Drawn to the dark side

WORKING in the Central Criminal Court, I am aware of its highly-charged nature.

There are all kinds of emotions and this was certainly the case in Eamonn Lillis’s murder trial. He was accused of the murder of his wife, Celine Cawley.

A hushed silence enveloped the packed gallery each morning he entered. He adopted the same pose each day, sitting forward, appearing to write, or study and re-study notes — rarely raising his head. His disposition was one of calm and dignity. Eamonn Lillis was my first of many subjects.

He taught me that a subject in the dock is more than a collection of light and shadow shapes. One afternoon, while leaving the court after the jury retired, I entered the lift to descend to the ground floor of the courts. Its door re-opened before descent. Enter Eamonn Lillis and companion. Silence. Nearing the ground floor, the words ‘best of luck’ broke from my mouth. This enunciation was met with a hearty ‘thanks very much’ from a man who was later found guilty of the manslaughter of his wife.

I never regretted the micro-conversation, as it confirmed for me that no matter who the accused is, notwithstanding the terrible things they may have done and the misery he or she may have inflicted, each is a human. In order to treat faithfully the work that lay before me, I had to be conscious of this. My approach as a courtroom artist is based on constant, if even flippant, observation of my subjects. These are not confined to the accused, but include all who inhabit the courts — judges, lawyers, court staff, witnesses and Gardaí.

Many of these I meet over breakfast in the impressive court building in Parkgate Street. It is easy to identify who’s who. The barrister is gowned. Solicitors, detectives, witnesses and the accused all wear their best. Solicitors generally wear leather-soled shoes, but also wear the countenance of playing second fiddle to their in-law barristers.

Detectives are in throngs and wear street shoes. Debutant investigators often forget to remove the price from the soles of their new shoes. Common witnesses wear ill-fitting suits of clothes, from which they pinch dust. They are in awe of their surroundings, which gives them an aura of inelegance.

Expert witnesses waste no time, come and go without ceremony.

The accused is the most normal looking. The paedophile, the rapist, or the killer is most likely to ask to dine with you.

To draw in an often-frenzied environment, such as a murder trial, requires preparation. Much like a legal gladiator goes through his or her notes, my preparatory work is mental and physical fitness. My required fitness is achieved through running, at home in Kerry, and always by the sea — having enjoyed the interminable felicities of train travel between Dublin and Kerry.

Running on lonely Banna Strand — where I cross the footprints of Roger Casement — is the elixir that provides me with the equilibrium of mind and body to do what I love.

Enter a wiry, ginger-haired young man with an air of indifference to his surroundings, reminding me of many an inattentive young man I have had before me in my teaching. Beside him is a more attentive companion. Both are accused of the murder of two Polish men in Clondalkin, Dublin — stabbed to death with a screwdriver, each in the temple, death assured.

After half an hour or so, the ginger youth elbows his companion, drawing his attention to me. They both look away to avoid my study. Moments later, the companion on the right smiles at me and whispers if I am finished. The ginger youth is later given a double-life sentence for both murders — described by the presiding judge as ‘brutal and savage’. His companion is sentenced to four years for kicking one of the dying Polish men — in the words of Judge MacKechnie — showing ‘utter contempt for a fellow human’.

Sitting in the Court of Criminal Appeal is a woman. She could be any formidable Irish mother having arrived late for an appointment. She is rather dishevelled and the blonde hair truly looks like a shock. As I take a seat in my normal position in the court, about two metres or so from her, she studies me as much as I study her. She settles. I settle. I draw her.

She appears not very pleased that she is not presenting at her best. I note that she closes her eyes slowly and is in no rush to open them. Her defiant posture suits my work.

As I emerge from the court a journalist friend asks me ‘Did you get the evil eye?’ Was Catherine Nevin, murderer of her husband whose body was found, pen in hand, doing the accounts of their pub, really capable of giving anyone an ‘evil eye’?

One of the paradoxes of evil is that it can masquerade as completely benign. A typical Monday in the Central Criminal Court involves the listing of cases for mention, or for assignment to a hearing at a later date and often a sentencing. Sometimes, the accused appears only for a moment. A tall, distinguished-looking, even debonair gentleman emerges from a door into the dock of the Central Criminal Court. I sketch him within a minute; his lines are simple and strong.

As I turn over the page of my sketch-pad, I become vaguely conscious of Judge Carney’s voice addressing me from the altar of Court 6. Wigs turn, my pen halts.

He advises that I neither publish nor display this drawing. He acknowledges my work as continuing the age-old tradition of the court-artist. The man being sentenced has raped his children over many years and his identity is secret — so, too, remains my work.

In 1971, a young civil servant, Una Lynskey, is found murdered in the Dublin mountains. Almost 40 years later, Martin Conmey, having served his sentence for manslaughter, sits in the witness stand asserting his innocence.

I sit in the jury box — an unused sector of the Court of Criminal Appeal.

The gallery is made up of folk who have survived the tragedy. A royal legion of lawyers are in action before me. To my left are three judges sitting at a higher level. To my right is the gallery — a woman who has shared with me old yarns about the case smiles. The court overturns his conviction. It is gratifying to see justice in action. Not all my subjects who people the dock are true criminals.

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