Sunday 20 October 2019

Writing the words that dragged a terrible scandal into the limelight

In the search to discover the truth about the Kerry Babies case, there were unintended consequences, writes Joe Joyce

Joanne Hayes: Gardai have now apologised
Joanne Hayes: Gardai have now apologised

Joe Joyce

There are two stories about the Kerry Babies case; the story Don Buckley and I broke in this newspaper in October 1984 about how gardai got four people to confess in graphic detail to a killing they did not commit; and the broader story of what the appalling treatment of Joanne Hayes by the tribunal set up to answer this question says about Ireland at the time.

The confessions by the Hayes family came some two weeks after the discovery of a baby boy washed up on White Strand near Cahersiveen. He had been stabbed 16 times in the neck and 12 times in the chest. It was assumed that a grey fertiliser sack with a brown bag inside, found close by, had contained the body.

Joanne Hayes became a suspect when gardai learned she had been treated in Tralee, claiming to have had a miscarriage, though doctors believed she had actually had a baby. There was no baby to be seen and gardai were suspicious she might be the mother of the murdered infant.

Taken to Tralee garda station, she admitted she had had a baby who had died and which she had buried on her family's farm near Abbeydorney.

Gardai did not believe her. Within 12 hours she had confessed to stabbing her baby and her brothers Ned and Mick and sister Kathleen had confessed to putting the dead child in a brown bag within a grey fertiliser bag, driving to Slea Head on the Dingle peninsula and tossing it into the sea.

The confessions were detailed, matching those of the murdered baby on White Strand: "On the way back to the bedroom I picked up the white bath brush and I went to the cabinet in the kitchen and picked up the carving knife with the brown timber handle," Joanne's statement read. 'I went back to the bedroom and I hit the baby on the head with the bath brush. I had to kill him because of the shame it was going to bring on the family and because Jeremiah Locke would not run away and live with me.

"The baby cried when I hit it and I stabbed it with the carving knife on the chest and all over the body. I turned the baby over and I also stabbed him in the back. The baby stopped crying after I stabbed it. There was blood everywhere on the bed, and there was also blood on the floor."

Kathleen's statement described the scene near Slea Head as one of her brothers tossed the body in the bags into the Atlantic: "You could see the water from the road where we were parked, and when the bag was thrown in, it sank and resurfaced and floated on the water."

The statements had the kind of flourish well known to those of us familiar at the time with confessions in garda stations - interviews were neither recorded nor videoed then and statements were written out by the interrogators. Joanne's concluded on a familiar note: "When the body of the baby was found at Cahersiveen I knew deep down it was my baby. I was going to call him Shane. I am awful sorry for what happened, may God forgive me. I have heard this statement read over to me and it is correct. I don't want to change any of it,"

The murder squad men had apparently cracked the case. They had a motive for the murder and details of its execution, which tallied with those of the known facts about the dead boy on White Strand. Tidal charts and local fishermen confirmed that something thrown in the sea at Slea Head was likely to wash across Dingle Bay and end up near Cahersiveen.

True, there were minor inconsistencies between the "confessions", but nothing that would give a defence lawyer much purchase against the overwhelming thrust of the complementary narratives.

Joanne was charged with murder, her sister and brothers with concealing a birth.

Appearing on remand at Tralee district court two days later, Joanne told Kathleen where she had hidden her baby's body, in a pond on the farm at Abbeydorney. She had told gardai the same thing initially and they had searched the area but found nothing.

She was taken to Limerick prison, and the others were released on bail put up by local people from Abbeydorney. They went to the pond and found the baby's body in a plastic bag.

There were no visible marks on this baby, a boy, other than a possible bruise on one side of his neck, state pathologist John Harbison found. Due to decomposition over the previous two weeks, he could not say definitively that the baby had achieved a separate existence. Cause of death could not be ascertained, he concluded.

Gardai now had an obvious problem: how to reconcile the confessions about the stabbing of the baby in Cahersiveen with the body found on the farm.

Simple, they argued: Joanne had twins, stabbed one to death and dumped it in the Atlantic, and left the other in the pond on the farm. That theory disintegrated quickly: blood tests - the only indicator of paternity pre-DNA - showed that Joanne and Jeremiah (the father of Joanne's baby) were not the parents of the Cahersiveen baby. Enter the superfecundation theory - that Joanne had been impregnated by another man at about the same time.

Our expose of the case ended with a description of the court hearing in Tralee in October 1984 at which the state solicitor dropped all the charges against the Hayes family on the instructions of then DPP, Eamonn Barnes. "Five and a half months after Joanne Hayes had been charged with murdering her baby, and the others with concealment, their trial was over," the article ended.

Little did we know that it was just about to begin.

In one sense, the tribunal of inquiry set up by the Oireachtas was not just about the Kerry Babies case, though its formal, if woolly, terms of reference were restricted to that. It came after years of concern among civil liberties groups, defence lawyers, members of the Garda itself and politicians in all parties (including, notably, Taoiseach Garret FitzGerald) about the interrogation methods of a small number of detectives from the murder squad, known within the force as the "Heavy Gang".

