ONE of the most dramatic and bizarre trials in Irish criminal history came to its conclusion yesterday when Sharon Collins, 45, was sentenced to six years in jail after being convicted of conspiracy to murder and for soliciting an Egyptian-born casino worker to kill her partner and his two sons.
The Central Criminal Court heard that Collins is continuing to protest her innocence against charges that she plotted to kill her partner of 10 years, Clare businessman PJ Howard and his two sons in order to inherit his wealth estimated at €60m.
The Ennis woman who used the alias “Lying Eyes” to arrange a contract killing via a “Hitman for Hire” website has also indicated she will lodge an appeal against her conviction.
Collins, a mother of two from Ballybeg House, Kildysart Rd, Ennis, Co Clare, was convicted on three charges of conspiracy to murder Mr Howard and his sons, Robert and Niall in 2006. At the end of a 32-day trial last July she was also found guilty on three separate counts of soliciting Las Vegas-based poker dealer Essam Eid to kill the three men.
Eid, 53, was also sentenced to six years in prison for his conviction for extortion after he was found guilty of demanding €100,000 with menace from Robert Howard on September 26, 2006, to call off the contract killing. He was also convicted on two counts of handling items stolen from Mr Howard’s premises at Westgate Business Park on the previous night. Eid was sentenced to one year in prison on both charges to run concurrently.
However, Eid was informed yesterday that he will not face a retrial on charges of conspiracy to murder after the jury in the original trial failed to reach a verdict on three counts of the offence.
Mr Howard yesterday dramatically voiced his continuing support for the woman who plotted to kill him and his sons, expressing disbelief in a victim impact statement that she would ever consider such a course of action.
He also rejected the allegations contained in the letter written to the RTÉ broadcaster and criticised the gardaí for not informing him about its contents.
Although Mr Howard’s sons sat along side him in Court No 2 yesterday, it is clear that relations between them are strained.
At about 4.45pm yesterday a brief look of relief crossed Collins’s face as she stood to hear the sentence imposed by Mr Justice Roderick Murphy. Under the Offences Against the Persons Act 1861, she could have faced a maximum jail sentence of 10 years for each separate conviction for conspiracy and soliciting.
Counsel for the DPP Tom O’Connell SC had reminded the judge that he could impose sentences to run consecutively as well as asking for terms of imprisonment “at the higher end of the scale”. The judge said he had taken into account the various pleadings as well as the fact that Collins had no previous convictions.
Consultant psychologist Brian Glanville, who carried out psychometric examinations of Collins twice in September, said she had a “passive, detached but dependent personality”, which could lead to conflicts in relationships, and said she craved security.
Mr Glanville said Collins showed a strong need for emotional support although she could also feel swamped or taken over by relationships. He also found evidence that she was suffering from anxiety with major signs of depression.
Collins had also claimed she had felt she had very little in common with other prison inmates, while she also blamed prison staff for leaking information about her to the media.
Character references in support of Collins from several family friends as well as the Bishop of Killaloe, Dr Willie Walsh, and the mayor of Ennis — Fianna Fáil councillor Peter Consodine were also read out in court.
Dr Walsh said he knew Collins as an “open, truthful, caring person”. The bishop said he was unable to make sense of the tragedy that had unfolded about her. Dr Walsh said he did not believe an extended custodial sentence for Collins could serve the common good or restorative justice.
Her counsel, Paul O’Higgins SC, also criticised some sensational coverage of the case by sections of the media.
Dressed in a dark blue suit and lilac blouse, Collins remained largely impassive throughout the hearing, only breaking down in tears as her partner professed his continuing faith in her in a faltering voice during his victim impact statement.
Her elderly mother, Bernadette Coote, who had sat in the courtroom for most of yesterday’s proceedings, separated from her daughter only by a female prison officer, was not present for the actual sentencing. Collins fidgeted nervously with a silver crucifix around her neck as she stood for 20 minutes as the judge outlined how he had reached his decision on sentencing.
As she learnt that she will face a total of six years in Mountjoy women’s prison, she received a gentle embrace from her younger son, David. Mr Howard and his two sons showed no emotion at the ruling.
Eid, who smiled jovially through most of the hearing, appeared more serious as he learnt that he too must face a total of six years in prison, although his term of imprisonment will be backdated to when he was first placed in custody in September 2006.
One of the few moments of humour yesterday came when Eid’s barrister, David Sutton, said that his client’s involvement in card games in Limerick Prison had slowed down after people became aware he was a poker dealer and he was now “playing more solitaire games”.
Outside the courtroom, Collins’s solicitor, Eugene O’Kelly, said she had taken great comfort from Mr Howard’s statement to the court.
“Ms Collins has been convicted by the jury and sentenced. More importantly she has been acquitted by her partner,” said Mr O’Kelly.
Supt John Scanlon of Ennis Garda Station said the case had been a long, difficult investigation but there was relief that nobody had lost their lives.
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