Tension in McAreavey trial over CCTV footage

 

IT WAS a haunting image. For the past month, courtroom number five has homed in on the most minute details of Michaela McAreavey’s final days.

The court has seen her holiday photos. It has heard of the plans she and her husband John made for her honeymoon and retraced her every movement around the Legends Hotel complex.

Even the bikini she wore on the day she died has been displayed and discussed in court.

And yet it came as a jolt yesterday when the lights were dimmed, the room fell silent and the makeshift screen was filled with soundless video footage of a young couple just strolling about, oblivious.

He was well-built, with short hair and a slight limp. His T-shirt was red, his shorts cream, his sandals white. She was dark-haired, smaller, with loose three-quarter length trousers and a striped top. In her hand was a water bottle – it was the hot season in Mauritius back then, of course.

The footage was taken at the entrance to the hotel spa just before 11am on January 9th last year – the day before Michaela was killed. It showed the couple chatting to a staff member for a few minutes before walking right under the camera and out of the frame. There can’t have been a person in the courtroom who didn’t recognise them.

In the first row of the public gallery, John McAreavey had stood up and leaned forward so he could see the screen, but he couldn’t watch. Less than a minute after the first images appeared, he made for the door, his sister Claire not far behind.

It was a dramatic day in court, but it has rarely been more sombre. The crowds were bigger than at any day since the trial began in mid-May – there must have been more than 200 people crammed into the stuffy courtroom – but once they had sprung through the crush at the door, they fell quiet.

Two more clips were shown – both recorded by a camera overlooking the main reception desk at Legends. The first, filmed at 3.15pm on the day of the killing, showed a well-built, bare-chested man in shorts and sandals approach the desk and speak to a receptionist. He waited for about 50 seconds before leaving the frame. Would he agree that this was John McAreavey, defence lawyer Rama Valayden asked Yoosoof Soopun, the head of the serious crime unit that led the murder inquiry.

“Yes. There is no doubt about it,” the officer replied.

Then came the third piece of footage – the one that caused all the debate.

Recorded at 3.02pm on the day of the killing, it showed a man and woman approach the hotel reception and talk to a staff member. He was wearing shorts and sandals – not the same ones as in the previous clip – and she was in a bikini. The woman looked upset – she appeared to push away tears at one moment – and the man’s pose suggested he was placating or comforting her.

Note the time. In court this week, the doctor who carried out the postmortem put the time of death at between 2.30pm and 3pm.

According to the prosecution’s case, Michaela was already dead at 3.02pm. At 3.15pm, we know, John turned up at reception.

And now, as Judge Fecknah interpreted it, the defence was claiming that the couple who showed up at reception at 3.02pm were John and Michaela.

As this footage of the couple at reception played, John and his brother-in-law Mark Harte exchanged brief smiles in the public gallery.

So was it John and Michaela or not? “I am 100 per cent sure that the couple found at the reception at 15.02 is not the McAreavey couple and I am able to confirm it,” said Mr Soopun.

The couple, he said, were Harald Hoyer and Savarese Graziella, Germans who were on holiday at Legends at the same time.

But defence lawyer Mr Valayden kept pressing. What room were the German couple in? When did they leave the hotel? What height were they?

It grew so tense between the two legal teams that the judge was forced to adjourn at one point to take the heat out of it. “I know this is a moment when there is a lot of tension, but everybody please calm down,” he said.

This latest dispute will take time to tease out. Come Monday morning there will be more CCTV footage, more documentation and more people to give evidence.

The trial was to have taken two weeks. Now six looks optimistic.

When the judge adjourned for yet another weekend, John McAreavey brought his forehead to rest on the wooden bench in front of him and shut his eyes tight.