Her comment on the death of her mother, Celine Cawley in December 2008 and the subsequent arrest of her father for his wife’s murder pulled at the heartstrings of all those present in Court 19 yesterday.
The appearance of the young woman made for the most poignant and heart-rending moment of the eight-day-old trial – especially as it came via video link.
Nervous, yet clearly anxious to be helpful, the fresh-faced student looked like any other girl of her age, giving off a simultaneous air of both self-confidence and vulnerability.
Under Irish law, witnesses under 18 years of age are able to give evidence via a video link in order to enable them avoid the emotional trauma which they could face if compelled to take the witness stand in the highly charged atmosphere of a courtroom during a criminal trial.
Allowing Lillis’s daughter to give evidence via video link ensured the only people she could see on camera were the trial judge, Mr Justice Barry White; prosecution barrister, Mary Ellen Ring SC; and defence counsel, Brendan Grehan SC, who had all removed their wigs and gowns to further lessen any sense of intimidation felt by the witness.
Unlike with other witnesses during the trial when he kept his focus on papers on the desk in front of him, Lillis fixed his gaze at one of the many large video screens around the courtroom as his only child outlined her memory of what he had told her about the circumstances of her mother’s death.
Her maternal grandfather, Jim Cawley, and other members of the victim’s family also stared intently at the TV monitors as the young girl gave her evidence.
Asked by counsel for the DPP, Ms Ring, if she could be called by her first name, which cannot be published for legal reasons, the witness replied almost cheerily: “Go ahead.”
She described how she had gone to live with her uncle, Chris Cawley, her mother’s brother, and his family who also lived in Howth after the terrible events of December 15, 2008, before going to Austria shortly after Christmas.
In a clear voice, which faltered only occasionally, Ms Lillis said she had spoken with her father some months after her return to Ireland about what had happened.
“He just told me what had happened between him and Mum. I can’t exactly remember what he said word for word. It was just the world’s worst Christmas for me,” she said, pausing to take a deep sip of water.
Dressed in a greyish-green hooded sweater with grey leggings, Ms Lillis admitted that she was unable to remember more precise details about what she had been told by the accused. “They had a fight and that was it,” she remarked in a matter-of-fact tone.
Pressed by Ms Ring to recall any information, Ms Lillis said her father claimed that her mother had slipped on the decking area at the back of the house and the couple had “a bit of a scuffle”.
Her father had explained that he had alleged there was a robbery because he “just panicked”. The young witness gulped as she repeated how her father said he made up the story about the burglary “for me”. She added: “I didn’t really appreciate that he did it.
“He asked me could I forgive him and I said ‘yes’ but I couldn’t really forgive him for the lie [about the burglary],” she added.
She agreed with Brendan Grehan SC that her father had made reference to her mother slipping on the deck and hitting her head off a brick.
Asked about her displeasure with the made-up story about a burglar, she stated in a strong voice: “I was brought up never to lie so I didn’t really appreciate what he did for me in that respect. But I understand why he panicked.”
In the afternoon, the Cawley family endured further stress as they heard the evidence of deputy state pathologist, Dr Michael Curtis, who carried out a postmortem examination on the dead woman.
In language couched in medical jargon, which he explained later in clearer terms, Dr Curtis outlined his belief that Ms Cawley died as a result of a number of factors but chiefly from three wounds to her head resulting from blunt force trauma.
The pathologist said the wounds in his opinion were not the type normally associated with someone who suffered a fall because of their location on the skull.
A deep murmur swept around the courtroom as Dr Curtis observed that the absence of any brain injury to the victim meant “it’s probable her life may have been saved if she’d received prompt medical treatment”.
Ms Cawley’s father buried his head in his hands and wept silently.