It was perhaps the moment that most crystallised matters. Scenes of crime examiner, Det Garda Stephen Dennehy was in the witness box and just outlined what he had found at the scene of the murder of two-year-old Santina Cawley.
Prosecution counsel, Sean Gillane SC asked him to confirm some exhibits found there. The detective garda opened a brown paper evidence bag and took out a small pink sequined top. “Age 12-18 months,” he said as he held it up and showed it to the jury. There was a momentary silence as everyone eyed the small sparkly top and absorbed its significance - Santina was so tiny.
Other moments during the trial of Karen Harrington for the murder of Santina at her apartment at Elderwood Park on the Boreenamanna Road in Cork on July 5th, 2019 emphasised the child's tiny frame like when Sgt Brian Teahan told how he could only use two fingers rather than his entire hand to perform CPR on the little girl.
But it was Det Garda Dennehy holding up the tiny sparkly top, evoking images of the auburn-haired toddler smiling out of photographs, innocent of the fate that was to befall her, that seemed to strike a chord with those in court including Harrington herself, who could be seen mopping tears from her eyes as she sat in the dock, just yards from the garda holding up the piece of clothing.
It immediately triggered the question - how did Karen Harrington, a 38-year-old woman with no history of violence, whom the court heard effectively acted as a parent from the age of 15 to raise her three younger sisters during a family crisis when her mother took ill, find herself on trial for arguably the most unconscionable of all crimes - the murder of a child?
It’s a question many in Mahon, where Harrington grew up, have asked over the past three years since she was first charged with the murder and it’s a question many in the largely working-class community of 20,000 in the south-eastern corner of Cork city, are likely to ask again this week as Harrington begins a life sentence for the murder.
“It’s a hard one to fathom,” said one local “A lot of people were shocked when they first heard Karen was being charged with the murder of a child because they couldn’t believe it - she would have been well known in the area as a child minder - her own family background would have been somewhat dysfunctional but she overcame that to get work babysitting and child minding.”
That picture of Harrington as someone cast in the role of a parent, bringing up her younger siblings at the family home in Ravensdale Road in the heart of Mahon, was one that chimed with the image painted in court by her younger sister, Michelle that it was not in Karen’s nature to be mean to a child, let alone harm or worse again, murder a child.
Family friend, Yvonne Walsh, whom Harrington called to on the morning of the murder after she left her apartment where Santina was found unresponsive, painted a similar picture. She told how she knew Harrington from the time she was a child and that apart from her own mother, Harrington was the only one she would ever trust to mind her own daughter when she was growing up.
Back in Mahon, the local observed: “People are still shocked by it all - hearing all about the injuries Santina suffered, it would seem she was the victim of a frenzied attack - as if Karen just lost it. Now Karen wasn’t one to put up with crap from people but anyone who knew her growing up here in Mahon would say they never saw her lose it to the point of getting violent - at least not publicly.”
That view of Harrington as being someone who was good with children was endorsed by Santina's father, Michael Cawley. Originally from Ennis in Co Clare, he married Bridget O'Donoghue from Blackpool in Cork in 2006 and the couple settled locally. They began a family with Candice, Michael Jnr, Patrick, and Thomas all arriving before Santina was born on May 6th, 2017.
The couple separated in March 2018. Cawley had been looking after two of the boys but when Santina suffered a broken femur while with Bridget, the two boys returned to live with their mother and Cawley began caring for Santina at his flat at Leeside Apartments on Grattan St in the city centre. “It was a privilege to look after Santina and I always wanted her in my life,” he told the trial.
Harrington told gardaí she first met Cawley by chance on MacCurtain St in Cork city centre in December 2018 following his split from Santina’s mother and they began a relationship. He often stayed over with Santina at her apartment in Elderwood. “We grew close, and I was just getting to know him,” she told gardaí in one interview following her arrest for questioning.
Cawley painted a similarly positive picture of Harrington when asked how she got on with Santina. “I could never say anything bad about Karen - she got on good with Santina and Santina would have gotten on with her - I thought it would be okay to leave Santina with Karen - I had left her with Karen a few times and there was never a problem - I trusted Karen.”
That picture of a harmonious relationship between Michael Cawley and his daughter and his new partner was reinforced by evidence at the trial from Harrington’s sister, Michelle who told how, when Santina suffered the fracture to her femur while with her mother in April 2019, it was her sister, Karen Harrington who went to the hospital with the infant for her appointments.
So where did it all go wrong - and why?
The relationship between Harrington and Cawley seemed fine on the afternoon of July 4th 2019 when he came with Santina and collected Harrington in his gold-coloured Ford Mondeo and dropped her into Cork city centre where she visited a casino on MacCurtain Street before going to visit her grandmother and later calling to her friend, Martina Higgins.
