Father of Santina Cawley ran screaming that his partner smothered his child, trial hears

Karen Harrington, of Lakelands Crescent, Mahon, Cork, is on trial charged with the murder of Santina Cawley on July 5th, 2019.
Father of Santina Cawley ran screaming that his partner smothered his child, trial hears

Olivia Kelleher

The distressed father of Santina Cawley went rushing back to a house where he had socialised earlier that evening and shouted that his girlfriend had smothered his two-year-old daughter, a murder trial has heard.

Karen Harrington, of Lakelands Crescent in Mahon, Cork, is on trial charged with the murder of Santina Cawley at 26 Elderwood Park, Boreenmanna Road in the city on July 5th, 2019.

Ms Harrington (37) was in a relationship with Michael Cawley, the father of the deceased, at the time of the alleged offence.

Eric Okunala had been in the company of the couple earlier that evening at the home of his partner Martina Higgins, also in the Elderwood complex. He gave evidence that Karen had left after 1am, with Michael following at around 3am on July 5th, 2019.

He said Michael started banging on their door shortly after 5am. He was shouting that his child had been smothered.

“He [Michael] was banging on the door and screaming : ‘Karen is after smothering my child.’”

Mr Okunala said that he was only acquainted with Michael. However, he knew Karen well through her friendship with Martina. He told the jury of seven men and five women that he never got the impression that she was a violent person.

He gave evidence that Santina, who had incurred a previous injury to her leg, could not walk and was instead shuffling around.

He said that he and Martina had been prepared to allow Santina to stay in the apartment until the morning as she had fallen asleep but that Michael had brought her home.

Tensions rise

Mr Okunala said the mood at the start of the evening was fine. However, the atmosphere eventually soured and Michael had taken his shirt off and was trying to fight him.

He said that Michael had given the impression that he didn’t trust Karen.

Amid tension, Karen had left her friend Martina’s home at Elderwood Drive at 1.25am on July 5th and returned to her own home at the time at 26 Elderwood Park. Mr Okunala said that Michael left shortly after 3am after calling him a “rat” because he threatened to call the guards on him amid rowdy behaviour.

Meanwhile, Michael Cawley also gave evidence in the case. He became emotional and broke down crying in the box when the defence showed him CCTV footage of himself and his daughter shopping in Aldi in Cork the day before Santina was found critically injured.

The toddler had sustained extensive bruising to every part of her body, fractures to her skull and ribs, damage to her spine and a brain injury. Clumps of her torn out hair were found on the apartment floor as was a stud which had been in her left earlobe.

Mr Cawley said that he had left Santina with his partner in the past and that the pair had got on well.

“Karen got on brilliant with her. She got on with Santina and Santina would have got on with her. I left her with Karen and a few times and there was never a problem. I thought it would be okay for me to leave Santina with Karen. I trusted Karen. It was the shock of my life.”

Mr Cawley said that he was distraught when he returned to Miss Harrington’s apartment on the July 5th, shortly after 5am to find kitchen chairs on the floor, blood and glass broken in the property.

He then found his daughter critically injured and naked under a blanket. The emergency services were called and Santina was taken to Cork University Hospital where she died at 9.20am.

Devastating injuries

Sean Gillane, SC, for the prosecution had earlier told the trial that Santina had devastating injuries from which there was no hope of recovery.

Mr Cawley gave evidence that everyone loved his daughter Santina as she was “very friendly” and “loved people.”

He refuted suggestions from defence barrister Brendan Grehan, SC, that he had accused Karen of going off with foreigners in a casino in Cork. He said that he might have called her names, but he wasn’t certain about the matter.

The trial had heard that Karen had left the Higgins apartment at Elderwood Drive at 1.25am and returned to her own flat at 26 Elderwood Park.

Michael Cawley returned to the flat at 3.05am on July 5th, 2019 but left five minutes later in order to retrieve a forgotten phone at the apartment of Ms Higgins.

When Eric Okunala told him to come back to get his phone the following day he ended up leaving the complex to go to Cork city centre in a bid to find his cousin.

Mr Cawley said that he would only have been absent for five minutes if he had been able to gain access to his phone. He needed his phone to call his cousin to give him directions to the Elderwood complex.

He was tracked on CCTV at various intervals in the city centre and near the Elderwood complex between 3am and 5am on July 5th, 2019 as he attempted without success to find his cousin who had come from Limerick.

Mr Cawley told the jury that when he returned home shortly after 5am he was met outside Karen’s apartment by her next door neighbour Dylan Olney who asked if it was his baby was in the company of Miss Harrington inside the flat.

He stated that Mr Olney told him that Karen had been “screaming and roaring” at the baby. Mr Cawley stated that he was deeply distressed by what he saw when he turned the key to gain access to the property.

“I see chairs on the floor and blood on the floor and glass broken.”

Call an ambulance

He said when he saw his injured child he asked Karen to call an ambulance but she “just ran away.”

The trial also heard evidence from Martina Higgins. Ms Higgins said that she and Karen had had a little to drink and smoked a joint down by the Atlantic Pond that evening before Santina was found critically injured.

Ms Higgins said that Michael Cawley had picked them up. At about 10pm on July 4th, 2019, the adults and Santina, who was in the car, went back to the Elderwood complex in Boreenmanna Road in Cork. They went to the home of Ms Higgins where a few drinks were had.

She said that Santina was playing with balls in a play pool in the flat for a period of time.

Ms Higgins' partner Eric was also present in the apartment, but he was not drinking. The mood was “grand” but it changed when Michael got a phone call from a cousin. Ms Higgins said that Michael wanted to invite his cousin to stay in the Higgins apartment.

Neither Karen or Martina wanted this to happen and the defendant and Michael started to argue. Ms Higgins said that Michael called Karen “a whore and a prostitute” and she left.

She said when Michael left after 3am he had Santina resting on a shoulder. She was crying because she had woken up. Martina had fallen asleep.  The next Martina heard of Michael was when he started banging on her door screaming.

“He was saying ‘Santina, my child. Karen killed my child. She is dead.’ I got a shock. I don’t even remember running down the stairs. He [Michael] sounded frightened.”

The case before Mr Justice Michael McGrath continues next Tuesday and is expected to last another month. Up to 100 witnesses are due to be called.

 If you have been affected by any of the issues raised in this article, you can freephone the Samaritans 24 hours a day for confidential support at 116 123 or email jo@samaritans.org. 

You can also freephone the national Bereavement Support Line run by the HSE and Irish Hospice Foundation at 1800 80 70 77 (Monday-Friday 10am-1pm), and the contact information for a range of mental health supports is available at mentalhealthireland.ie/get-support. 

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