Mum of murdered Santina Cawley: 'I wonder was she looking for me in those last moments'

The jury did not believe Ms Harrington's plea and returned a unanimous guilty verdict
Mum of murdered Santina Cawley: 'I wonder was she looking for me in those last moments'

"The day Santina passed away she took part of me with her. I am devastated. My heart is in pieces and that hurt continues every day," said her mother, Bridget. Picture: Provision

The mother of two-year-old murder victim Santina Cawley has been left haunted by questions about her daughter’s death, saying: “I wonder was she looking for me in those last moments”.

Karen Harrington, aged 38, has been jailed for life for murdering the toddler at an apartment on Boreenmanna Road, Cork City, on July 5, 2019.

Imposing the mandatory life sentence, Judge Michael MacGrath said: “The murder of Santina Cawley, a defenceless two-year-old child, is truly shocking. It goes against nature for parents to bury a child but to lose a child in these circumstances is beyond description.”

The torment is worsened by the knowledge of the terror that Santina was subjected to and the “brutal nature of her death”, the judge added.

In a victim impact statement, Santina’s mum Bridget O’Donoghue said her last memory of Santina was of hugging and squeezing her.

“I hope in Santina’s last moments she remembered and felt the love of me — her mother — her Nana, and family,” she said.

“I feel angry at the accused, Karen Harrington, who murdered my baby. I continuously ask myself how someone could be so cruel to a two-year-old — a soft and gentle soul. Just how can you hurt a baby like this?

“I wonder was she looking for me in those last moments. What was Santina thinking and feeling during her terrible death?”

Ms O’Donoghue recalled the day she was told Santina was gone.

“I got a knock at the door thinking it might be Santina returning [from an overnight stay with her father] only to find it was a garda telling me Santina had been in an accident. I got a taxi to the hospital never imagining what I was going to face when I arrived.

“There seemed to be so many doctors and nurses... Eventually I was told that Santina had passed away from her injuries and I went into a state of shock.

“When I asked to see her, she was put in my arms. I could not believe the condition of her. She was covered in bruises from head to toe.

“I wish I could go back in time. I thought I was leaving her for an overnight stay with her dad and would see her the next day.

“I hope in her short life she will remember how much she was loved and adored by me and her brothers and sister, and the bond she shared with her Nana.”

Santina’s father Michael Cawley said he was tortured by the memory of finding his deceased daughter under a blanket when he returned to the apartment of the murderer, Karen Harrington — his then-girlfriend — on Boreenmanna Road.

“Santina was brutally murdered. The worst thing was finding her disfigured body under a blanket. I will be haunted by this horror for the remainder of my life. This is beyond words, I have no words.

“Since Santina was taken from this world I feel my life can be described as mental torture. This is honestly the worst thing any parent can go through.”

Mr Justice MacGrath expressed his condolences to both parents as he jailed Ms Harrington for life.

The two-year-old suffered bruises all over her body and a fractured skull. Her death was due to traumatic brain injury, upper spinal cord injury, and lower limb injury due to blunt force trauma.

Detective Inspector Danny Coholan, the senior investigating officer in the murder case, said the murder had a profound impact across the community.

“Justice for Santina was always the ultimate goal for the team since her murder on July 5, 2019.

“This was a particularly emotive case for the members who attended the scene and for the investigation team, many having children of a similar age.

“Santina was always in our thoughts. We would like to again express our sympathies to Santina’s family and An Garda Síochána will continue to support them as they continue to grieve for Santina.”

The jury delivered the guilty verdict to Courtroom 6 at the Central Criminal Court sitting in Cork at 3.45pm.

There was no visible reaction from Karen Harrington when the guilty verdict was handed down.

Brendan Grehan, defending, said he had no instructions to say anything on Ms Harrington’s behalf.

The evidence

Karen Harrington was found guilty verdict of murdering two-year-old Santina Cawley. Picture: Larry Cummins
Karen Harrington was found guilty verdict of murdering two-year-old Santina Cawley. Picture: Larry Cummins

From the first member of An Garda Síochána to find Santina Cawley in Ms Harrinton's apartment, through to the pathologist who examined the infant’s remains, the jury heard extensive evidence of the investigation. 

They also heard from witnesses who were present in the area before, during or after the period in the early hours of July 5, 2019.

Garda David Tobin testified, “I saw Santina Cawley lying on a quilt. She was pale. From looking at her, she was deceased. There was blood on the quilt. It looked like she was placed on the quilt.

“The best way I can describe it is that her legs were twisted in like a child’s doll. Her eyes were only slightly open. Her hands were lying by her side and her head was back and she was naked. She had a bruise on her forehead and she was not breathing. I think there was a small bit of blood in her mouth.” 

Assistant state pathologist, Dr Margaret Bolster, examined the body of the two-year-old and concluded that the nature and extent of injuries to the child – including bruises all over her body and a fractured skull – were inflicted by force rather than as a result of an accident.

The jury was told when Ms Harrington and Santina's dad, Michael Cawley, her former partner, were drinking at the apartment of a friend and neighbour, Martina Higgins, when there was an argument. Michael Cawley accused Karen of being a “whore and a prostitute” and claimed that she was having affairs with foreigners she was meeting in a casino.

The accused went home to her own apartment. 