The two women, together with Higgins' youngest son went to the Atlantic Pond near Páirc Uí Chaoimh where they began drinking before they were joined by Michael Cawley and his daughter who went to collect some drink from Aldi and all five returned to Higgins' apartment at Elderwood Drive where Harrington, Cawley and Higgins were drinking in an open area out the back.
The catalyst for what happened appears to have been a row between Cawley and Harrington when he mentioned that his cousin was down from Limerick and was going to call to see him. Cawley indicated he would like for his cousin to stay with them at Harrington's duplex apartment at Elderwood Park only for Harrington to refuse, prompting a torrent of abuse from Cawley.
Cawley himself told the court he had no recollection of calling Harrington a succession of names but both Martina Higgins and her partner, Eric Okonula gave an almost identical account of what transpired when Cawley took issue with Harrington's refusal to contemplate allowing his cousin stay with them at her apartment.
Higgins said the mood at the party was good until Harrington refused to allow Cawley’s cousin to stay whereupon Cawley, who had also been drinking, got rowdy and shouted at Harrington that she was happy to fraternize with “Pakis in the casino” while she was unwilling to allow his cousin to stay, and he began calling her “a whore and a prostitute” - testimony corroborated by Okonula.
According to Higgins, Harrington got very upset and left but not before Cawley asked her - unsuccessfully - to take Santina with her. “Karen got annoyed - she got up and walked out ,” said Higgins.
One of the interesting aspects of the garda murder investigation was the use of CCTV footage and it quickly became evident during the trial what a central role the harvesting and examination of over 300 hours of CCTV from around 70 locations in Cork city would play in proving the prosecution case against Harrington.
Among the locations from where Det Garda Pat Russell and his colleague, Det Garda Maurice O'Connor obtained CCTV footage was a camera at the rear of a private house at the nearby Clanrickarde Estate which captured the third and fourth story entrances to Harrington's duplex.
Elderwood was a private development built around the mid-2000s consisting of over 100 housing units of which 33 per cent were given over to social housing.
In 2016, Harrington, who was on Cork City Council’s housing list, moved into a duplex apartment on the third and fourth floor of Elderwood Park. One of her younger sisters, Janice, who was also on the council’s housing list, also obtained a duplex apartment on the same floor. Some of their neighbours owned their apartments privately while others had been accommodated by the council.
There were two entrances to Harrington’s apartment - one off the concrete gangway on the third floor and one off the wooden walkway on the fourth floor and both were captured by the camera at the back of the house in Clanrickarde.
It was this camera that was to prove critical to the garda investigation, enabling officers to confirm Harrington returned from Higgins’ apartment on Elderwood Drive to her apartment at Elderwood Park on her own at 1.36am. In her statement to gardaí she said she fell asleep on the couch only to be woken sometime after 3am when Cawley returned with Santina.
Significantly, Det Garda Donal Daly was able to tell the trial from studying the CCTV footage on the entrances to Harrington's apartment that she returned to the apartment at 1.36am and did not leave again until approximately 5.09 am - a key piece of evidence that was to prove critical to the prosecution case against Harrington.
Another camera confirmed Cawley leaving Higgins’ apartment at 3.01am and the Clanrickarde camera confirmed Cawley returned to Harrington’s apartment at 3.06am while it also showed him leaving just over four minutes later when he discovered he had left his phone at Higgins’ apartment, setting off on a mission that ultimately took him into Cork city centre in search of his cousin.
While Cawley was in Harrington’s apartment for just over four minutes, it appears that brief encounter may have contributed to what later unfolded that morning with Harrington telling gardaí they had a row over “small stuff - couples’ stuff” before Cawley set off on his travels that saw him leave his daughter alone with Harrington for just under two hours.
By the time he returned at 5.08am, gardaí had been called to Elderwood by neighbour, Dylan Olney after he became worried when he heard Harrington shouting and a crying child. Olney did not mention the child crying in his call to gardaí so when gardaí David Tobin and Mark Leonard called at 4.56am and got no response, they left advising him to contact them if there was any further trouble.
And so it fell to Cawley returning to Harrington’s apartment at 5.08am to make the grim discovery. He told how he found Santina lying under a blanket on the floor and when he lifted the blanket, he saw it was spattered with blood and Santina was naked and unresponsive with injuries on her face and body.
“Santina did not look right in the face ... there was a bruise on the left side of her forehead- I checked her pulse, she was warm, I tried to speak to her. I was down on my knees - ‘Santina, please, Santina, please say something, please’ but she wasn’t responding.”
