Roy Webster argued provocation over killing of Anne Shortall

Loss of self-control must be total with provocation plea to secure manslaughter conviction

Roy Webster had argued that he was provoked into killing Anne Shortall, which is a partial defence available to accused in Irish law who plead that they "lost control" at the time of a killing.

A successful plea would have led to a manslaughter conviction. Murder convictions often lead to spending 17 years in jail. Manslaughter usually leads to sentences half as long .

To succeed , it is not enough for defendants to show that an accused lost their temper, or was drunk, or was simply provoked, though these can form elements of the plea.

The reaction cannot be tinged by calculation," the courts have said

Instead, the loss of self-control must be total; the reactions sudden and before there was time for passions to cool, the Irish courts have said in reviews of provocation law.

“The reaction cannot be tinged by calculation,” the courts have said. Evidence of premeditation can negate the partial defence of provocation.

David Bourke, who killed his wife Jeann Gilbert in their home in Castleknock, Co Dublin, in 2007, was convicted of murder despite a plea of provocation.

He had known that his wife wanted to leave him, and was angry. He took a knife with him from the kitchen into the room where he killed his wife in front of their children.

70c phone call

Zhen Dong Zhao killed Noel Fagan on Wellington Quay, Dublin, in 2011 after a row about a 70c phone call. A re-trial was ordered after he was convicted of murder. There, his manslaughter plea was accepted.

In Webster’s case, he said he killed Anne Shortall in a sudden frenzy because she was trying to blackmail him and had threatened to tell his wife about a sexual encounter.

Webster told the Garda that he met up with Shortall after he collected a book for his daughter from a bookshop; but till receipts and CCTV footage showed there was an hour and a half missing.

The footage showed that when meeting Shortall, his van had come not from the direction of the bookshop, but from the opposite direction. He never explained the missing 90 minutes.

CCTV after the killing shows he did not drive directly home. A bag and shoe belonging to his victim were never found, and there were drag marks on her buttocks. Again, this was never explained.

The prosecution said Webster showed little sign of remorse and stayed calm except when he was told Shortall was not pregnant. Detective Sergeant Fergus O’Brien said Webster said: “I fucking knew it.”

Court rulings

The way Ireland’s provocation law has developed by way of court rulings has raised concerns. Sixteen years ago, the Law Reform Commission argued that such defence must be examined more objectively.

In 2015 Mr Justice Donal O’Donnell of the Supreme Court said the lack of a legislative response to long-standing difficulties with the defence of provocation was “dispiriting”.

The defence was “potentially available in almost any hot-blooded killing”, where victims could be blamed for their own death. Pushed to extremes, it could defend “deeply offensive and truly inexcusable” conduct.

If society decides murder should be reserved only for deliberate, cold-blooded and calculating killings, and manslaughter is appropriate for all other killings even if intentional, then that “should be made clear”, he said.