Sunday 8 December 2019

Ex-lover of 'Lying Eyes' stays away

Sharon Collins's demeanour at her appeal hearing was markedly different from at her trial, writes Emer Connolly

SHE cut a dashing figure as she entered the courtroom. Her dazzling smile flashed as all eyes focused on her svelte frame. Once again, Sharon Collins commanded attention as curious onlookers who had gathered to hear her appeal gave her the once-over.

And she didn't disappoint. Gone was the sensible short haircut, which was replaced by a perfectly groomed upstyle, her neat, blonde tresses discreetly highlighted.

The pale, drawn face she had presented at her trial in the summer of 2008 now sports a glowing tan. Collins is 46, but could easily pass for a woman 10 years younger.

As the days wore on during her 32-day trial in 2008, the strain on her face became more evident. The tears and devastation that took over on her conviction 20 months ago contrasted sharply with her smiling, relaxed pose this week.

Now, for the first time, we could see how she captured the heart of multi-millionaire PJ Howard.

But the man who remained devoted to her for so long was nowhere to be seen last week.

On arrival into the courtroom minutes before her appeal hearing got underway at 11am on Thursday, she spoke with her eldest son Gary and smiled and chatted to her legal team.

She appeared to be very much at ease as she took in the surroundings of courtroom number 22 in the new courts complex. Collins quietly sat down and was careful not to interact with her co-accused Essam Eid, who also was neatly kitted out in a black suit.

She listened intently as her senior counsel Brendan Grehan argued why the charges of soliciting Essam Eid to murder her partner PJ Howard and his two sons Robert and Niall should not stand. The eagle-eyed Collins regularly looked around the room at the assembled crew of around 20 journalists, who were watching her every move.

During the trial, the pressure and agitation was clear as Collins had frantically scribbled countless notes on yellow post-its and passed them to her legal team. But the transformation couldn't have been more pronounced, as she presented for her appeal hearing like a woman who hadn't a care in the world. She sat up straight over the two days of the appeal, listening intently to every word uttered by counsel and leaned forward for a brief period on Friday to flick through various reports relating to the case.

There was no sign of emotion on her face as Mr Grehan recapped on the various elements of the complex case -- from details of Collins' personal life and relationship with PJ Howard to the emails exchanged between 'Lying Eyes' and 'Hitman'; to the fake marriage certificate she had obtained; to the lethal poison ricin. She remained alert throughout as counsel spoke at length on her challenge to the conviction. Senior counsel for the prosecution Tom O'Connell, at the outset on Thursday, explained that it was "unsustainable" to support the convictions against Collins for conspiracy to murder PJ, Robert and Niall Howard.

This was because her co-accused Essam Eid (54), a poker dealer from Egypt, was not found guilty by a jury on the conspiracy charges. Therefore, it would not make sense for Collins to be convicted of those charges. However, Mr O'Connell outlined that the prosecution would fight her legal team's arguments on the soliciting charges.

One of the central grounds on which her legal team would centre its challenge was the trial judge's -- Mr Justice Roderick Murphy -- charge to the jury. Mr Grehan submitted that the trial was all about conspiracy "and solicit was always second best".

Counsel argued that the conspiracy and soliciting charges had been "conjoined" by the trial judge, when in reality there were "separate and distinct" offences and now the conspiracy charges would be set aside. As a differentiation was not made between the two, he submitted that the verdict was "tainted".

Collins' legal team also objected to the evidence given by the chief state witness Teresa Engle. Ms Engle, who is Eid's wife, told the court that she manufactured the lethal poison ricin with her husband in the US, prior to flying over to Clare with it. However, Collins' legal team said Ms Engle should not have been allowed to give evidence and labelled her a "bare-faced liar" who was a convicted felon in the US.

Collins has always claimed that she was not the woman behind the 'Lying Eyes' emails and had not hired a 'Hitman' to murder the three men.

However, the prosecution rejected Collins' arguments and said the jury had agreed that she was 'Lying Eyes' and that Essam Eid was Tony Luciano, who had sent the 'Hitman' emails. "There is ample evidence that Sharon Collins is 'Lying Eyes'," said Mr O'Connell. He submitted to the appeal hearing that the soliciting charge "was not in any sense an afterthought".

Junior counsel for the prosecution Una Ni Raifeartaigh submitted to the court that most of Ms Engle's evidence had in fact touched on Essam Eid and not Collins.

"She never met Ms Collins. She never purported to give evidence in relation to Ms Collins," she said. The three-judge Court of Criminal Appeal will deliver its judgment next term -- which resumes on April 12 -- on whether her appeal should be allowed. In the meantime, Collins has returned to Dochas, the women's section of Mountjoy prison, to continue her six-year sentence.

According to those who know Sharon Collins in her hometown, Ennis, she thrives on attention and image has always been of the utmost importance to her.

Clearly, that longing to be centre of attention and desire to stand out continues to prevail, even in the most undesirable of environments, that of a busy courtroom, where she is fighting to clear her name.

Sunday Independent

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