The thing about murder trials, one of the things anyway, is that you only see fragments of the story. The trial is a narrative all right, but one of a moment in time. An extraordinary, brutal event that gets picked over in minute detail, so the picture we get of both the accused and, often more so, the deceased is how they are frozen, in that moment of time.
It’s logical it should be like that of course. We are watching a dissection of that moment as the prosecution make their case but if you are writing about the story of the trial you are frequently left with very two dimensional main characters. Very often the deceased are the biggest mystery of all. They are the centre of proceedings but only as an abstract, an idea, maybe even a catalyst. They frequently have very little part in the story of their death while their killer, or those accused of that, sit in full view for us to scrutinise every twitch and glance.
It is the accused that we hear about as the prosecution seek to prove they are capable of the act they are accused of and the defence try to prove they’re not.
Yesterday I wrote about one of those fragments of insight, today I’ll write about another. Today we gathered to hear the victim impact statements written by the families of Pawel Kalite and Marius Szwajkos. Throughout the trial of David Curran and Sean Keogh, accused of their brutal killings, the Polish men have been little more than cyphers.
We have heard that they might both have been drinking vodka in the privacy of their bedrooms that Saturday evening in February 2008. We have heard that Pawel was incensed by being attacked by a pack of teenagers and had pulled on heavy boots before going out in anger.
Today we had the first inkling that the picture painted might have been distorted by what was to follow. The former boss of both men, Alan Kennedy, stood up to read the victim impact statements on behalf of the families. Before he started he addressed the court. It might interest us to know, he said, that it was a Polish custom to take off the shoes as soon as you entered the house. A simple statement, something he had learnt as he became closer to the families in the wake of the tragedy but one that had an obvious weight to those listening to him.
The implication was that Pawel had not been pulling on heavy boots to go and fight but simply outdoor footwear as he prepared to leave the house. The proximity to the violence of his death had given it an ominous edge that it should never had said. He read the statements with a catch in his voice, describing 29-year-old Pawel, who we had been told had been on his way to tangle with the teens who had cheeked him, when he met his death.
Pawel wasn’t like that, said his family. He was gentle, kind and sensible. Growing up from a small and sickly child with a smiling face to a man in love, who had called his aunt the day he died to arrange a trip to research house loans. He had met the woman he wanted to marry and wanted to move back to Poland to be with her.
He had loved his job and his life in Ireland and had been working on his English, travelling around the country to soak up the Irish culture. His savage death was like a screwdriver to the heart, they said, a wound that would never heal.
Marius’s family remembered the 27-year-old graduate with a masters degree in Mechanical Engineering who had rebuilt a 30 year old Volkswagen Beetle from a shell and made his sister handmade leather bags. His sister wrote about the time he had rebuilt another car for his father and how she still expected to hear his voice on the phone.
She quoted a Polish poem “Let us hurry to love people, they leave us too soon.”
Curran listened to both statements with his characteristic fast rocking. He seemed a little harder this morning, mouthing angrily at his family, who had been absent when he learnt his fate, telling them to “fuck off”. The frightened child of yesterday was gone in that moment. He’ll be fixed in the public consciousness from now on as an irredeemable monster. He sealed that fate for himself as soon as he swung that screwdriver but it’s always depressing to see a life wasted so totally so young. Now those he killed have been fleshed out as the restrictions of the justice system have been played out, he will always be that monster.
The Kalite family and the Szwajkos family will have to come to terms with their loss, it can never be undone. At least now they can redress the balance and flesh out the memory of the men they knew.
It’s always the same with murder. In the aftermath of the crime, when any suspects are still being investigated and arrests are yet to be made, it is only the victim. It is they who build the tragedy to it’s greatest heights as the media seek to show the light that’s just been extinguished. By the time we get to the trial though the accused is the focus and the victim fades into a fragmented part of the story.
It was particularly noticeable in the last trial I covered, that of Eamonn Lillis who was convicted back in February of the manslaughter of his wife Celine Cawley. During the trial Celine, who he had hit over the head with a brick, was painted as a shrieking harpy as the defence painted a picture of the lapdog who eventually snapped and bit the hand that fed him. It was only after the verdict, once again with a victim impact statement, that another side to her character was shown and the court caricature became a flesh and blood woman who was loved and missed by her family.
It’s the nature of the criminal trial and really can’t be helped but it must be so hard for victims families, sitting and listening not only to the forensic details that reduce a living person to a bundle of medical data, but also to what would amount to a character assassination in any other circumstances.