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A vigil for Ashling Murphy following her death.
THE MORNING LEAD

'I am the murderer': The trial of Ashling Murphy's killer

A look back at the three-week trial that led to Jozef Puska’s conviction for murder.

JOZEF PUSKA HAD been frustrated in his efforts at stalking women earlier that January afternoon when he cycled his Falcon Storm mountain bike with its distinctive green forks along the Grand Canal towpath and saw Ashling Murphy walking alone up ahead.

It was about 3.20pm on a cold but sunny day and Ms Murphy had come to the canal for exercise after finishing her day’s work at Durrow national school where she had taken up a post as a teacher.

Puska dragged her down the steep ravine by the towpath and into the briars and thorns where he stabbed her eleven times in the neck and slashed her once with the edge of the blade.

Nobody other than Jozef Puska can know what brought about their first engagement, but the forensic evidence suggests he may have attacked her from behind; her wounds were all to the right side of her neck and Puska is right-handed.

ashling murphy alamy Ashling Murphy was a talented fiddle player and well-known in trad music circles. Alamy Stock Photo Alamy Stock Photo

The evidence also shows that Ashling fought back. She had cuts to her fingers that State Pathologist Dr SallyAnne Collis said could have been caused when she tried to protect herself from the knife and was caught by the blade.

The wounds to her neck had destroyed her voice box so she could not call out but she kicked out with her legs and scratched at Puska’s skin, gouging out genetic material that would later be used to identify and help to convict her murderer.

As prosecution counsel Anne-Marie Lawlor SC would put it in her closing speech to the jury, Ashling was an investigator in her own murder.

Jenna Stack

Primary school teacher Jenna Stack was the last person, besides Jozef Puska, to see Ashling Murphy alive.

On day three of the trial, she told the jury that she was running with her friend Aoife Marron along the banks of the canal when she noticed a luminous green bicycle placed into the hedgerow beside the towpath.

She stopped, thinking somebody might have fallen off the bike and then heard a “rustling in the hedgerow” a few feet further along in the thick briars.

She said: “It was like someone was struggling, to be honest. I thought maybe someone fell off the bike and maybe they were in trouble.”

Ms Stack stood out on the grass verge for a closer look and shouted, “are you okay?”.

She said: “At that point then, this man, he turned. He was crouched over… he was crouching over something, like he was kneeling down.”

jozef-puska-court-case Jozef Puska, 33, in the dock at the Central Criminal Court in Dublin (Elizabeth Cook/PA) PA PA

When he turned Ms Stack said she could “see his face clearly”. She added: “I couldn’t see his hands because he was holding a person down. I thought it was a girl because of what she was wearing.”

Ms Stack asked the man what he was doing and he shouted “get away”. His teeth were “gritted”, she said, and he had “this angry kind of facial expression.

It was terrifying, to be honest.” She noted the man’s foreign accent, receding hair, shaved head, sallow skin and distinctive, dark eyebrows.

He was wearing a zipped-up jacket with an emblem on the chest.

Kicking ‘so hard’

She recalled seeing Ashling kicking with her legs and added: “She was lying on the ground and the only part of her body I thought she was able to move was her legs and she was kicking, like, so hard.”

She said: “I knew she was strong, she was moving whatever part of her body she could to get help.”

She said the woman looked like a person in the gym doing a scissor kick while lying down and added: “she was raising them [her legs] really high, really using her core to lift her legs.”

Ms Stack said she “knew something bad was happening” and thought Puska might be trying to rape Ms Murphy or at least that he intended to harm her.

Ashling Murphy family-3_90692712 Ashling Murphy's mother Kathleen outside the Criminal Courts of Justice Leah Farrell / © RollingNews.ie Leah Farrell / © RollingNews.ie / © RollingNews.ie

She told Puska she had a phone and was calling the gardaí. Ms Stack did not have a phone but hoped that if he thought she did he might “leave her alone”.

When the man “lunged, as if he was going to frighten us” Ms Stack and Ms Marron ran away in the direction of nearby Digby Bridge.

“We were running fast,” she said. “My heart was absolutely pounding.” They ran about 500 metres to the bridge where they met two men, one of whom had a phone.

She told him to call the guards, that there’s “a girl in the hedge and a man has her pinned to the ground”.

She also spoke to a man named Enda Molloy who was cycling his bike. Mr Molloy immediately cycled to the area where Ms Marron and Ms Stack pointed him to.