Cawley, who had broken down in the witness box when shown CCTV footage of himself with Santina in Aldi earlier in the evening, told how he turned to Harrington and asked her what happened to his daughter. “It was the shock of my life - finding my daughter was a terrible shock,” he said under cross examination.
‘My baby’s dead’
He handed Santina to Harrington, who promptly handed the child back to him before leaving the apartment. He emerged on to the walkway - again caught on CCTV - some 49 seconds after returning to the apartment to tell Olney to call an ambulance. Olney told how Cawley came out of the apartment, crying “My baby’s dead, my baby’s dead.”
A trained paramedic, Sgt Bryan Teahan was one of the first gardaí on the scene. He performed CPR before fire brigade personnel gave her oxygen and HSE paramedics rushed her to Cork University Hospital. Distraught, Cawley walked to the hospital. Bridget was there ahead of him. Despite the best efforts of medics, Santina died in Bridget's arms at 9.20am.
The first garda into the apartment to discover Santina lifeless, Garda David Tobin declared it a crime scene and over the next three days, garda forensic officers recovered several items of evidence including tufts of Santina’s hair, her pink top and leggings, an earring and a pair of pyjama leggings with several blood stains belonging to Harrington.
Gardaí moved quickly once they realised they were looking at a possible murder and an inquiry team under Det Insp Danny Coholan was launched involving up to 90 officers pursuing over 450 separate lines of inquiry and taking of over 320 witness statements.
Det Insp Coholan and his team began looking at possible scenarios and their focus initially was on trying to establish the veracity of Cawley’s account of his moments on the night, including that he had walked all the way into Cork city centre from Elderwood and was gone for almost two hours, returning to discover Santina injured.
Det gardaí Russell and O’Connor set about examining CCTV footage from a combination of private houses and commercial premises along the route Cawley said he took that night. They began tracking his movements from the time he left the Elderwood complex at 3.16am until he returned there at 5.07am and entered Harrington’s apartment a minute later and found his daughter unresponsive. It soon became clear to gardaí Cawley’s account of his movements on the night was accurate.
What was also of significance to gardaí was the fact that the clothing Cawley was wearing on the night, which he had handed over to Det Garda Brian Maher when he returned from CUH after learning Santina died, showed no trace of her blood which again supported the garda belief that Cawley could be safely excluded as a suspect.
In addition to looking at CCTV records, Det Insp Coholan and his team also began looking at mobile phone activity, identifying calls that Harrington made at various stages of the night to her sister, Michelle and to another resident of the complex, Aoife Niamh McGaley who was one of several residents who were to prove crucial in the State piecing together the possible sequence of events that night.
McGaley told gardaí and the trial how, around 3am, she heard arguing between a man and a woman and although voices were somewhat muffled, she recognised one of the voices as belonging to Harrington - whom she had known since she was a teenager - screaming ‘I’m going to tell them’, and she also heard a glass breaking.
She went to the door of Harrington’s apartment on the fourth floor and began banging but got no answer even though she was shouting for Harrington as she was concerned for her safety, so she raced down a floor to the door on the third floor and began kicking the door and heard someone she thought sounded like Harrington very upset inside.
“Karen came to the door and said from inside the door ‘Is it the guards? and I told her it was me and she opened the door - she looked very distressed and upset … she was quieter in herself, and she kept apologising and she said ‘I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean to be shouting and causing trouble, I’m going to bed now’.”
However, it appears Harrington did not go to bed as sometime shortly before 4.31am when he ended up ringing the gardaí because of concerns, Harrington’s immediate next-door neighbour, Dylan Olney also heard commotion coming from Harrington’s apartment.
He told how he heard “a commotion like someone throwing a fit or a tantrum, throwing stuff around” before he heard Harrington slamming and opening the sliding door. He got up and confronted her, saying “Listen, you f**king dingbat, you better stop that, or I will call the guards”.
Olney told how Harrington went downstairs to the garden area and he could hear her shouting at him to call the gardaí. “She was like someone possessed … I was a bit creeped out by it, she was acting weird, she was acting crazy,” he said before revealing Harrington then turned up at his door looking for a cigarette, but he refused to give her one. He locked his door.
“The next thing I heard a child crying - just a child crying coming from next door …. I did not think a child should be crying in that kind of a situation. I could hear voices, I could hear taunting - ‘Poor baby, are you alright?’. He said the effect of the taunting was to make the child worse. “That is not how to comfort a crying child - it is the opposite ‘Aw poor baby’, sarcastic and then ‘Shut up’.”