Some 90 minutes later Michael arrived and left Santina in the apartment with Ms Harrington at around 3am before he left and went into Cork city until 5am – as shown on street CCTV.

What happened in that period of two hours formed the centre of the case and one of the main prosecution witnesses was neighbour, Dylan Olney, who testified, “I heard a child crying. Just a child crying, coming from next door – Number 26. That concerned me. 

“I said I am going to call the cops. I heard her saying, ‘Stop crying.’ I heard her say, ‘Stop crying. Shut up.’ That kind of thing.” 

Prosecution senior counsel Seán Gillane questioned Karen Harrington about the extent of the injuries Santina suffered in her apartment, asking, “If there were injuries, how could you not have noticed?” 

She replied, “I ask myself the same. All I can recall back when I vision Santina, I don’t see any bruises or injuries or blood or anything like that.” 

In what was the most chilling moment of cross-examination in the case, Mr Gillane asked, “Did you hear the child crying as the hair was torn from her head? Did you hear her crying as her lip was split? Crying as her ribs were broken? Did you hear any of that? Is Mr Olney (neighbour Dylan Olney) making it up when he says he hears the child crying and hears you taunting her?

“At 4.30am, Dylan Olney rang the guards. He said he heard Santina crying. Is he making that up?” 

Karen Harrington replied, “I am not saying he is making that up. I don’t know… I don’t know where Dylan is coming from by saying that at 4.30am Santina is crying."

Victim Impact Statement: Bridget O'Donoghue, mother of Santina

Bridget O'Donoghue mother of Santina Cawley after the verdict was announced in Cork yesterday. Picture; Eddie O'Hare
Bridget O'Donoghue mother of Santina Cawley after the verdict was announced in Cork yesterday. Picture; Eddie O'Hare

Santina was born on May 6, 2017. She was a premature baby. She was small but still a fighter. She was loved and adored by her family the minute we saw her. She was the baby of our family, loved and cherished and spoiled by us all, especially her Nana.

She loved her rhymes, her cartoons and Barney. She loved her trips to town with me and her Nana on a Wednesday. She would hop into the buggy and knew the routine. She was very cute for her age. She was clever and very bright. She knew all the names of the Teletubbies and was a happy child.

She had an old soul. She seemed to be here before. She brought so much joy to our family and her brothers and sister adored her. She was very soft and gentle yet was hardy, determined, a little fighter.

The morning of July 5, 2019, I got a knock at the door thinking it might be Santina returning, only to find it was a garda telling me Santina had been in an accident. I got a taxi to the hospital never imagining what I was going to face when I arrived.

There seemed to be so many doctors and nurses around, I did not understand what was after happening. Eventually, I was told that Santina had passed away from her injuries and I went into a state of shock. I could not believe what I was told.

When I asked to see her, she was put in my arms. I could not believe the condition of her. She was covered in bruises from head to toe. Her hands were cold and she was so pale.

The day Santina passed away she took part of me with her. I am devastated. My heart is in pieces and that hurt continues every day.

So many times I have wished I could turn the clock back. The disbelief that this could have happened haunts me every day.

My last memory of Santina was her hugging and squeezing me and not wanting to leave me. I regret leaving her so much that day. I wish I could go back in time. 

I thought I was leaving her for an overnight stay with her dad and would see her the next day.

I hope in Santina’s last moments she remembered and felt the love of me – her mother – her Nana and family. 

I feel angry at the accused, Karen Harrington, who murdered my baby. I continuously ask myself how someone could be so cruel to a two-year-old – a soft and gentle soul. Just how can you hurt a baby like this?

I wonder was she looking for me in those last moments. What was Santina thinking and feeling during her terrible death?

The happiness we have shared is what will stay with us and help us to keep going, but it isn’t easy.

I would like to thank Garda Brendan Ryan, my liaison officer, for his help and support to me, to the doctors and nurses and all the other gardaí who helped us along the way. 

To the ambulance, fire brigade and media for their respect towards us during this difficult time. To my mother, Eileen, who has helped me through the toughest of days and to the public who have supported me so much, which I really appreciate.

Victim Impact Statement: Michael Cawley, father of Santina

 Michael Cawley, Santina Cawley's father, . Picture: Larry Cummins
Michael Cawley, Santina Cawley's father, . Picture: Larry Cummins

Santina was a beautiful, happy, friendly, caring, fun-loving two-and-a-half-year-old girl.

She enjoyed life — always smiling, she loved life, everyone loved her. She brought joy to my heart. She was my pride and joy. I will always be so proud of her.

When I look at some of her clothes and toys in her bedroom, it breaks my heart. I miss the sound of her sweet little voice, her laugh, her smile, her beautiful blue eyes and red hair. She loved music, playing with her dolls and her sisters and brothers.

Santina’s birthday was on May 6. It breaks my heart to visit her grave. All I have now are heavenly birthdays and memories. These beautiful memories can never be taken from me. 

Since Santina was taken from this world I feel my life can be described as mental torture. This is honestly the worst thing any parent can go through.

I am so lucky to have had this beautiful little girl as a daughter in my life. I will always cherish these special two-and-a-half years.

Santina was brutally murdered. The worst thing was finding her disfigured body under a blanket. I will be haunted by this horror for the remainder of my life. 

This is beyond words, I have no words. The trial is a difficult process, having to sit and listen to graphic details of what happened to Santina, but it is a necessary one. 

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