Mr Molloy found Ms Murphy unresponsive in the briars but Puska was already gone. Charlie Kelly arrived moments later and could see immediately that Ashling was dead from the colour of her skin.

Her hair was matted to her face with blood and one of her legs was suspended against a tree stump.

When paramedics arrived shortly after 3.40pm, Ashling was already dead. The knife had damaged the jugular vein and carotid artery causing massive blood loss and cardiac arrest.

Description

Within hours the murder was the top news story in the country as gardaí busied themselves taking witness statements from people on the canal and searching for CCTV that might help to identify a suspect.

Ms Stack gave a description of the person she had seen and Garda Andrew Dolan immediately thought of a match. Within two hours gardaí had called to the man’s house to arrest him and take him to Tullamore Garda Station for questioning.

Ms Stack was brought to the station the following day when gardaí had assembled nine men plus the suspect, who was number 6 in the parade.

They asked Ms Stack to pick out the man she had seen with Ashling and she picked number 6.

She told gardaí that she could “clearly picture his eyes and head” and was “one hundred percent sure the person I picked in the identification parade was the person I saw leaning over the girl at the canal.”

But the investigation quickly hit a setback when the forensic science laboratories found that the suspect’s DNA did not match that found on the bicycle beside where Ashling’s body had been found.

When other people corroborated his alibi and CCTV showed that he could not have been near the canal at the time Ms Murphy was murdered, gardaí released him and released an urgent statement to the media saying he was no longer a suspect and had no connection to the case.

Meanwhile, Jozef Puska was attracting attention to himself in Dublin when at about midday on 13 January, less than 24 hours after the murder, he called an ambulance to his parents’ home on Armagh Road in Crumlin, south Dublin alleging that he had been stabbed the previous evening in Blanchardstown.

Gardaí arrived with the ambulance and detectives from Blanchardstown spoke to Puska at St James’s Hospital in Dublin. When Inspector Shane McCartan heard Puska’s vague account of being stabbed in Blanchardstown he decided that it “didn’t add up”.

Puska lacked detail on who he was going to visit, where he was to meet them, where the stabbing happened and how he got from Tullamore to Dublin and then out to Blanchardstown.

embedded264737075 Vigils were held across Ireland and worldwide for Ashling Murphy following her death. PA PA

He also had scratches all over his face and hands that gardaí felt could be consistent with him having crawled through thick briars.

The investigation into Ashling Murphy’s murder was still the most talked about story in the country so when Inspector McCartan heard that Puska claimed to have arrived in Dublin from Tullamore the day of her murder, he contacted his colleagues in Tullamore.

Puska underwent surgery on 13 January while in St James’s, and at about 3pm on the 14th Det Garda Fergus Hogan and Det Sgt Brian Jennings arrived from Tullamore to speak to him.

Nurses took Puska to a private room and Det Sgt Jennings enlisted the help of a Slovakian interpreter who was on loudspeaker on the detective’s phone.

Puska repeated the lie that he was stabbed in Blanchardstown on the 12th and said the scratches on his hands and arms were caused when he was “dragging on the ground” trying to protect himself.

That evening Det Sgt Jennings became aware that his colleague Det Sgt Pamela Nugent had a warrant to search the hospital and seize Puska’s belongings and a blood sample.

For Puska’s “pride” nurses again moved him from a public ward to a private room while gardaí executed the warrant shortly after 6pm. Det Sgt Jennings, again with the aid of an interpreter, explained to Puska what was on the warrant.

The detective told Puska they were investigating the murder of Ashling Murphy in Tullamore. Puska said he had read about it in the newspapers and asked if he was a suspect.

Det Sgt Jennings told him he was a “person of interest”.

He said Puska then paused for a significant time before speaking again in Slovakian. The detective told the trial that “the interpreter then came on and said he is making an official statement that he is admitting that he committed the murder.”

Det Sgt Jennings wrote down, word for word, what the interpreter translated as Puska spoke. Reading from notes during the trial, the detective read: “I did it, I murdered, I am the murderer.”

Det Sgt Jennings cautioned Puska that he did not have to say anything but anything he did say would be written down and may be used in evidence. The interpreter translated the caution and Puska said he understood.

The detective asked if Puska was saying he committed the murder and Puska replied: “Yes.”

Det Sgt Jennings said he stopped asking questions when Puska indicated that he wanted to speak to a solicitor.

Through the interpreter, Puska continued talking, saying the reason he didn’t answer earlier and the reason he was “pleading guilty” was because: “I don’t want my family anything to happen to them, nothing bad to them. I feel guilty and I say I regret it.”

