Giving two fingers back to the criminals

LIAM KEANE’S two-fingered insult to the nation almost 10 years ago was one of those landmark moments in Irish crime.

The televised images of the Limerick gangster swaggering out of the Central Criminal Court after six prosecution witnesses recanted statements to gardaí implicating him for the murder of 19-year-old Eric Leamy infuriated people.

He was not just abusing the country, he was laughing at it, highlighting the impunity of gangland and the inadequacy of the criminal justice system to deal with it. At the time, justice minister Michael McDowell told the Dáil the case represented a challenge “for the Irish State, for the rights of individual citizens and of entire communities, and for the system of criminal justice”.

The previous January, Judge Carroll Moran said society was in danger of descending into a “state of social chaos and anarchy” after the trial she was presiding over collapsed when a witness failed to identify his attacker.

The collapse of the trial of Keane, the son and nephew of the leaders of the Keane side of the Keane-Collopy gang in Limerick, came just a year after innocent doorman Brian Fitzgerald was gunned down by the rival McCarthy-Dundon gang for refusing to allow them to supply drugs in the nightclub where he worked.

The Keane case directly led to radical new laws, continuing a trend set with the Veronica Guerin murder in 1996, where outrages spark radical legal responses.

In August, the Criminal Justice Act 2006 was commenced, three months after 22-year-old Dublin mother Donna Cleary was shot dead in a mindless drive-by shooting of a party.

Provisions of the act include:

* Witness statements can be used in a trial where the witness recants or refuses to stand over the statement;

* New definition of a criminal organisation and new offence of participation in a gang;

* Mandatory minimum sentences of between five and 10 years for firearms offences.

It was fitting that it was a Limerick gangland case where the admissibility of statements was first used and accepted by the court.

Hitman Gary Campion, of Moyross, was sentenced to life in May 2009 for the murder of Frank Ryan in 2006 based on statements of prosecution witness Erol Ibrahim, who refused to back them up in court.

Campion was previously handed a life sentence in Nov 2007 for the murder of Brian Fitzgerald.

The threat posed by gangland continued unabated during the mid-2000s, with a rise in gangland murders, only a minority of which resulted in prosecutions.

In Nov 2006, innocent mother Baiba Saulite was slain in a shocking crime involving major Limerick and Dublin gangs. A month later, plumber Anthony Campbell, just 20, was shot dead by hitmen who killed him as he was a possible witness to their murder of crime lord Marlo Hyland.

In Jan 2007, McDowell said: “I believe that the drug and gun culture now poses as significant a threat to the wellbeing of the Irish State and Irish society as the paramilitaries did at many stages during their paramilitary campaign.”

It led to the Criminal Justice Act 2007, which provided for:

* Higher mandatory sentences for repeat serious offenders;

* Changes to the accused’s right of silence allowing inferences to be drawn;

* Seven-day detention to be allowed for firearms and other serious offences.

But still the outrages continued. In Nov 2008, innocent man Shane Geoghegan was mistakenly murdered in Limerick by the McCarthy-Dundon gang. This led to mass street protests and fury in the Dáil.

Six months later, in Apr 2009, the Limerick gangs struck again, with the murder of innocent businessman Roy Collins, creating fresh outrage and demands for action.

Then justice minister Dermot Ahern met the families and in July enacted the Criminal Justice Act 2009, which provided for:

* Organised crime offences to be automatically tried in the Special Criminal Court;

* New offence of directing a criminal organisation, carrying up to life imprisonment;

* Updated offence of participation, carrying up to 15 years;

* Garda opinion evidence as to the existence of criminal gangs to be admissible;

* Penalties for the intimidation of a witness or juror increased to 15 years;

* Detention periods could be increased from 48 hours to seven days and judges could hold hearings to authorise those extensions in secret.

This radical piece of legislation was enacted at the same time as another law, which granted gardaí, revenue and the defence forces serious surveillance tools, which could be admissible as evidence in courts.

Under the Criminal Justice (Surveillance) Act 2009 the agencies could:

* Conduct surveillance on foot of a court order, empowering them to enter properties and vehicles and plant bugs;

* Conduct emergency surveillance on the authority of a senior officer for three days without going to court;

* Place tracking devices to monitor the movement of people, vehicles and things without court approval.

At the time, then-Garda commissioner, Fachtna Murphy, said the surveillance laws were essential to help “prevent” as well as investigate serious crime, including murders.

He said there was an “increasing difficulty” getting witnesses to give evidence and that surveillance could provide the corroborative evidence needed in court.

While the anti-gang and surveillance legislation have not been widely used to date, one case in 2012 combined both sets of laws in a successful prosecution.

Galway brothers Michael and Eddie O’Loughlin were convicted of participating in a gang, secured on extensive surveillance evidence and a resultant guilty plea.

The outrages have not stopped, however.

Innocent friends Glen Murphy, 18, and Mark Noonan, 23, were mistakenly shot dead in Dublin in Nov 2010. In Jan 2012, 16-year-old Melanie McCarthy McNamara was, also mistakenly, gunned down sitting in her boyfriend’s car in Tallaght.

And at the beginning of this year, Garda Adrian Donohoe was shot dead without warning or provocation by young gunmen in Co Louth.

This week, society struck back against gangland with the conviction of Limerick crime boss John Dundon for the murder of Shane Geoghegan.

While the conviction was secured mainly on accomplice evidence — itself a contentious area — it was heard in the non-jury Special Criminal Court. This is also the venue for the upcoming Roy Collins murder trials.

Ten years on, that’s the legacy of Liam Keane (who, incidentally, is serving 10 years for gun offences): A radical shift in criminal justice laws, including greater use of the Special Criminal Court.

This shift has its share of detractors, much of it entirely legitimate, but it is also, arguably, the inevitable result of organised crime giving a nation the two fingers.

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