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Court hears closing speeches in trial of man accused of murdering Ashling Murphy

The defence concluded its evidence yesterday before the Central Criminal Court.

LAST UPDATE | Nov 7th 2023, 8:00 PM

JOSEF PUSKA SPUN a “structure of lies and mistruths” which were “foul and contemptible in their nature” when he told his trial that he tried to save Ashling Murphy, a barrister has told the Central Criminal Court.

In delivering her closing speech to the jury, Anne-Marie Lawlor SC for the Director of Public Prosecutions described Puska as an “inveterate liar” and said that she was reluctant to “give credence to a ludicrous, fabricated story” that she said had been told by the accused.

She said that following Puska’s evidence it “feels like we are through the looking glass in terms of foolishness” but, she said, foolishness suggests something benign “and there is nothing benign about these lies.

These are contemptible lies to suggest he was trying to save Ashling Murphy when that is patently not what was happening.”

She pointed to evidence that Puska’s DNA was found under Murphy’s fingernails and reminded the jury that “Jozef Puska admitted that he killed Ashling Murphy” before he “pivoted” from that admission in his testimony before the court.

Lawlor said the accused had “spun you an absolute, unequivocal structure of lies and mistruths, some of which I say are absolutely foul and contemptible in their nature and he has done all that in the hope and belief, and I hope forlorn, foolish belief, that he will succeed”.

She said: “The only rational conclusion is that he murdered Ashling Murphy and there is no reasonable or rational doubt in that regard.”

Lawlor spent about 40 minutes addressing the jury before Michael Bowman SC, for the accused, began his address. Bowman told the jury that they should be careful in their approach to the case and how they interpret the evidence.

“It is not necessarily as straightforward as the prosecution says it is,” he said.

Bowman said the trial is “not about emotion, prejudice or sympathy and it is most certainly not about speculation.”

What happened to the victim was “without excuse, it is barbaric, it is horrible,” counsel said. Sympathy “naturally falls” with Ashling and her family who, Bowman said, have sat through the trial with “dignity and composure”.

He said that there is therefore a “danger” that “we all can fall into error”.

Bowman said there is medical evidence suggesting that the alleged confession made by Puska cannot be relied on and, he said, there is no evidence that his client’s DNA was under the victim’s fingernails because she scratched him.

Jozef Puska, aged 33, with an address at Lynally Grove, Mucklagh, Co Offaly, has pleaded not guilty to murdering Ashling Murphy at Cappincur, Tullamore, Co Offaly on 12 January 2022.

The prosecution case is that Puska murdered Ashling Murphy by stabbing her repeatedly in the neck.

Puska took the stand in his defence and told the jury that he was cycling along the canal when he was attacked and stabbed by a man he did not know who was wearing a covid mask.

He said he witnessed the same man stabbing Ashling and that after the man ran away, he tried to assist Murphy by pulling her scarf up around the wounds to her neck.

He said he then went into a neighbouring field where he fell unconscious for some hours before returning home.

Lawlor told the jury that they should decide the case only on what they hear in court.

She said the “huge media attention” when Ashling Murphy was killed and on the trial are “neither here nor there, you base your decision on the evidence you have heard”.

She said there is much in the case that is “plain and obvious” and, she said, she hopes that the jury are asking themselves “why is she saying these things that are so plainly established, that the evidence in this case is overwhelming in terms of the guilt of Jozef Puska”.

In this case, she said, Puska confessed to gardaí that he killed Ashling Murphy two days after the murder – while Puska was being treated in St James’s Hospital in Dublin for stab wounds to his stomach.

Lawlor said he made that confession “to state the blindingly obvious, because that’s what he did – he killed her”.

While Puska’s defence had introduced medical evidence to “suggest there is a question mark over” that confession, Lawlor pointed out that it was never suggested that the accused did not say the words that were attributed to him.

The jury heard evidence that, when questioned about Ashling Murphy’s death, Puska told gardaí: “I did it, I murdered, I am the murderer” and later said that he “cut” Ashling.

Lawlor reminded the jury that internationally renowned pharmacologist and toxicologist Professor Michael Ryan told the jury that the medication given to Puska – an opioid named oxycodone – could not have had any bearing on the “outpouring of a confession from him”.

She said Prof Ryan’s evidence “puts to bed any suggestion there was something bearing on this unprompted, spontaneous, clear, detailed and unequivocal confession from Mr Puska”.

She said that the defence had called an expert, Dr Johann Grundlingh, whose report was based on “the wrong dosage” of oxycodone.