Puska was upset and crying as he asked about his family and their safety.

Det Sgt Jennings explained that gardaí would not harm his family and the Murphys are “a good family” who would not harm him or his family.

Puska asked if his name would be published in the papers and “reiterated how sorry he is, he regretted it and didn’t do it intentionally.”

Det Sgt Jennings left the room to report back and to contact a solicitor, leaving the accused alone with Det Gda Hogan.

Det Gda Hogan told the trial that Puska continued speaking unprompted when he entered the room so he wrote down what he heard on a notepad.

Reading from his notes, he recalled Puska saying: “I am sorry, I am family, five kids, I see girl I never see before. I have knife I have use for chain.”

The detective reminded Puska that he did not have to say anything and that gardaí were contacting a solicitor for him, but the accused continued: “I tell her go, I won’t hurt you.”

He said Puska put his finger to his lips to indicate how he told Ms Murphy to “be quiet” before saying: “When she pass I cut her neck. She panic, I panic and then it happened. Will I go for ten years?”

Puska remained in hospital for a further four days until 18 January and on his release he was arrested by Det Gda David Scahill and brought to Tullamore Gda Station.

Over the course of five interviews however, he performed a volte-face and denied any involvement in or knowledge of her death.

In Puska’s final interview, gardaí used special powers under the Criminal Justice Act 1984 that allow a jury to draw inferences where an accused person refuses to account for certain facts.

Gardaí asked him to account for the presence of his bike at the crime scene and the presence of his DNA under Ashling’s fingernails.

They gave him multiple opportunities to tell them anything that he might later rely on in court and warned him that a jury could infer that his refusal was corroboration of other evidence pointing towards his guilt. He refused to make any comment.

Puska’s testimony

Twenty months after the murder, Puska took the stand in his defence and gave an account that nobody had heard before. The prosecution would describe it as a ludicrous, foul and contemptible fabrication.

The obvious inference the jury was asked to draw was that this story was a “recent fabrication”, created with the benefit of time and access to the book of evidence and disclosure of all the material gardaí had uncovered in their investigations.

From that, Puska would have seen that nobody, including Jenna Stack, had seen him with a knife in his hand, nor had they seen him striking Ashling.

Jenna Stack’s evidence was that she couldn’t see Puska’s hands because of the way he was crouched over Ashling holding her down in the thick undergrowth.

Puska told the trial that he was cycling that day to get exercise as he wanted to get fit again so he could return to work as a labourer.

He had a slipped disk in his back, he said, that had prevented him from working. He denied following Annemarie Kelly or Beata Borowska earlier that afternoon, claiming that he was simply cycling slowly as he searched for his brother, who he knew had been to the dentist that afternoon.

He also denied staring at Ms Kelly, who told the trial that she felt uncomfortable and intimidated by Puska as he cycled slowly behind her and then stared at her when she moved aside to let him pass.

Puska continued to the canal where he walked his bike along the towpath and again encountered Ms Kelly. He denied following her and her evidence was that she decided to jog past Puska and she kept going until she got to the safety of Digby Bridge where a number of people were out enjoying the fresh January afternoon, including Ashling Murphy.

Ms Kelly’s dog Joe ran up to Ashling and she stopped to pet him and asked what breed he was.

Ms Kelly remembered her as a “smiley, chatty, friendly” woman.

Ashling had driven to Daingean Road car park after school and walked as far as Digby Bridge.

Last moments

She was heading back in the direction she had come, her progress tracked by the Fitbit watch on her wrist.

It showed her making steady progress, walking at about one kilometre every nine minutes in an easterly direction, until at 3.21pm the bearing indicator on the watch recorded erratic movements and her heart rate went into rapid decline.

Within minutes, Ms Stack would arrive on the scene and raise the alarm.

According to Puska, the real killer was a mysterious figure dressed in black and wearing a Covid mask.

He told the trial that this man shouted at him, pushed him off his bike, sat on him and stabbed him three times in the stomach. He said Ashling then arrived on the scene, said something to the man, and he turned his attention to her.

Puska said he witnessed the man killing Ashling before running away. The “foul and contemptible” lie referred to by Ms Lawlor was Puska’s claim that he then tried to help Ashling by pulling her scarf up over the wounds to her neck.

He claimed, in a cold, dispassionate tone, that he realised he couldn’t help her and so crawled through the briars and into a nearby field.

