Thursday 14 November 2019

Trial that gripped a nation was masterclass for us all

LAST night a packed Central Criminal Court broke into applause and cheering as an unemployed Dublin man was jailed for life for murdering a friend whom he stabbed through the heart after they argued over phone calls.

You have probably never heard of Martin Toland, who murdered Alan Nolan.

But you do know Eamonn Lillis, who, just hours after Toland was found guilty of murder, was convicted of the manslaughter of his wife, Celine Cawley.

Every couple of years or so, a murder trial comes before our courts that captivates the nation.

Joe O'Reilly. Brian Kearney. Eamonn Lillis, to name but a few.

Trials that lead to ticker-tape media coverage.

Trials where we, the public, pore over every single detail that emerges during a prosecution.

Trials where we become armchair experts on the distinction between murder and manslaughter and the range of defences that an accused can plead.

Trials where we all hold views, often very strident ones, on the guilt or innocence of someone who finds themselves pitted against the weight of the State in a high-profile murder case.

In many ways, there was nothing particularly remarkable about the Eamonn Lillis murder trial.

Sadly, the husband-has-affair-kills-wife-following-domestic-row scenario is all too common a motif running through many of the murder trials.

And, as with the vast majority of murder trials, the fact that Celine Cawley was killed by her husband was not at issue, despite his initial tissue of lies about a phantom intruder that never was.

As was pointed out seven years ago by Mr Justice Paul Carney, the listing judge of the Central Criminal Court, in nearly every case it is accepted -- and not in issue -- that the accused unlawfully killed the deceased or played a major part in their loved one's death.

The issues then are intent and circumstances.

What distinguishes the Eamonn Lillis trial and other murder cases from others in this tragic legal genre is money, class and sex.

Middle class? Check. An innocent mother? Check. An extra marital affair? Check.

The Eamonn Lillis trial had even more glamour to offer the masses.

Celine Cawley was a former Bond Girl and successful business woman raking in over €500,000 a year compared to her husband's €100,000.

They had a beautiful home and well-heeled family connections.Add in an extramarital affair with a beautiful young masseuse -- ostensibly prompted by a mid-life crisis -- and you have the perfect ingredients for the ultimate middle-class horreur.

Human nature being what it is, it is hardly surprising that this trial has attracted such publicity.

Arguably more controversial, however, in a case where the fundamental questions were did he do it and did he mean to do it, were the intense behind-the-scenes legal arguments in the absence of the jury before and during the final summing up by Mr Justice Barry White, one of the most experienced criminal law judges.

Before a judge commences a final charge, prosecution and defence lawyers can discuss -- in the absence of the jury -- the appropriate directions that the trial judge may give in summing up.

These discussions can relate to fundamental issues such as the role of judge and jury, the burden and standard of proof, the definition of and distinction between murder and manslaughter and the range of criminal defences applicable to an accused.

If the legal teams are unhappy with the judge's charge, they can embark on a series of what are known as requisitions, or legal submissions, that are designed to correct any perceived errors or misdirection in the judge's charge.

The pre-charge debate and post-charge clarifications are an important bulwark against future appeals.

Despite all the excitement of the facts of the case itself, including controversy arising from the decision to shield Lillis's former lover Jean Treacy from public view, it is the judge's charge which ultimately became the real story.

Before Judge White even charged the jury, there was an intense debate about his plan to require the jury, if it unanimously agreed to a verdict of manslaughter, to give a reason for it.

Even after certain clarifications, Eamonn Lillis's defence team was still unhappy with some of the directions in his summing up.

This led to a refinement of Judge White's charge to the jury where he remarked: "There are certain matters where I was wrong."

He said he held neither a sword for the prosecution nor a shield for the defence.

"I hope you don't think otherwise and that my charge was directed toward securing a particular verdict. It was not," the judge said after he recalled the jury.

In the end, the Eamonn Lillis murder trial was a masterclass in manslaughter and the range of unlawful killings it captures.

Irish Independent

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