Under pressure to cope with the overflow of politically-motivated violence from the North, with witnesses fearful of giving evidence and the IRA adept at destroying forensic evidence, confessions were often the only way to secure convictions. How some of these confessions were acquired had become a matter of concern.

Everybody knew that the new tribunal's purpose was to inquire how gardai got the confessions from the Hayes family. Kevin Lynch, the high court judge chosen to conduct it, didn't see it quite like that.

The only allegations before him, he decided, were those by the Hayeses, that they had been intimidated and ill-treated by gardai. It was akin to a civil action by them for damages, he said. Thus, he framed it primarily as an adversarial rather than an inquisitorial hearing, effectively requiring this rural, mainly young family to prove their case in a court-style context against highly experienced members of the murder squad and other gardai.

His decision opened the way for what then horrified witnesses and the public, the ferocious cross-examination of Joanne Hayes by Martin Kennedy, barrister for three superintendents including John Courtney, head of the murder squad. He laid into her, day after day, baring all aspects of her private life as he sought to destroy her credibility.

At one point the slightly-built Joanne fled the witness box in a state of acute anxiety, to throw up in a toilet. A doctor sedated her and she was returned to the witness box in the afternoon to continue answering questions in a slurred voice.

Those who were in the courthouse were shocked by the onslaught. Many who read the reports were horrified and spontaneous protests gathered outside until they were warned by Judge Lynch that he would jail them for contempt.

The judge appeared to have little or no sympathy for the Hayes family, particularly Joanne and her sister Kathleen, whom he depicted as quick-minded and conniving.

His attitude towards the gardai was noticeably different, though he was occasionally impatient with their increasingly farcical theories of superfecundation and then, bizarrely, of a third baby as they continued to insist that she had given birth to twins.

The third baby was supposed to be a twin of the baby found on the farm, which was stabbed and still somewhere in the Atlantic in a grey fertiliser bag. (This would account for the confessions recorded by gardai.)

It was known as the "Azores baby" - on the basis that by then it might be in the mid-Atlantic, somewhere near the Azores.

His report castigates the Hayeses for originally agreeing a cover story that Joanne had given birth alone in the farmyard, a story that he concluded fell apart when questioned by the gardai.

On the other hand, he pointed out that the gardai - there were 28 represented altogether at the tribunal - agreed aspects of their sworn evidence to the tribunal beforehand, notably that they all believed Joanne to be the mother of the Cahersiveen baby.

This, he concluded, was merely an example of familiarity breeding contempt: they were so used to giving sworn evidence that it may have become "a matter of form" for them.

Thus, his report added: "They are not barefaced lies on the part of the gardai (as regrettably is the case with members of the Hayes family) but they are an exaggeration over and above the true position, or a gilding of the lily, or wishful thinking elevated to the status of fact."

He dismissed suggestions that the gardai had conspired to frame the Hayes family for complicity in the murder of the Cahersiveen baby as "ridiculous", given the number of gardai from Kerry and Dublin involved. Were it to be true, he added, it would be "monstrous". (That conclusion was an eerie echo of a judgment - infamous in Ireland - by senior British judge Lord Denning some years earlier, when he dismissed a civil case by the Birmingham Six against police for beating them up. To believe the imprisoned men, he said, would open an "appalling vista".)

So, how did Joanne Hayes come to confess in detail to stabbing a baby she never had? Pressure and a guilty conscience, the judge concluded. The pressure, he seemed to suggest, was mostly in her own head as she tried to protect other members of her family; the guilty conscience arose from what he concluded she had done to her own baby.

So she became half-convinced that she had done away with the baby in the manner suggested by the murder squad detectives who honestly believed she had stabbed the Cahersiveen baby.

How the graphic details about the Cahersiveen baby came to be in all the statements is not exactly explained.

The tribunal was not the judiciary's nor the legal profession's finest hour. The Garda has now finally conceded what Judge Lynch could not bring himself to say - that the Garda investigation put "awful stress and pain" on Joanne and "fell short of what was required and expected of a professional police service".

Oddly, the Garda statement presents the DNA proof that Joanne was not the mother of the Cahersiveen baby as if there was some doubt about it until now. Judge Lynch's report ruled that out more than 30 years ago.

The Kerry Babies case has now gone down in history as something indicative of a time in Ireland when sexual matters were shrouded in shame and smothered by smug sanctimony. It left a mark on all those associated with it, even those of us who were merely bystanders or observers of the tribunal hearings.

For me, the hearings and report left a sick feeling that we had had a hand in the public evisceration of a young woman's life. That was not our intention, of course, but had we not written that article in the Sunday Independent in October 1984, the chances are that the whole affair would have been buried quietly and the Hayes family and the others dragged into the limelight would have been left to cope with the aftermath in private.

It was a salutary reminder of the unintended consequences journalism can have on the lives of people caught in the crossfire of public controversies.

Sunday Independent

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