'Defenceless' | 

Night of alcohol and drugs that ended with the murder of toddler Santina Cawley

Karen Harrington (38) was jailed for life after a Central Criminal Court jury found her guilty by unanimous verdict of the shocking killing of Santina Cawley (2).

Santina Cawley

Ralph Riegel

An alcohol- and drug-fuelled night led to the horrific beating to death of “an innocent and defenceless” two-year-old girl.

Karen Harrington (38) was jailed for life after a Central Criminal Court jury found her guilty by unanimous verdict of the shocking killing of Santina Cawley (2).

The toddler died from traumatic brain damage and a severe spinal cord injury after suffering a total of 53 different injuries in Harrington’s Cork flat in the early hours of July 5, 2019.

Harrington – who had been trusted with the child while her father Michael Cawley (37) walked into Cork city centre for two hours at 3am – remained expressionless as she was convicted of the little girl’s murder and received a mandatory life sentence.

Harrington of Lakelands Crescent, Mahon, Cork, was in a relationship with Mr Cawley who was separated from his wife and the mother of his five children, Bridget O’Donoghue.

Earlier that evening, after several hours of drinking and smoking cannabis, Harrington had gone home in tears after being called “a prostitute” by Mr Cawley who also accused her of being with “foreigners”.

She was convicted by unanimous decision of a Central Criminal Court jury after four hours and 46 minutes of deliberation over two days following a harrowing four-week trial.

Harrington – who was wearing black trousers, a black jacket and pink blouse – stared without emotion as the guilty verdict was confirmed.

She had 16 previous convictions but none for violent offences.

The judge said it was “truly shocking” how “an innocent and defenceless child” could be subjected to such a terrible death. He said aspects of the case were “beyond description” and “heart-wrenching”.

Santina’s mother Bridget, who held her baby in her arms minutes after doctors ceased attempts at saving her life at 9am on July 5, said she could not understand how anyone could display such appalling cruelty to a child.

“I continuously ask myself how could someone be so cruel to a two-year-old – a soft and gentle soul, just how can you hurt a baby like this?”

She described Santina as “an old soul” who seemed to have been in the world before.

“She was a premature baby. She was small but she was a fighter. She was loved and adored by her family the minute we saw her. She was very cute for her age. She was clever and bright. She was very soft and gentle yet was hardy, determined and a little fighter.”

The mother of five said she remained in shock over the condition of her daughter at CUH that day.

“When I asked to see her, she was put in my arms and I could not believe the condition of her – she was covered in bruises from head to toe – her hands were cold and she was so pale.

“My last memory of Santina was her hugging and squeezing me and not wanting to leave me – I regret leaving her so much that day. I wish I could go back in time.”

Santina’s father, Michael Cawley, said he would be haunted by the memory of finding his daughter lying battered and blood-spattered on a blanket in his then-girlfriend’s apartment.

“The worst thing was finding her disfigured body under a blanket. I will be haunted by this horror for the remainder of my life. This is beyond words. I have no words.

“It breaks my heart to visit her grave. All I have now are heavenly birthdays and memories. These beautiful memories can never be taken from me.”

Senior investigating officer Detective Inspector Danny Coholan said their ultimate goal was delivering justice for Santina.

“Justice for Santina was always the ultimate goal for the team since her murder on July 5, 2019. This was a particularly emotive case for the members that attended the scene and the investigation team, many having children of a similar age. Santina was always in our thoughts.”

The trial featured more than 40 witnesses.

Jury members viewed extensive CCTV footage, video-recorded Garda interviews with Karen Harrington as well as lengthy transcripts and detailed forensic evidence.

Harrington gave sworn evidence in her own defence – insisting she had not harmed Santina. However, she was unable to explain how the child suffered critical injuries as well as bruises to almost every part of her body at a time when she was alone with Harrington in her apartment.

The prosecution said the evidence showed the defendant was alone in the apartment with the little girl from 3.10am to 5.11am – with Harrington’s DNA on a blood spatter found on Santina’s pink T-shirt and Santina’s DNA found on a blood stain recovered from a pair of adult female leggings discovered in a back bedroom.

Clumps of Santina’s hair, torn from her head, were found on the floor and couch while one of her earrings was on the ground. The child was found naked and blood-spattered.

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