Shan Mohangi: 95 Harcourt Street, by Kevin Higgins - Irish murder trials of 1963
As Ireland collectively draws breath after the conclusion of a high-profile murder trial, my eye was caught by this account of a similar such event from 1963 - a South African medical student who killed and then dismembered his fifteen-year-old girlfriend, was convicted of murder and sentenced to death, and then allowed a retrial on appeal in which he was convicted of manslaughter. I won't go into the sad and grisly details, but there were several things that struck me as interesting incidental colour:
Nobody seems to have expressed any surprise that a fourteen-year-old might have a relationship with a man in his early 20s. She had left school, and had a full-time job, so it appears that society considered her mature enough to know her own mind. Mohangi's desire to marry her was seen as a little premature rather than utterly inappropriate. I find this extraordinary. It's also notable that most recent accounts incorrectly give her age as sixteen.
Dublin in 1963 was a lot more multicultural than I had realised. The other tenants of 95 Harcourt Street included Winston Sotubu and Morgan Pillay. On the day Mohangi was sentenced for the second time, the recently arrived Kader Asmal was launching the Irish Anti-Apartheid Movement. A lot of Commonwealth students attended the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland.
One issue that isn't mentioned at all in the book is that the victim and the owner of 95 Harcourt Street appear to have been Protestants. The landlord's name was Cecil Frew, which is not a typical Catholic name. The victim's mother was the sexton at the Church of Ireland church in Bray. All the judges, lawyers and police involved appear to have been Catholics. Was this an issue? I simply don't know. (The judges, lawyers and police and probably the juries at both trials were also all men.)
The story continues to circulate in Dublin mythology that the death was the result of a botched abortion, but this is decisively disproved by the author.
Mohangi was deported back to South Africa after his release in 1968, and became a successful businessman. In 2009, he was unceremoniously dropped from a list of candidates for that year's election because his past conviction came to light. It's a bit odd because a moment's googling found two news articles from 1984 in which he discussed the case perfectly frankly with journalists, in the context of his successful campaign of that year to win a seat in the apartheid South African parliament's chamber representing Indians. Perhaps people had simply forgotten in the ensuing quarter-century.
One person who comes out of the business very well, greatly to my surprise, is Charles Haughey. As Minister for Justice since 1961, he had pledged to end capital punishment; with the Mohangi case creating public debate, he rushed the relevant legislation through the Oireachtas, and then (reading between the lines) helped ensure that there was a retrial under the new legislation so that the death penalty would not be possible. Haughey's political legacy is, to put it politely, flawed, but this was a case where he exerted himself politically to do the right thing for a man who was discriminated against by his home country and, though clearly culpable by his own admission, had been the victim of a flawed judicial process in Ireland. Credit where credit is due.
It's not a terribly well-written book, but it is an interesting snapshot of the beginnings of change in Irish society in the background of awful events.