The complete story of Karen Harrington's trial for murder of Santina Cawley (2)

Published date16 May 2022
Publication titleIrish Times: Web Edition Articles (Dublin, Ireland)
Prosecution counsel, Sean Gillane SC asked him to confirm some exhibits found there. The detective garda opened a brown paper evidence bag and took out a small pink sequined top. "Age 12-18 months," he said as he held it up and showed it to the jury. There was a momentary silence as everyone eyed the small sparkly top and absorbed its significance - Santina was so tiny

Other moments during the trial of Karen Harrington for the murder of Santina at her apartment at Elderwood Park on the Boreenamanna Road in Cork on July 5th, 2019 emphasised the child's tiny frame like when Sgt Brian Teahan told how he could only use two fingers rather than his entire hand to perform CPR on the little girl.

But it was Det Garda Dennehy holding up the tiny sparkly top, evoking images of the auburn-haired toddler smiling out of photographs, innocent of the fate that was to befall her, that seemed to strike a chord with those in court including Harrington herself, who could be seen mopping tears from her eyes as she sat in the dock, just yards from the garda holding up the piece of clothing.

It immediately triggered the question - how did Karen Harrington, a 38-year-old woman with no history of violence, whom the court heard effectively acted as a parent from the age of 15 to raise her three younger sisters during a family crisis when her mother took ill, find herself on trial for arguably the most unconscionable of all crimes - the murder of a child?

It's a question many in Mahon, where Harrington grew up, have asked over the past three years since she was first charged with the murder and it's a question many in the largely working-class community of 20,000 in the south-eastern corner of Cork city, are likely to ask again this week as Harrington begins a life sentence for the murder.

"It's a hard one to fathom," said one local "A lot of people were shocked when they first heard Karen was being charged with the murder of a child because they couldn't believe it - she would have been well known in the area as a child minder - her own family background would have been somewhat dysfunctional but she overcame that to get work babysitting and child minding."

That picture of Harrington as someone cast in the role of a parent, bringing up her younger siblings at the family home in Ravensdale Road in the heart of Mahon, was one that chimed with the image painted in court by her younger sister, Michelle that it was not in Karen's nature to be mean to a child, let alone harm or worse again, murder a child.


Family friend, Yvonne Walsh, whom Harrington called to on the morning of the murder after she left her apartment where Santina was found unresponsive, painted a similar picture. She told how she knew Harrington from the time she was a child and that apart from her own mother, Harrington was the only one she would ever trust to mind her own daughter when she was growing up.

Back in Mahon, the local observed: "People are still shocked by it all - hearing all about the injuries Santina suffered, it would seem she was the victim of a frenzied attack - as if Karen just lost it. Now Karen wasn't one to put up with crap from people but anyone who knew her growing up here in Mahon would say they never saw her lose it to the point of getting violent - at least not publicly."

That view of Harrington as being someone who was good with children was endorsed by Santina's father, Michael Cawley. Originally from Ennis in Co Clare, he married Bridget O'Donoghue from Blackpool in Cork in 2006 and the couple settled locally. They began a family with Candice, Michael Jnr, Patrick, and Thomas all arriving before Santina was born on May 6th, 2017.

The couple separated in March 2018. Cawley had been looking after two of the boys but when Santina suffered a broken femur while with Bridget, the two boys returned to live with their mother and Cawley began caring for Santina at his flat at Leeside Apartments on Grattan St in the city centre. "It was a privilege to look after Santina and I always wanted her in my life," he told the trial.

Harrington told gardaí she first met Cawley by chance on MacCurtain St in Cork city centre in December 2018 following his split from Santina's mother and they began a relationship. He often stayed over with Santina at her apartment in Elderwood. "We grew close, and I was just getting to know him," she told gardaí in one interview following her arrest for questioning.

Cawley painted a similarly positive picture of Harrington when asked how she got on with Santina. "I could never say anything bad about Karen - she got on good with Santina and Santina would have gotten on with her - I thought it would be okay to leave Santina with Karen - I had left her with Karen a few times and there was never a problem - I trusted Karen."


That picture of a harmonious relationship between Michael Cawley and his daughter and his new partner was reinforced by evidence at the trial from Harrington's sister, Michelle who told how, when Santina suffered the fracture to her femur while with her mother in April 2019, it was her sister, Karen Harrington who went to the hospital with the infant for her appointments.

So where did it all go wrong - and why?

The relationship between Harrington and Cawley seemed fine on the afternoon of July 4th 2019 when he came with Santina and collected Harrington in his gold-coloured Ford Mondeo and dropped her into Cork city centre where she visited a casino on MacCurtain Street before going to visit her grandmother and later calling to her friend, Martina Higgins.

The two women, together with Higgins' youngest son went to the Atlantic Pond near Páirc Uí Chaoimh where they began drinking before they...

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