Lawlor asked the jury if there is a question mark over Dr Grundlingh’s evidence when he prepared “a report that was so egregiously wrong”.

She added: “Say to yourself; ‘If somebody could give a report that is so completely and fundamentally wrong on what they acknowledge is the focus of the report, what does that say about the rest of it?’. I say there is nothing that casts a doubt on what Mr Puska said.”

Lawlor told the jury that the evidence of State Pathologist Dr Sallyanne Collis was that Ashling Murphy had likely defensive wounds on her hands.

Counsel said that in trying to save herself, Ms Murphy had “scratched her assailant”.

“That is the only way the DNA gets under the fingernails,” she added.

Lawlor said that by getting the DNA of the person who killed her under her nails, Ashling Murphy was an “investigator in her own murder”.

Counsel reminded the jury of the evidence of Jenna Stack who was running along the canal when she heard a rustling in the hedgerow and saw Puska and the victim in the undergrowth off the canal towpath.

Lawlor said that the witness had told the jury that she saw Puska “holding Ashling Murphy down” but did not hear her make a sound.

That evidence has a “terrible symmetry” with the pathology evidence, counsel said, because the pathologist told the trial that a stab wound to Ms Murphy’s voice box meant that she probably couldn’t make any sound.

Lawlor also reminded the jury that Stack described the victim “kicking her legs, completely distressed, and that was her cry for help”.

Stack described Puska’s facial expression as “angry” and said he was “gritting his teeth” when he shouted at her to “get away”.

Lawlor said the accused claimed that he was not aggressive, that he did not shout but “yelped” when he hurt his leg on a thorn.

“Either she (Ms Stack) is lying or Jozef Puska is lying,” Ms Lawlor said.

“One of them is lying to you.”

Lawlor said lies told by Mr Puska undermine his credibility.

She said there are a “few stories in the mix”, but the one Puska “picked for court” was that he was cycling on the canal when he was “attacked by a mysterious murderer in black” – a “covid-compliant killer”, wearing a mask, who nobody saw before or afterwards.

She said: “You have to ask yourself; ‘Can I place any store in that at all? Is there any part of that, that I can buy? Any part that creates a reasonable doubt in my mind?’.”

Lawlor told the jury that Puska had told a “long elaborate lie” to multiple gardaí on 13 and 14 January last year when he claimed that the wounds to his stomach were caused when two men attacked him and stabbed him in Blanchardstown on 12 January.

He also lied, counsel said, when after he had been arrested on 18 January 2022, he told gardaí that he had never seen Ashling Murphy before.

Counsel asked the jury to hold up the evidence to the light, to weigh it and not be distracted from the real issues.

“All the evidence is clear and unequivocal proof of the guilt of Jozef Puska beyond a reasonable doubt,” she said.

She said CCTV evidence shows Puska “following women” around Tullamore earlier on the afternoon of the murder, one of whom gave evidence of her “unease and concern” at the person “in very close proximity staring at her”.

Counsel said that evidence is relevant because it “shows a pattern of behaviour before he isolated Ashling Murphy on the canal”.

Lawlor said that on Puska’s account, having been a victim of a stabbing and having witnessed Ms Murphy’s murder as a “six foot fella in black clothes”, Puska then burrowed through thick undergrowth, causing cuts and scratches to his face and hands that would still be visible six days later when he was photographed by gardaí in Tullamore.

After that, he spent four hours and thirty minutes “hiding in a ditch” and then “flees to Dublin” at midnight having told others to burn the clothes he had been wearing, she said.

He later shaved off his beard, Lawlor said, “to change his appearance”.

Lawlor reminded the jury that Puska alleges that he was stabbed in the stomach three times by the same man who murdered Ashling Murphy.

She asked the jury to look at Puska going into his parents’ home at about 2am the morning after Ashling was stabbed.

She said: “Does that look to you like a man who has been stabbed or is that just another manufactured, fabricated, contemptuous lie to retrofit a story of how he ended up hiding in a ditch for four hours?”

Counsel also reminded the jury of the evidence of Detective Garda Fergus Hogan who said that Puska pointed to the wounds on his stomach and said: “I do this.”

Lawlor said she was reluctant to give credence to what she described as a “ludicrous fabricated story”.

The truth, she said, is “what Jenna Stack saw and what ended up under the fingernails of Ashling Murphy”

“This man killed her and killed her brutally.”

He then left the scene, arranged for his clothes to be burned, stabbed himself and “retrofitted a story and told lies after lies after lies after lies,” Lawlor said.

