| 17.7°C Dublin

'I grabbed the first thing I could, it was a hammer...'


MURDER CHARGE: Roy Webster (left) claims Anne Shortall (right) blackmailed him for money for an abortion

MURDER CHARGE: Roy Webster (left) claims Anne Shortall (right) blackmailed him for money for an abortion

MURDER CHARGE: Roy Webster (left) claims Anne Shortall (right) blackmailed him for money for an abortion

'Thank God," a woman whispered from the court bench where Anne Shortall's family was sitting. She had just heard that the mother-of-three's death after a series of hammer blows to the head was "probably fairly rapid". This was the only crumb of comfort for the family as State pathologist Professor Marie Cassidy listed the harrowing injuries inflicted on Anne's body.

There was still a lingering lack of certainty in the post-mortem examination results that must have brought distressing questions to the minds of her loved ones. Was Anne alive or dead after those blows? Could she still have been saved?

Prof Cassidy was giving evidence to an otherwise silent Central Criminal Court on the fifth day of the trial of Roy Webster (40).

The jury had already heard that the married father-of-two beat Ms Shortall (47) to death with a claw hammer on April 3, 2015, after she "blackmailed" him over a claimed pregnancy following a one-night stand.

He denied murdering her but admitted manslaughter. That plea was not accepted by the prosecution.

First, Prof Cassidy described the scene at Mr Webster's workshop at the back of his home in Ashbree, Ashford, in rural Co Wicklow, when she arrived on the evening of April 7.

Hours earlier, Mr Webster had admitted to gardai at his kitchen table that he had hit Ms Shortall with a hammer, driven her to his home and put her body in his workshop, where he ran a cabinet-making business.

Duct tape had been wound around her head, covering her nose and mouth, and her wrists were bound with the same tape. The post-mortem examination was carried out the next day at Loughlinstown Hospital. Prof Cassidy established Ms Shortall had sustained nine blows to the head with a moderately heavy object with a small striking surface. This resulted in lacerations to the scalp and face, including injuries to her left ear, which was split.

"The multiplicity of forceful blows to the head could have caused rapid concussion or unconsciousness," Prof Cassidy told the jury. She said this could cause death but was also "compatible with continued life".

"It can't be excluded that death was due to the head injuries alone," Prof Cassidy said. However, she continued: "If (the duct tape bindings to the head) were applied while she was still alive this would have excluded all possibility of surviving the head injury.

"The cause of death was blunt force trauma to the head and obstruction of the airways."

When cross-examined, she agreed that when the tape was applied Ms Shortall was "probably unconscious" but again, she said, it could not be determined that she was dead or alive at that point.

Transcripts of gardai interviews with Mr Webster were read out in court and long segments were later played back to the jury. In the interviews, Mr Webster described how his "one-night stand" with Ms Shortall had eventually led to their final confrontation in his van at the quiet spot in Wicklow Town known as the Murrough.

They got talking on December 20, 2014, at the Forge pub before having sex in her apartment, he recalled.

By April, he told detectives, she had claimed she was pregnant by him and was demanding £6,500 (€7,500) for an abortion.

On April 3, Good Friday, they arranged to meet and he drove her to the Murrough where they argued.

They got out of the van and she started to threaten "she was going to blow the lid if I didn't get her money".

He said he pleaded with her that he had a wife and child and a newborn baby at home and she replied: "I don't give a s**t."

He described his head as spinning and said he could "just see my whole world crashing down - this one had my back to the wall".

"I swung open the side door of the van, and I grabbed the first thing I could, it was a hammer. I hit her on the head with it," he said.

He told gardai she fell back into the van and said "you f***ing pr**k, I'll ruin you", and he hit her again - three or four times in all.

Mr Webster told gardai he closed the van door and drove off. He said he stopped and taped Ms Shortall's head first as there as blood coming out of it and he "thought the tape might stop the blood".

"I also put tape on her hands to stop her flailing around," he said. "I suppose subconsciously I didn't know whether she was dead or alive… it was like I was out of my mind."

He said it was not his intention to kill her, saying about hitting her: "I suppose it was a panic reaction... a mixture of fear and panic."

The next day, he said, he moved the body from the van into the workshop.

Preliminary results from Prof Cassidy's post-mortem examination showed Ms Shortall had not been pregnant.

The trial is due to conclude this week.

Sunday Independent