'The biggest loss is your hope, your faith and your trust in the justice system'
“I would march into hell quicker than go back to court,” says Marion Nolan, of Walkinstown, Dublin, after her experience of the trial of Martin Toland for the killing of her son Alan.
Toland was initially found guilty of murder in January 2010, but following an appeal and a retrial in June this year he was found guilty of manslaughter and sentenced to seven years in prison. The sentence was “a kick in the face”, Mrs Nolan says.
“The biggest loss is your hope, your faith and your trust in the justice system. I couldn’t honestly say to any victim of crime now, hold on and justice will be done.” Those working with the courts’ support service were kind, but the family was “torn apart” by their experiences.
“The first thing they tell you is to look straight ahead; don’t look at the judge or jury; don’t cry, or you could be influencing the jury. So you sit with your hands clenched, your body clenched, your head bowed every single day. It hurts when you go to stand up . . . There is no nature to it. It’s law; it’s a game between two teams, and whoever can come up with the smartest words is the winner. Your child is a pawn in the games and all of us, all the victims, are losers.”
Alan (28), “a brilliant lad”, was stabbed to death by Toland (36), on September 8th, 2007.
His mother recalls the moment she heard he was dead. On holiday in Santorini, Greece, with friends she was told to ring home and then hospital to speak to her husband because Alan had been in an accident.
“My husband came on the phone and he was crying; he said ‘Our beautiful son, Marion, come home, we need you’ . . . I was afraid to ask if he was dead. Then my daughter came on, she said ‘Mum, Alan’s with Grandad’. When she said that I knew he was gone.”
Her immediate and extended family, Alan’s girlfriend and her family and his work colleagues have all been affected by his death, she says.
Marion spent three years in counselling and some of her family also got support, including from AdVic, the victim advocate group. They in turn now advocate for justice for other victims.
Families should be part of the system, she says, and people such as her son’s employer should have been able to give character references for him and “put a face” on him. There should also be a minimum sentence for manslaughter, she believes.
“If you pick up a knife, you mean to do damage.”
In a separate case, Gerard, a public servant living in Dublin who does not want his full name used, was working in a bookie’s shop 10 years ago when he first became a victim of crime.
“Three lads just ran in, with caps on and their faces covered. They had guns. They grabbed me, pulled me against the bullet-proof glass at the counter and demanded the takings from the girls behind the counter.”
Afterwards, gardaí came and took statements. Asked whether he was offered any support, he says a “bloke in the pub next door offered me a brandy”.
The second occasion, a few years later, happened again in a bookie’s shop.
“Two guys came in, wearing tights over their heads. They had a gun, ran in, shouting at customers to get down on the floor, and demanded the money. Again it was over in minutes. I was fine, but a few days after, when friends asked me how I was, tears started coming. I was actually pretty upset.”
More recently, he had a bike stolen. “The crime was recorded. The police came, looked around the scene, took a statement. There was a ‘customer service’ element to the response.”
However, he says, he knew he wouldn’t get the bike back, and the gardaí knew that he knew.
“There’s a social tolerance for low-level crime. The police know that and so they tolerate it too . . . people accept it. But they shouldn’t have to.”
Meanwhile, Isabelle Courtney, who lives in Dublin with her husband and children, also speaks of the acceptance that those who commit “petty crime” will not be apprehended. She was at home with her family on a Friday evening a few weeks ago when her daughters heard a smash outside, ran downstairs to find the back window of her husband’s car had been smashed.
“We called the guards and they came and took statements, asked my daughters for descriptions.”
Gardaí themselves almost made light of the matter, she says, asking whether the girls had “broken any hearts lately” and whether that might have inspired the attack.
“The main thing was just the pure hassle though, as we had to wait around the next day waiting for a glazier to come and dealing with the insurance company, when we had plans for the day.”
Though they suspect they know who the culprits were, no one has been questioned about the incident.