Gardaí took statements from several other witnesses in the complex such as Brian Luttrell and Philip Slyne who also confirmed hearing a woman roaring and shouting around this time while witnesses, Martin McSweeney and Georgina Fogarty told how they saw Harrington go down the stairs with a green bottle in her hand, shouting and roaring and she appeared drunk to them.
If CCTV and phone records along with door-to-door interviews and witness statements formed two planks of the State's case, the third plank for Det Insp Cohohan and his team was the forensic evidence gathered by Det Garda Dennehy and his colleagues in the scenes of crime unit and the testimony of forensic scientists, Dr Sibeal Waldron and Dr Jennifer Ryan and pathologist, Dr Margaret Bolster.
Dr Waldron told the jury she found five separate blood stains on the leg of a pair of pyjama bottoms belonging to Harrington and four of these contained DNA belonging to Harrington while the fifth contained DNA belonging to Santina. Tufts of hair found on a couch also belonged to Santina and Dr Ryan said they clearly had been pulled out forcefully from the child's head.
Det Garda Dennehy told defence counsel, Brendan Grehan SC under cross-examination that the kitchen area of Harringrton’s apartment with its upended chairs, broken glass and spatters of blood made for a relatively easy interpretation but the adjacent living room area where Santina was found lying on a blanket or a duvet in the middle of the floor did not lend itself to easy interpretation.
But if Det Garda Dennehy was struggling to explain the pattern in the living room, he was abundantly clear in what perhaps was his most sobering evidence - he had catalogued Santina's injuries and found she had 49 external injuries and four internal ones, which consultant paediatrician, Prof Deirdre Murray described in a statement read to the jury, as "devastating."
If fell to Assistant State Pathologist, Dr Margaret Bolster, to outline in detail the nature of Santina’s injuries. She listed and described injuries found on the body of the infant, whom she said was 47 cms tall and weighed 10.3kgs.
“These are not accidental but are forcefully inflicted injuries,” said Dr Bolster after cataloguing a long list of injuries sustained by Santina including complex fractures to her skull with displacement of bone, two fractured ribs and fractures to her right arm and end of her left thigh as well as extensive bruising to Santina’s forehead, side of her face, lower jaw, arms, hands and feet.
Cross-examined by Grehan, Dr Bolster said Santina would have fallen into a coma as soon as she suffered the extensive head injuries.
Following Dr Bolster’s evidence, the prosecution case moved into its final phase - memos of interviews Harrington gave to gardaí on July 8th and July 9th at Gurranebraher Garda Station following her arrest.
Prosecution counsel Sean Gillane SC read the five memos to the jury but it was the playing of a video recording of the fifth and final interview that proved perhaps the most revealing, giving a good insight into Harrington in the course of a highly emotional exchange with Det Garda Dave Noonan and Det Garda Brian Maher in the presence of her solicitor, Eddie Burke.
Clumps of hair
Harrington repeatedly broke down, particularly when she was shown and asked to comment on photos from the crime scene which gardaí had pinned to the wall of the interview room.
In between tears, Harrington began her account of what she said happened that night: “I think I fell asleep. I had an argument with Michael. Santina was crying. I remember she was roasting, taking off her clothes, laying her down in the blanket and I was just lying on the sofa. I remember Michael is standing in front of me with the child.”
“It is 100 per cent true, I did fall asleep,” insisted Harrington until Det Garda Noonan challenged her, pointing out gardaí had statements from McGaley and Olney that they spoke to her after Cawley left, phone records that she rang her sister and statements from Luttrell, Slyne, Fitzgerald and Foley that they heard her shouting and roaring and slamming the sliding door open and shut.
Harrington broke down when gardaí showed her photos of the clumps of hair they found on a couch and asked her about it. “I see Santina’s hair, the same colour hair on the sofa in my living room - it looks like the colour of her hair, auburn,” said Harrington in the tears before making her way to a dustbin to throw up.
Harrington told Det gardaí Noonan and Maher she was unable to explain how Santina’s pink sequined top was found to have tear marks at either side of the neck, or how Santina’s nappy was found inside her pyjama leggings rather than on the child as she claimed. “I don’t know - I am sick,” she replied.
Harrington had a similarly distraught reaction when Det Garda Noonan asked her about the blood found on a pair of her pyjama leggings and analysed by Dr Waldron to reveal four of the five blood stains were her own blood, but the fifth blood stain was found to be the blood of the dead child.
“Don’t tell me it’s Santina blood …. I can’t explain it, I can’t explain it,” said Harrington, adding she had no recollection of changing her blood-stained-pyjama leggings that night, much as she had no recollection of what happened in the apartment. “I have no answers, I have no answers, it’s frightening,” she told interviewing gardaí.
