The new, technologically advanced Criminal Courts pose a threat to the right to personal privacy, according to Sarah Fulham-McQuillan. She examines the murder trial of Eamonn Lillis for evidence of this problem.
Throughout history there has always been a huge interest in the intimate details of murders. Perhaps this comes from an appreciation for inoffensive murder mystery novels, members of the public believing they are the next Ms. Marple or Hercule Poirot. Or maybe it’s the insatiable need for trivia so closely related to the gory killing that it’s almost impossible to believe we have access to it. Yet, it is this “trivia” when published, that is unfortunately horrifying and damning for the people involved.
The new Criminal Courts complex in Dublin contains two courtrooms with full information technology at their disposal, and we are witnessing these in full swing at the moment. In the current ongoing trial of Eamonn Lillis, accused of murdering his wife at their home in Howth, Co. Dublin, jury and the general public alike are shown clear images of grisly evidence on large plasma screens. What was once reserved for the twelve men and women in charge of influencing the outcome of a man’s life, is now exposed for every Tom, Dick and Harry to savor. Whilst the court retains some discretion as to what is shown on these screens, and what is merely held up for the courtroom to try and catch a glimpse of, it appears that little is to be left to the imagination any longer. Whether this is a step forward in criminal law proceedings in this jurisdiction remains to be seen.
Juries in high profile cases, or cases with a major human interest, are ordered not to discuss the case with anyone, nor to be swayed by media reports. This was so in the case mentioned above – understandable for obvious reasons. However, is it consistent then that courts can be given the go-ahead to display items of an extremely personal nature to the world at large? (Or to those who have decided to take a day trip to the courtroom on that particular day, which according to reports of overflowing courtrooms, are many.) It is now substantially simpler to review evidence as the trial progresses, and hence convince oneself as to what really happened on the fateful day of the alleged murder. This was always possible of course, by listening or reading any of the numerous media outlets. Nevertheless, considering that it is now viable that no matter where in the courtroom you happen to be seated, even in the sepcifically built overflow room, you can scrutinise said items on large screens for yourself, and journalists reports become ever more detailed, the idea of innocent until proven guilty enters a different stratosphere. In the current case, as reported by one of the major broadsheets, every Irish citizen can now, if so inclined, know that the accused wore Armani jeans, striped Abercrombie and Fitch boxer shorts, white Gap socks and was the owner of a Breitling watch. All blood-stained by the way and found in a Rip-Curl suitcase hidden in the attic, under a doll’s house. We can visualise the 5’11” accused man doing his daily exercise routine of sit-ups, at 6.30 am no less, before bringing his wife and daughter a cup of tea, and heading off to the local shop on Howth summit to buy his daily copy of the Irish Times. As caught on video camera by Gardai a week after the event, an exercise bike with a Christmas stocking hanging out of it, the Christmas tree in the living room, strands of tinsel bedecking photo frames in the kitchen where the seemingly cold and calculating husband reportedly washed his hands as his wife lay dying on the decking outside. Apparently the husband and wife slept in separate rooms due to the wife’s snoring, she downstairs, whilst he slept upstairs in a sparsely decorated bedroom, with a note of his doomed love affair on his bedside table. All this was eerily broadcast in a video tour of the house, ghoulsh almost, and according to reports of those sitting in the courtroom, weirdly voyeuristic.
Is it really necessary for the world at large to know these intimate details of the surrounding events of the alleged murder? Does it help the trial in any way, by us knowing that Eammon Lillis dons wire-rimmed glasses, under which he rubs the bridge of his nose at inetrvals during the trial or wears black v-neck jumpers? Or does it only serve to sate the appetite of the readers of newspapers and watchers of tv, increasing revenue for the organisations behind such outlets, and more importantly and perhaps more damaging, give everyone the authority to be an authority on the subject.
It is also now established that those on trial are not to be photographed entering or exiting the courtroom, and the new complex allows for this by reason of an underground passage. This is clearly in accordance with the principle that the accused is not to be tried by the public but by those in the legal profession and the appointed jurors. However, if we are not permitted to see an accused being led by Gardai into their trial, surely the displaying of evidence that often may or may not be damning should not be permitted so freely either? Media reports are allowed to describe (in extraordinary detail) what journalists see and hear in the courtroom, but are not authorised to reproduce such images. Thankfully. Some would be of the opinion, and I count myself amongst such people, that the exhibiting of evidence in such a manner to the general public, can only lead to a more vehement public determination regarding the status of the accused prior to the conclusion of the trial and the judges pronouncment of guilty or not guilty. No matter what happens within the courtroom, the accused must exit the building and re-enter society at some stage, and it is here that the affects of the presumption of innocence principle may be diluted pending the outcome of the case.
Eammon Lillis, at the time of writing, pleads “not guilty”.