The announcement of the first Covid lockdown in March last year may have put pressure on the jury in the case of a “true predator” who was later jailed for grooming and sexually abusing teenage girls, the Court of Appeal has heard.
The Central Criminal Court heard last year that from May 1994 up to February 2001 the now 60-year-old male carried out sexual assaults on a total of 14 children.
He pleaded guilty in 2002 to attacks on ten of these victims and received a prison sentence of nine years with two suspended. While being interviewed by gardaí, he denied sexually assaulting other girls.
He continued to deny these offences during his trial at the Central Criminal Court in March 2020 but a jury convicted him of 30 counts of sexual assaults of four girls, who were aged between 11 and 17. Ms Justice Tara Burns jailed him for seven years on those offences.
The Dublin man cannot be named to protect the identities of the victims.
Regarding Covid, Mr Ó Lideadha said that on March 12th, 2020, when the jury was being charged, the then taoiseach Leo Varadkar made an "absolutely unprecedented" statement regarding the closing of schools, childcare services and colleges, which were to shut the next day.
Mr Ó Lideadha said that while the taoiseach did not say for people “not to spend hours on end in a room sitting with eleven other people” it was a “logical conclusion for anyone to come to”.
Counsel said that the trial judge could have told the jury to “pause the process of deliberations to ameliorate circumstances” in order to provide time to implement social distancing.
Mr Justice Patrick McCarthy asked if it was Mr Ó Lideadha’s view that jurors could not be trusted to carry out their duty when under pressure.
Mr Ó Lideadha said: “Lots of people were worried and there was an incentive there to get out as soon as possible. There was a real risk that the jurors would feel under pressure to return a verdict.”
The barrister said that the jury took just two hours to deliberate before delivering their verdict and that the case had four different complainants with multiple legal and factual issues.
Mr Ó Lideadha said that his client had also been "grossly" prejudiced by the introduction of evidence in front of the jury by a witness who mentioned that the male had been "locked up" in England.
Mr Ó Lideadha also submitted that his client’s trial was dealing with complaints that were “decades” after the event, which was “inherently unfair”.
Counsel said that there may have been “demands” made between complainants to make statements, which could have led to a “possible collusion or contamination of evidence” from the said complainants.
Mr Ó Lideadha also said that Facebook messages between complainants had been deleted that could have shown if pressure had been put on one of the complainants to make a statement, which, if so, could have helped the defence.
Counsel said the missing material was “highly likely” to be relevant and that it could have been of assistance to the defence.
Obligation on gardaí
Mr Ó Lideadha also said that there was an obligation on gardaí to take careful notes regarding their communications with “disparate” complainants in the case, which had not been fully done.
Counsel said that it would have been “important and helpful” for gardaí to take notes, records and audio records of the taking of statements to provide a “very significant safeguard” in the case.
He added that the trial judge’s charge to the jury in the case regarding identification of the male was “inadequate” and that there was only a “fleeting” view from one of the complainants of his client, at a time when another male also resided at the same apartment.
Mr Ó Lideadha said one of the complainants, a 12-year-old who had been drinking, had been facing away from a male who abused her and he submitted that this male could have been another man who was in the apartment on the night.
Counsel said this complainant had no recollection of before or after the event and only had a glimpse of the male as he left the bedroom from the light in the corridor.
Mr Ó Lideadha said that the trial judge also did not go far enough when charging the jury in regard to the “substantial delays” in the prosecution.
Responding barrister Paul Murray SC said that the defence had chosen to introduce the male’s previous conviction when cross-examining one of the complainants.
Mr Murray said that there were six passages in the transcript of the trial regarding a guilty plea on other charges from the male relating to a previous investigation of him.
Mr Murray said that the trial judge, Ms Justice Tara Burns, had told the jury that previous convictions for burglary of the male were “probative of nothing” and that the male was “entitled to the presumption of innocence” regarding the sex assault allegations.
He said that the judge could “not have been clearer or more emphatic” in her charge to the jury regarding previous convictions.
Regarding delays in the case, Mr Murray said that the courts no longer have to establish a reason for any delay and that each complainant gave evidence in the trial, though they may have been “cowed” at the time of the offences.
On the subject of missing Facebook messages, counsel said that one complainant had contacted another saying that they had named them in a statement to gardaí.
Mr Murray said both women had given evidence in the case at trial to this effect and that one complainant had deleted an older version of Facebook’s messaging service.
Mr Murray said that the 12-year-old had been drinking around that time of her life but she had a “full memory of the incident”.
Regarding the jury’s deliberations when the lockdown was announced, Mr Murray said that the jury were told by the judge that it was “completely a matter for yourselves” on how much time they could take in coming to a verdict.
He said that Ms Justice Burns told the jury that there were “no time constraints on you whatsoever, and we are here as long as you need”. Mr Murray added that the jury had already made inquiries of the court and that they were “well able to ask a question” if they had concerns.
Mr Justice George Birmingham, sitting with Mr Justice Patrick McCarthy and Ms Justice Úna Ní Raifeartaigh, adjourned matters to Friday for finalisation of submissions in the appeal.
At trial, Ms Justice Burns described the man as “a true predator”. She said he offered the victims an easy-going place of refuge and bribed them with money, cigarettes and jewellery.
Ms Justice Burns said he then “pounced and subjected them to his insidious sexual activity”. She said he was careful not to go too far and cause them to “abandon his lair”.
She said the case was aggravated by the age of the victims, the length of time over which the abuse occurred, the grooming of the girls, his lack of remorse, his previous convictions for sexual offending and his exploitation of the situations and vulnerabilities of the victims.
Ms Justice Burns said that in light of the fact that the case dealt with four separate victims, she had decided to impose consecutive sentences, which came to a total of seven years.