A gruelling, bizarre and tragic trial
Then there was the reportage itself. In Ireland the rules of court reporting are clearly codified and carefully observed. As a general rule, so as not to prejudice proceedings and find themselves in contempt of court, media report only what the jury sees and hears. But in Mauritius, where the law on jury trials is essentially the same, it was a free-for-all. The local press would carry long interviews with the barristers, asking them not only about the trial but also about their favourite films or their girlfriends. Sensitive legal argument heard in the absence of the jury would appear on the front pages the following day.
THE PROBLEM WAS bound to spill into the courtroom, and in the fifth week it finally did. That was when the Mauritian website lexpress.mupublished CCTV footage from Legends Hotel a day before it had even been mentioned in court. The defence planned to argue that the film showed John and Michaela McAreavey at the hotel reception desk after the time at which the prosecution said she died. L’Express labelled the video as showing the McAreavey couple, and alongside it ran a story that described the recording as a major revelation.
When the video was shown in court the next day a senior detective said the couple in the video had been identified as German tourists. The defence said it would not pursue the matter and moved on. On foot of a prosecution complaint about the L’Express report, Judge Fecknah found that the website’s story was highly prejudicial, but he decided not to find the publication in contempt and settled for a severe warning.
When the jury returned on Thursday evening and acquitted the two defendants, the scene that developed was as extraordinary as anything that had preceded it. The McAreavey and Harte families walked out of court almost immediately, as wild cheering erupted from the friends and families of the two men. In the courtyard the defendants’ supporters celebrated in a thick melee. Lawyers were held aloft, fireworks were set off and chants of “justice, justice” rang out.
And yet within half an hour the clamour had petered out and the crowd had dispersed. It was as if those eight weeks had finally caught up with everyone. Night had fallen. A policeman ushered the last of the onlookers out and slammed the gates shut one last time.