He claimed that he fell unconscious in a ditch and when he awoke he climbed the steep embankment onto the N52 and walked along the dark roadside towards Tesco.

Niamh Arthur was a passenger in her boyfriend’s car when they drove along the N52 shortly after 8.30pm that night.

She got a fright when she saw a man in dark clothes “acting suspiciously”, keeping tucked in and crouching on the verge by the road as if he was trying to hide from view.

They “locked eyes,” Ms Arthur said, and she thought he looked lost. She had never seen a pedestrian on that stretch of road late at night before and wondered if he had been kicked out of a car.

Roy Jennings was also struck by the odd character by the side of the road. Mr Jennings passed Puska going towards the Tullamore Retail Park and again 15 minutes later going in the opposite direction.

The man’s tracksuit bottoms “stood out” because they were black with a cream or white stripe down one side and “they looked roughed up, as if he was rolling in grass or muck”.

Mr Jennings was aware of what had happened to Ms Murphy earlier that day and, he said, “the notion came into my head, this could be the guy.” But he had heard that gardaí had already arrested a suspect that evening.

Two days later he received a CCTV image of Puska, by then a suspect, on a bicycle and he said he noticed the “distinctive tracksuit bottoms with the white stripe”.

He added: “It just looked very similar to the person I saw that night. That’s when I contacted gardaí.”

Puska made his way from the N52 to a Tullamore housing estate named Church View, arriving shortly after 9pm, where his friend Rostaslav Pokuta lived.

Mr Pokuta was surprised to see Puska at that time of night, soaking wet, shaking and covered in scratches.

Puska said only that he had been in a fight but gave no details. Mr Pokuta agreed to drop him home to Mucklagh.

During cross-examination, Puska said that he asked someone in his home to burn the clothes he had been wearing.

He didn’t explain why and said he doesn’t know if they were burned but he hasn’t seen them since.

Puska and his parents then got a lift with a male cousin to Dublin at about midnight. CCTV showed them arriving at his parents’ apartment block just short of 2am.

Puska was walking without any obvious signs of discomfort despite his claim at the trial that by then he had been stabbed three times in the stomach by Ashling’s killer.

The prosecution contended that Puska stabbed himself that night while in his parents’ apartment.

Puska admitted as much while in St James’s Hospital when he told Det Gda Fergus Hogan “I did this” while pointing at the injuries to his stomach.

The only explanation Puska ever gave for the lies he told about being stabbed in Blanchardstown was that he wanted to protect his family. Mr Justice Tony Hunt asked the jury to consider how those lies could have protected Puska’s family or anybody else.

Mr Justice Hunt was unimpressed with Puska’s approach to the trial and after the jury had begun their deliberations he rejected complaints made by Puska’s lawyers regarding what they called the judge’s commentary on the evidence.

He said that it is “no part of my function where the evidence is strong on one side and less on the other… to create an equilibrium that does not exist in the evidence. In fact, it would be improper to do so.”

He said his comments were “restrained and moderate” and that “much stronger comment” could have been made in the case regarding Puska’s “carry on in the aftermath” of Ashling’s murder and his evidence in court.

He said that judges have a “perfect right to give a clear expression of their opinion on the facts” but told the barristers that he had made “almost no expression of opinion” other than to say that Puska’s testimony in court was “remarkable, which it was” and that it “differed radically from what he had previously said, which it did”.

In her closing speech to the jury, Ms Lawlor said she was conscious of giving credence to Puska’s ludicrous story.

She called him an “inveterate liar” and mocked his suggestion that having witnessed a “Covid compliant killer” murdering Ashling he decided, for no reason, to crawl through briars and hide in a ditch before going home and ordering his clothes to be burned.

She pointed to the evidence of him following women around Tullamore before isolating Ashling on the canal. His DNA was under Ashling’s fingernails and Jenna Stack had clearly seen her in “complete distress” as Puska pinned her to the ground.

She urged the jury to reject Puska’s lies and convict him of murder.

Michael Bowman SC, for the defence, said the evidence in the case was not as simple as the prosecution made out. He asked the jury to look closely at each piece of evidence and decide whether it carried the weight suggested by the prosecution.

He argued that Puska’s confession was not reliable because of the effects of oxycodone, surgery, the unfamiliar environment of the hospital and the language barrier.

He said his client had given a version of events that, if it raised a reasonable doubt in their minds, must lead them to an acquittal.

The jury rejected that, coming to a speedy decision that Puska was guilty of murder.