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Judge takes jury through key evidence in Ashling Murphy murder trial

Jozef Puska, 33, sits in the dock at the Central Criminal Court in Dublin (Elizabeth Cook/PA)
Jozef Puska, 33, sits in the dock at the Central Criminal Court in Dublin (Elizabeth Cook/PA)

A judge in the trial of the man accused of murdering school teacher Ashling Murphy has taken the jury through key parts of the evidence in the case.

Judge Mr Justice Tony Hunt told the nine men and three women of the jury at the Central Criminal Court in Dublin they face a “stark choice” between accepting the prosecution case against Jozef Puska or accepting his defence.

Ms Murphy, 23, was killed while exercising on a canal path in Tullamore, Co Offaly, on the afternoon of January 12 last year.

Puska, 33, of Lynally Grove in Mucklagh, Tullamore, has pleaded not guilty to her murder.

The prosecution insists the evidence against Puska is “overwhelming” and “compelling”, and claim he has “spun” a story of “foul and contemptible” lies for the sake of the jury.

Jozef Puska court case
Jozef Puska, 33, is questioned by his barrister Michael Bowman SC (Elizabeth Cook/PA)

The accused, who gave evidence from the witness box last week, has claimed he was “trying to help” Ms Murphy after she had allegedly been attacked by another man, who he said had also attacked and stabbed him.

Judge Hunt continued delivering his charge to the jury on Wednesday ahead of them being sent out to consider their verdict.

Focusing on legal principles involved in the case on Tuesday, on Wednesday he took the jurors through the main aspects of the evidence.

These covered an alleged confession Puska gave to gardai in a Dublin hospital; DNA evidence found under Ms Murphy’s fingernails; inferences jurors are permitted to draw from Puska’s failure to answer certain questions when interviewed by gardai; lies he has admitted telling to the Garda; and evidence given by eyewitnesses on the day of the attack in Tullamore.

The judge urged jurors to decide on the facts of the case first, and then apply the law to those facts.

He said what was most important was their assessment of the evidence, not what he or the various lawyers thought.

Puska, wearing a grey jacket and white shirt, watched on from the dock while members of Ms Murphy’s family sat in the public gallery of the court.

Referring to Puska’s comments to gardai in hospital, in which he allegedly confessed to the murder, the judge told jurors it was their role to assess whether this could be relied upon.

“It’s a matter for you to be satisfied that words of admission were spoken,” he said.

He said the Garda had received some criticism around how the alleged admission was obtained. He said there was no prohibition on gardai carrying out investigations on hospital premises but he said the fact they did not seek a doctor to assess whether Puska was fit to talk to them may be an issue they want to consider.

He said there was a suggestion gardai had “sidestepped” doctors and nurses to access Puska, but he told jurors to consider the context in which the Garda members were operating, namely the fear there was a “maniac on the loose” following Ms Murphy’s murder.

He said jurors may wish to consider that Slovakian national Puska had undergone an exploratory procedure in hospital, was in pain and was in unfamiliar surroundings when he made the alleged admission through an interpreter. He also noted that people have wrongly confessed to things before.

But the judge also suggested it was not always the case that gardai spoke to people when they were in “pristine condition”.

“You assess what the guards did and the circumstances in which they did it,” he told the jury.

On the DNA evidence, the judge interpreted the scientific evidence linking the profile found under Ms Murphy’s fingerprints to Puska, saying it was “north of 99% certain that it’s his DNA compared to anybody else’s”.

But he said it was the “prosecutors’ fallacy” that a high likelihood of a DNA match automatically meant a high likelihood of guilt.

He said both the prosecution and defence version of events involved there being physical contact between Puska and Ms Murphy. He said the question jurors need to consider was whether that contact was through a fatal assault or by the accused coming to Ms Murphy’s aid after she was attacked by someone else.

Justice Hunt also told the jurors they were able to draw negative inferences from Puska’s failure to answer some questions in garda interviews. These include questions asking him to account for his DNA and his bike being found at the scene.

He said any inferences drawn could not be used on their own to sustain a guilty verdict but they could be used to corroborate or support other evidence against the accused.

The judge said the jury could also draw a negative inference from the fact Puska made no comment when told about the consequences of failing to mention anything that he might later rely on in his defence.

The judge said jurors had to decide whether there was a “benign” reason for his failure to answer questions or offer further material or whether it inferred guilt.

Jurors were also taken through the out-of-court lies attributed to Puska.

The judge said the accused has conceded he lied to gardai on “some things”, including an initial claim that he had sustained stomach wounds after being randomly attacked by two men in the Blanchardstown area of Dublin.

Justice Hunt said jurors needed to consider the “full panoply” of reasons someone might lie and said it could have been for an “innocent reason”.

“If you think there’s an innocent explanation for the lies then you take no notice of the lie,” he said.

The judge then turned to eyewitness evidence. He placed particular focus on testimony provided by primary school teacher Jenna Stack who was jogging with a friend on the Grand Canal in Tullamore when she came across a man crouching over a struggling women in a ditch.

The judge read the entire testimony back to the jurors.

He noted that Ms Stack had ultimately identified another man as the potential attacker.

The judge said errors were often made with identification in criminal cases and said it was up to the jury to decide whether that mistake “cast a reasonable doubt on the rest of the evidence” given by the witness.