Graham Dwyer verdict: what made the case unique

Use of social media, the singlemindedness of Dwyer, and the care in selecting a victim were unusual aspects of the murder case

‘Keeping Graham Dwyer safe in custody will present a challenge to the authorities.’  Photograph: Cyril Byrne / THE IRISH TIMES

‘Keeping Graham Dwyer safe in custody will present a challenge to the authorities.’ Photograph: Cyril Byrne / THE IRISH TIMES

 

Much has been written about the supposedly unparalleled nature of the crime committed by Graham Dwyer. But the events that led to his conviction were not unique in terms of depravity.

Older Irish Times readers will recall the case of Shan Mohangi, a medical student and part-time chef, who killed his 16-year-old girlfriend and then dismembered her remains.

Some body parts were dumped and others were cooked to the point of disintegration in the ovens of the Green Tureen restaurant.

The body was so horribly mutilated that a cause of death could not be conclusively established.

Mohangi spent that night at his victim’s home having reported her missing. During the days that followed he assisted in the search effort and continued to work at the restaurant where he had butchered the body.

Convicted of murder, Mohangi was sentenced to death in 1964. But the conviction was overturned and he eventually served four years for manslaughter before being deported to South Africa where he became a successful businessman and politician. Nor was the Dwyer case unique in terms of the emotions it aroused among those who followed proceedings. Murder trials have always attracted crowds of onlookers, generated extensive media coverage, and excited commentary across all sectors of society.

When the victim and alleged perpetrator are people who have not previously come to the attention of the criminal justice system, the level of interest is heightened further.

The atmosphere created is reminiscent of the gruesome fascination that accompanied public executions.

There have always been adults who derived satisfaction from forms of psychological engagement and sexual activity that would be considered deviant by the majority.

The internet has allowed such individuals to find each other, to co-ordinate their behaviour and to redefine the boundaries of acceptable conduct.

In the late 1980s police in Manchester discovered videotapes that contained images of men being beaten, cut, branded and apparently tortured.

Investigations revealed that all were willing participants and none were seriously injured.

No coercion

The humiliating events that had taken place were recorded so that they could be replayed and enjoyed subsequently. Prosecutions and prison sentences followed despite the fact that no coercion was involved.

 

Before the arrival of the internet the orchestration of such activity required a high degree of determination to seek out potential partners and a certain amount of risk in terms of meeting strangers to explore the extent to which preferences were shared.

Now the preliminaries can be concluded swiftly and safely over computer screens, even if the parties live in different countries.

The internet facilitates contact between individuals whose extreme desires may otherwise have gone unrequited.

Nor was the Dwyer case unusual in that a man charged with murder declined to give evidence.

While the public may have wished to hear his version of events there is no obligation on any accused person to take the stand and to submit themselves to cross-examination.

To achieve a conviction the onus is on the prosecution to demonstrate guilt beyond reasonable doubt; the defence is not required to prove its client’s innocence.

Lasting more than eight weeks, this trial certainly was a marathon. It is an interesting fact that murder trials, and indeed jury deliberations, take much longer now than they did in the past.

The trial of Michael Manning, the last man hanged in Ireland, took three days and the jury concluded its business in three hours.

What makes the Dwyer case unusual is that the precursors to the crime were played out on social media and via text messaging.

This meant that they could be recovered afterwards and examined in their entirety.

It is difficult to recall a crime where so many of an individual’s sexual fantasies and morbid preoccupations had been chronicled and could be replayed to a wider audience than was ever intended.

What also makes the case unusual is the single-mindedness with which a goal was pursued. Most killings are impulsive, often fuelled by anger, alcohol, or a wish for retaliation.

Sometimes they occur in the context of a domestic relationship that has soured or in furtherance of a criminal enterprise such as robbery or rape.

It is very rare for murder to involve the degree of calculation revealed in this case, especially where there is no ulterior motive.

Suitable victim

A final distinguishing characteristic is the care that went into the selection of a suitable victim, someone whose weaknesses were known, whose desperate search for affection made her a target, and whose history of mental illness meant that her disappearance would almost certainly be attributed to suicide rather than homicide.

Having been convicted of murder the only option open to the judge is to pass a sentence of life imprisonment.

This does not mean that Dwyer is destined to spend the rest of his natural life in prison, although this could happen.

He may, of course, argue that he has been wrongfully convicted and launch an appeal, opening a new chapter in this saga.

Keeping Dwyer safe in custody will present a challenge to the authorities.

As a middle-aged, middle-class, professional man convicted of the sadistic murder of a lonely woman he will have little in common with other prisoners.

The early stages of a life sentence are turbulent at the best of times. It is likely that they will be even more so for the Foxrock architect. Dr Ian O’Donnell is professor of criminology at University College Dublin

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