Divisive Leitrim rape case raises questions about future trials

Concern that abuse victim faced in court will stop others coming forward

 

The commotion in Court 17 of the Criminal Courts of Justice seemed to end as soon as it began.

There was no reaction from the men themselves when Ms Justice Eileen Creedon sentenced each of them to seven years in prison for the rape of their former school mate at a house party three years ago.

In fact, at first there was little reaction from anyone in court aside from a quiet sobbing which gradually grew louder and louder as the consequence of the judge’s words settled in the minds of the men’s friends and family.

Her work done, the judge left the courtroom and the young men’s supporters began to gather around them as they sat in the defendants’ area.

The victim and her family had stood up and were beginning to file out when a female relative of one of the rapists began shouting: “Are you happy now?”

A younger woman then started shouting obscenities at the victim and told her: “You’re going to pay for this.”

There was no response. The victim, a woman in her early 20s, continued to quietly leave the courtroom. But the damage had been done.

At the end of an ordeal which began in 2017, she should have been relieved. Instead, according to sources, she was devastated and frightened.

Shocked

In the courtroom the men, who the judge noted came from “happy” and “stable” backgrounds, kissed their family members goodbye before being led away to begin their sentences. Their families then stood around, looked shocked and appearing unsure of what to do next.

The proceeding trial heard how the woman was raped by one of the men in a bedroom of a house. It was towards the end of a house party for local friends in their early 20s who all knew each other and all the other women had gone home.

Following the rape, the man told his friends in the kitchen he had just had “very kinky” sex with the woman before showing them the scrapes on his back he said she had inflicted on him.

A photo of his back was taken and shared on the Snapchat app along with the words “Does Freddie Kruger have a sister?”

The second defendant said that “he might go down and chance a blowjob”. He later returned to the kitchen and said that he’d also had sex with the woman. At about 5am the men began loudly joking about how to get the victim out of the flat.

Their lawyers suggested that when the woman had overheard these “immature laddish” conversations she was left feeling worthless and “there to be used”. They claimed that this caused the woman to view the events on the night in a different light that she believed was true but their clients steadfastly denied.

The woman said she feared the men might come back into the room. She texted her partner to pick her up and later went to a hospital emergency department and the Garda.

The trial heard graphic details of an intimate medical examination which found injuries to her genital area and her throat. A nurse testified these injuries could be consistent with consensual sex but there was a higher probability it was non-consensual where there were genital injuries.

The facts of the cases are shocking but by no means unusual compared to the dozens of other rape trials which are heard every year in Irish courts. However, the verbal abuse meted out to the victim afterwards, brief as it was, caused a public outcry and was condemned by rape crisis and victims’ groups.

‘Innocent lives’

Closer to home in Leitrim, the reaction was less straightforward. In January, around the time the two men were first due to be sentenced, a “two blue hearts” campaign circulated on social media, with people urged to share or like the hearts to demonstrate support for the two defendants. The blue hearts started to circulate online again after Monday’s hearing.

When local radio Ocean FM reported the conclusion of the case on its Facebook page, some responded with two blue hearts in the comments section.

Other responses were more direct and shocking in their contempt for the young woman . “What goes around comes around,” said one. Another said she had “ruined two innocent lives”.

There were other messages from people worried about the woman’s welfare. One wrote that there was “too much hate”. The report and the comments were subsequently removed by the station.

The community is divided on the case, locals say. “People are afraid to say anything because you don’t know who you are talking to,” explained one person.

He said some people believe the woman while others believe that the two defendants are innocent and, in a small community where people know all the families connected to the case, it is highly sensitive.

A young mother from the area said she was deeply upset about the case and that it made her worried for her own daughters.

“Obviously she thought she could trust these guys if she went to school with them. I started to think about my own daughters. It is a lesson. You’d think lads they know from school would look out for them.”

She said she believed the woman in the Leitrim case and, while there was online commentary she could not bear to read, there were also people posting “I believe her” too.

Another local said it was outrageous that any woman would endure such abuse in a court room after a conviction. “Why would any woman come forward with an allegation?”

Abuse of victims in courtrooms, even at the end of contested trials, is thankfully rare. One reason is victims are usually seated on the opposite side of the court, surrounded by gardaí and support workers and out of the eyeline of the accused.

As the Leitrim case demonstrates, when abuse does occur it is most likely to come from defendants’ supporters rather than the accused themselves.

“In most cases the client is in a kind of shock and is trying to process what happened. It’s from the back of the court where the emotional stuff usually emanates,” one experienced criminal barrister said.

Abuse

This was seen following the conviction of Boy A and Boy B for the murder of 14-year-old Ana Kriegel last year. When the verdict was handed down, the father of Boy B shouted “bunch of scumbags” and asked those in court if they were proud of their “victory”.

Anecdotal evidence suggests victims, especially victims of sex crime, are far more likely to receive abuse when back in their community. Sometimes this comes from family or friends of the accused and sometimes from the accused themselves. This was seen following the 2007 conviction of Adam Keane for rape of a woman in Co Clare.

Keane received a suspended sentence and ended up on the same train home as his victim where he flicked a cigarette towards her. He was brought back before the court and his suspended sentence was activated.

This type of abuse has a devastating impact on victims and their recovery but it can also have far wider implications.

David Madden, chief executive officer of Sligo Rape Crisis Centre, says he is worried what happened at the end of last Monday’s sitting could deter other victims from coming forward.

“That kind of thing would deter some people from taking cases. That woman has been going through this for 2½ years and remember there is a conviction rate of just 16per cent in these cases.”

While murder and other lesser crimes are regarded as “cut and dried” once a conviction was secured, he says, “oddly enough with sexual violence it is often up for debate even after a conviction”.