She told them that the “only rational conclusion is that he murdered Ashling Murphy” and that the “proper verdict is to find Puska guilty of murder”.

Puska was ‘trying to help’.

Bowman told the jury that in relation to the confession, they should consider the “cautionary tale” that they were told of another man who confessed to murdering Ashling Murphy in an email to gardaí but who has been ruled out by investigators as her murder.

There is another man in the case, he said, who made himself a suspect through his own behaviour but was ruled out by DNA and other evidence.

Bowman said the alleged confession of Puska, and other behaviour that “heaped suspicion” on him, should be considered in that context.

He said there is no evidence “beyond supposition” that the DNA under Ashling Murphy’s fingernails was the result of her “scratching” Puska.

He pointed out that the marks observed on Puska’s face and hands were caused by briars or thorns with no “suggestion anywhere of anything close to resembling scratch marks”.

He said that a forensic scientist told the trial that DNA transfer could happen through “social or passing contact”.

Bowman said that his client accepts that Murphy touched him and urged them to treat the DNA evidence and prosecution assertions with caution.

Bowman pointed out that witnesses such as Stack, who despite doing her “level best” to help, had been mistaken when she was asked to identify the man she saw with Ashling Murphy at the canal.

He suggested that she may have also been wrong when she said she saw Puska holding the victim down when the defendant says he was “trying to help” and that he was using her scarf scarf in an effort to stop the bleeding.

Bowman questioned the CCTV evidence, saying that one witness had described Puska cycling in a “leisurely way” along the canal.

What appears as “leisurely” to one person could appear as “following” to another, he said.

Bowman asked whether the CCTV evidence is “only consistent with him seeking women” or whether that perspective comes from the “shock and horror at what had unfolded” afterwards.

He asked how that shock might have informed the memory of Annemarie Kelly who said that she noticed Puska following her, became uncomfortable and said that he stared at her in an intimidating way when she moved in to let him pass her by.

Counsel pointed out that the accused “never says or does anything to her” and that the second woman he is said to have followed was unaware of his presence.

Even if he were “following a girl around Tullamore,” Mr Bowman said that should not cause the jury to draw the inference that he had “murderous intent”.

Bowman told the jury to be “careful” with lies as people lie for many reasons.

Sometimes they do so to bolster a true defence or because they think nobody will believe them or they lie to conceal matters that will look bad he said.

They lie to protect others, out of embarrassment, panic or confusion, Mr Bowman said, adding: “If there is or may be some innocent explanation for the lies then you take no notice of the lies.”

“If you are sure that he did not lie for innocent reasons then the lies may bolster the prosecution case,” he added.

Counsel pointed out that others had lied to gardaí during the investigation with one saying he did so because “the atmosphere was ugly” in Tullamore at the time and even though he had done nothing wrong “any association with the tragic and barbaric act on Ms Murphy would be the end of him”.

Bowman said the question marks over Puska’s alleged confession in St James’s Hospital would disappear if the gardaí had asked a qualified doctor to assess him before speaking with him and if they had recorded the interview.

He said there was evidence that Puska was unfit to be interviewed because gardaí repeatedly had to cut short their interviews when he became distressed and was incapable of continuing.

He also pointed to evidence that he said suggests Puska was confused.

He asked the jury to consider the extent to which those words can be relied upon.

He said that Dr Grundlingh had raised concerns not just about oxycodone but about the cumulative effect of surgery, oxycodone, being in an unfamiliar environment and the language barrier.

Prosecution expert Professor Ryan, he said, could not speak to those factors because he has no clinical experience whereas Dr Grundlingh has 20-years experience working on wards in intensive care and emergency departments.

He said Dr Grundlingh held the “entirely sustainable” position that before engaging with a person, the effects of those factors must be excluded.

Bowman concluded by saying that the test for them to apply is whether what Puska said can reasonably be true.

The jury does not have to be convinced by it or accept all of it, he said.

If at the end they come away thinking Puska “probably had something to do with it or he probably did it” then they must acquit because that is not proof beyond a reasonable doubt.

He asked the jury to take on board what the trial judge, Mr Justice Tony Hunt, tells them about the law and “do not bring a verdict that does not accord with common sense or that is an affront to justice”.

He asked the jury to bring “a verdict in accordance with the evidence”.

Justice Tony Hunt began his charge to the jury by telling them that they will make their decision without sympathy and based only on the evidence they have heard in court.

He will continue his charge to the jury tomorrow.