Pressed on the fact CCTV footage showed her coming back to the apartment on her own and Cawley returning with Santina at 3.06am and leaving on his own at 3.10am and returning at 5.08am, Harrington conceded she was alone in the apartment with Santina, whom she agreed was uninjured when Cawley left.
‘Ranting and raving’
She conceded Santina was in hysterics and was crying but she said any noise anyone heard was from her argument with Cawley when he returned to the flat shortly after 3am. “I was roaring and shouting because I had an argument with Michael - I was ranting and raving to myself after he left,” she said.
Asked about Olney’s statement that he heard her shouting and taunting Santina, Harrington said: “I had no reason to taunt the child”. She re-iterated she had no recollection of what happened to Santina. “I don’t know what happened - I have no recollection of what happened, I wouldn’t harm a child, like … I did not cause any injury to Santina, I did not cause any injury to anyone, I know 100 per cent I would not hurt any child.”
She said she could not have killed the child because she had never harmed a child in her life and could never harm a child.
It was clear from the recording Harrington was shocked and horrified at what had happened to Santina but it was as if she was willing to go some of the way every time gardaí presented her with incontrovertible proof - that she was alone with Santina, that Santina’s blood was found on her pants - but she could not take the final step and admit to herself the horror of what she had done.
The memos of interview and the recording brought the prosecution case to a close after 10 days of evidence but the case took a somewhat surprising turn on the 11th day when Grehan announced his client wanted to address the court. He called Harrington to the witness box.
Grehan asked her what she wanted to tell the court and she replied succinctly “That I did not murder Santina Cawley”. When he asked her if that had always been her position since she was first arrested and questioned by gardaí, Harrington confirmed it was. Her direct evidence lasted less than a minute.
Gillane then began his cross-examination. He was finished in less than 15 minutes, confining his questioning to seeking to elicit from Harrington an admission that she was alone with Santina in her apartment for a period and that Santina’s injuries could not have been the result of an accident but were instead forcefully inflicted.
“Who did?” began Gillane, picking up on Harrington’s denial to Grehan that she killed Santina .
“Who did - I can’t answer that,” said Harrington.
To further questions, she said: “I can recall back when I vision Santina, I don’t see any bruises or injuries or blood or anything like that”. She disagreed with Gillane when he put it to her the injuries sustained by Santina were sustained when the child was with her and with her alone in the apartment.
Harrington said she did not know what happened to Santina as she was asleep between 3am and 5am but when Gillane put it to her if Olney’s evidence that he heard Santina crying and Harrington taunting her sometime just before 4.30am, was correct, then clearly Santina was alive and Harrington was awake.
"Mr Olney used a word that he could not have known how true it was to describe what happened when the gardaí called just before 5am - he said there was a dead silence - it is not a metaphor, there was literally a dead silence at that point because of what you did to Santina." Harrington simply shook her head in denial.
‘Soaked to the neck in the evidence’
Over the course of the 14-day trial in Courtroom No 6 at Anglesea Street Courthouse, some expressed surprise Harrington had not opted for some mental health defence of diminished responsibility to try and avoid a conviction for murder.
But as Grehan observed in his closing remarks to the jury, Harrington was not offering a defence of provocation or diminished responsibility and it is understood her instructions to her legal team were clear not to go down that route or indeed exploring the possibility of offering a manslaughter plea. Her position was clear and consistent from the outset - she did not murder Santina Cawley.
In his summing up Gillane acknowledged he had no eyewitness to the murder of Santina Cawley but the evidence was still strong. “In this case, Karen Harrington is like somebody walking between the raindrops, convincing herself she is not getting wet and the only person she is convincing is herself and the raindrops are evidence and she stands drenched, soaked to the neck in the evidence,” he said.
Grehan, in contrast, focused more on legal principles. “What Karen Harrington has on her side are the principles of law that protect not just Karen Harrington but all us, the principle of the presumption of innocence - she enjoys that protection and can only lose it if the prosecution can persuade you that she is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.”
Throughout the trail, despite occasional moments when she became upset in the dock Harrington seemed strangely detached from proceedings, notwithstanding her clutching a folder of documents and sometimes making notes of what witnesses were saying.
In the end, the jury of seven men and four women took four hours and 46 minutes to find her guilty of the murder of Santina Cawley.
But after hearing evidence from over 40 witnesses, is it any clearer what exactly happened to Santina and why? The closest to an explanation came from Harrington herself when she was asked by Det Garda Noonan about what the evidence was saying and she replied, “This all says to me that I went mad.”