it until the trial is up and running.

It’s all too easy to write something that could be deemed prejudicial even when all you’re doing is going over facts that have previously been widely reported.  There’s a big difference between speculation in the days after a violent death and the careful words which go to form the coverage of a trial.

Writing a court report is a fine art and writing a preview can be even more delicate.  Even though anything said in open court is privileged information which may be written about by anyone who wishes to do so, the reality of writing about a live trial or one that is soon to be live, is that there are twelve reasons to watch your words very carefully.

The twelve men and women of the average jury are seen by the law as a fragile bunch, vulnerable to nefareous influences from the slanted accounts supposedly bombarding them at every turn. Consequently they will be warned repeatedly during a high profile trial not to concern themselves with media reports of the case or to spend their evenings Googling background that might not appear in court.

It’s not unusual to arrive into court in the morning to find the barristers poring over the days newspapers weighing up the danger posed by this headline, that photograph or the other article.

You see, it’s not simply the jury’s possible tendency to be influenced, there is a far more fundamental issue at stake.  Any person who stands accused before an Irish court is presumed innocent until the jury decides otherwise.

From a journalistic point of view this usually translates as us reporting matters that might have come to light during the garda investigation which cast the accused in a bad light.  This can be as blatant as in the case of Joe O’Reilly whose guilt was a barely veiled accusation in almost any article printed about him from the time of his wife’s death.

Obviously, that particular trial ended in conviction and he is now serving a life sentence for the murder of his wife Rachel and awaiting to hear if his appeal is successful.  But copy doesn’t have to be as blatant as screaming GUILTY to be prejudicial.

Certain facts, comments that may have been made at earlier stages in the legal proceedings, even the juxtaposition of the name of someone accused beside that of someone convicted can all land a reporter in very hot water, and it’s not nice being told off by a judge!

When a trial is connected to someone as well known and well connected as Mr Neligan then even greater care needs to be taken because the more people who write about it the more places there are for the defence team to look for prejudice.

So I will be back in court bright and early on Monday morning, prepared for the scrum and in the meantime I will say no more about it!

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