A SOLITARY magpie landed on a tree outside Court No 6 as Eamonn Lillis listened to a synopsis of the evidence heard during his trial for the unlawful killing of his wife, Celine Cawley.
As metaphors go, the bird’s symbolism was striking with its sorrowful resonance as well as its association with freedom and the loss of such freedom that Lillis will suffer after being found guilty of his wife’s manslaughter.
The bird was the only sign of life outside the futuristic, yet soulless, Criminal Courts of Justice complex for the entire duration of the 80-minute hearing, as Mr Justice Barry White postponed sentencing for a 24-hour period given the complexity of the competing arguments for long and short terms of imprisonment.
The magpie was also a bitter reminder that the tragic events of December 15, 2008, had their origin (based on Lillis’s own evidence) in a seemingly innocuous row over his failure to put out winter feed for birds in the back garden.
Not that the 52-year-old TV advertising director was aware of the bird’s presence as he stared into the middle-distance from his own isolated perch near the front of the large courtroom.
Resting his head on his right hand, occasionally stroking his chin, Lillis bore a slightly dazed look as he began to realise the full impact of the fate awaiting him. At one stage, he briefly appeared red-eyed as reference was made to his daughter and the future she faces on the cusp of adulthood without either of her parents.
An air of sadness and a sense of loss hung over the Central Criminal Court yesterday as the tension which had dominated proceedings over the previous three weeks had largely evaporated since the jury returned its manslaughter verdict last Friday.
In certain respects, it was a time for reflection on the life of Celine Cawley, one beyond the lazy media labelling of her as a former Bond girl and model. The characterisation of the victim as a hard-nosed businesswoman which had emerged during the trial was largely derived from what Lillis’s barrister, Brendan Grehan described as “provocative questioning” of his client by gardaí. He pointed out that such descriptions were never supported or suggested by his client. “Contrary to what was reported she was neither a bully nor a tyrant. She was a loving wife as well as a strong and talented businesswoman,” said Mr Grehan on behalf of Lillis. “That she is no longer in his life is something he will always regret.”
The image of the dead woman as a tough, uncompromising individual in both her private and professional lives was also not the person described by her sister, Susanna, in a moving victim impact statement read on her behalf by counsel for the DPP, Mary Ellen Ring.
She recalled Celine as “good- humoured, roguish, fun, compassionate and caring” as well as being a loving mother, aunt and godmother who always bought “age appropriate presents” and got as much delight as her young relatives in the exchange of such gifts.
Susanna spoke eloquently of the enduring pain of not knowing the exact circumstances of how her beloved sister died and her family’s sense of betrayal by Lillis’s attempt to blame a bogus intrude as well as his failure to offer any sign of remorse.
The statement also quoted the Take That hit Rule the World in how “all the stars are coming out tonight. They’re lighting up the sky tonight. For you”.
Even the usually stony-faced barrister became emotional and her voice appeared to crack as she concluded with Susanna’s observation: “We will struggle on. We will do as you would have wanted. Thank God for having known you.”
The contents of a similar victim impact statement submitted by the couple’s only child was not read out in court, although thoughts of the 17-year-old student (who cannot be named for legal reasons) were equally central to yesterday’s hearing.
Reference was also made to how Lillis had contributed to his own fate by lying about a mystery intruder who had attacked Celine, most damningly by naming an innocent third party as the likely culprit.
Mr Justice White also took care to note that Lillis had always maintained he had no involvement in his wife’s death and that no plea of manslaughter had ever been offered to the DPP.
In his favour, two old friends from his student days at UCD, Gerry Kennedy and Siobhán Cassidy, provided character references with their descriptions of the Terenure man as a kind, considerate gentleman who was a wonderful godfather to their children.
“I know he misses Celine and from conversations he would do anything to have her back,” said Mr Kennedy. “Ms Cassidy recalled the obvious love between Lillis and his daughter during a recent meeting”
Towards the end of the hearing, Mr Justice White with no little understatement remarked that the decision on what sentence to hand down to Lillis was not easy, unlike many other cases.
Media coverage of the trial was criticised by both the prosecution and defence legal team’s with one Garda admitting that Lillis had been “plagued” by photographers and “chased up the road” over the past week as he signed on at his local Garda station in Howth while out on bail.
The court heard that he had also been followed while bringing his daughter to a riding school and visiting the city centre with his sister in his last week of freedom.
Susanna Cawley also complained of how her dead sister’s funeral had turned into a “media circus”.
Mr Grehan noted pointedly adverse publicity constitutes some form of punishment.
Indeed, the lives of both the Cawley and Lillis families have been changed utterly by the events of December 15, 2008, with the additional burden for the central characters, including Lillis’s mistress, Jean Treacy, that they will probably be forced to live to out a large portion of their lives in the unrelenting glare of the media.
All in all, a very modern tragedy.
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