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!