Sunday 13 October 2019

Jury is unanimous on matter of 'reasonable doubt'

Waterford bus driver John O’Brien leaving the court with his mother, Sheila, and sister, Jackie, after being found not guilty yesterday
Waterford bus driver John O’Brien leaving the court with his mother, Sheila, and sister, Jackie, after being found not guilty yesterday


John O'Brien has walked away from the Central Criminal Court with his presumption of innocence intact. Yesterday, the Waterford bus driver was acquitted by a jury of his peers, who, unlike the general population, sat through weeks of evidence and sized up the credibility of witnesses and decided, unanimously, that there was a reasonable doubt that John O'Brien had killed Meg Walsh.

Not a hunch that he didn't kill her, or an icky feeling that he just might have. It wasn't proof beyond a shadow of a doubt, the standard formerly required in many countries when the death penalty was available, but a reasonable doubt that the State, with all its might and resources at hand, failed to erase in the juror's minds.

The jurors heard that Mr O'Brien was a violent man who apparently 'flipped' when he caught his wife kissing another man in their "upmarket" home.

Mr O'Brien had, according to the State, motive and opportunity to kill his wife. But they had no confession, witnesses, crime scene, weapon or forensic evidence.

They heard admissions that Mr O'Brien was a wife beater, but they didn't hear that Meg Walsh wrote a letter, unsent, to an unknown person, citing threats by her husband to kill her after an assault in her home.

Because its prejudicial value would have outweighed its probative effect, the letter was withheld from the jury by the trial judge.

In the absence of "hard" or legally admissible evidence, the State had at its disposal circumstantial evidence in bucket loads to bear.

There is a perception that circumstantial evidence is somehow weak or inferior, but this presumption has been turned on its head by the recent Joe O'Reilly and Brian Kearney murder cases. Unusually, John O'Brien took the stand and swore on oath that he had no hand, act or part in his wife's murder: rarely do juries hear from an accused at trial.

For many, the O'Brien verdict may have come as a surprise, but that is a typical response when juries return verdicts that fly in the face of public opinion, which rows in behind grieving relatives and demands a guilty verdict at all costs.

That Mr O'Brien is an innocent man has come as a "shock" to some, but the not guilty verdict is a timely reminder that our law presumes a defendant to be innocent until the State discharges the criminal standard of proof beyond a reasonable doubt.

The presumption of innocence alone is sufficient to acquit a defendant in the absence of the prosecution raising a reasonable doubt in the minds of the jurors.

It isn't necessary for the State to prove guilt beyond all possible doubt, but neither can mere suspicion, coincidence or conjecture ground a guilty verdict.

The burden is always on the State to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

They failed to do so in this case.

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