Writer and Author

A Menace to Society?

The first photographers arrived outside Arbour Hill Prison in Dublin at some point in the middle of yesterday afternoon.  Their numbers swelled as the afternoon and evening wore on as they were joined by their colleagues and crime reporters from the various media outlets.  By this morning there were around 30 eagerly awaiting the release of the man who is currently Public Enemy Number 1, convicted rapist Larry Murphy.

Shortly before 10.30 the doors of the prison opened and Murphy walked out, ignoring the press and the few assembled members of the public, to get into a waiting taxi and drive away into something that doesn’t remotely resemble obscurity.  Apparently he managed to lose the following press posse but he won’t avoid them for long.  According to reports on Twitter one of the Irish tabloids has posted his photograph all over his native Baltinglass asking for anyone seeing him to call the paper with the details.

Murphy’s release has been a national obsession for days now.  While the flames of media interest might have been somewhat fanned by the summer lull in newsworthy stories it’s a valid cause for concern.  Even if the crowd waiting outside Arbour Hill prison might have called to mind Chris Morris’s notorious Brass Eye Paedophilia Special (which featured material about a child molester disguised as a house and an angry crowd outside a prison tearing another paedophile to bloody pieces – in the name of satire rather than news coverage I hasten to add) Murphy’s release is a frightening prospect.

Let’s take a moment to go over why he served 10 and a half years in jail (and I’ll get to the length of time he served in a bit).  He abducted a woman he had never met, bundled her into the boot of his car, took her up to the Wicklow Mountains and raped her repeatedly.  When he was surprised by two huntsmen, who miraculously arrived and saved the woman, he was trying to suffocate his victim with a plastic bag. 

He was sentenced to 15 years in prison but because of the clause in Irish law that allows any prisoner the particularly juicy carrot of between a quarter and a third off their sentence if they keep their nose clean in jail, he’s out after 10 and a half.  Murphy refused to take part in any kind of rehabilitation in jail but that wasn’t part of the deal.  So he’s out and the press are on his tail.

From now on he’ll have to tell gardai where he is and what he’s doing, but since there’s nothing like America’s Megan’s Law here in Ireland the general public won’t share that information.  Granted there’s a very good chance that if he so much as sneezes for the foreseeable future it’ll be on the front pages of the next days papers but that interest will wane as soon as the next story comes along.  He’ll make the front pages if he strikes again but that isn’t going to make any of us sleep better in our beds.

Murphy isn’t a unique case.  There are plenty of vicious rapists serving time in Irish prisons and some are even up for release soon.  Back in June one of them, Michael Murray, who raped four women over six days in 1995, actually went to the High Court complaining that he couldn’t lead a normal life because of the constant hounding by the press.  Murray had undergone counselling in prison but even his own counsel admitted he was an “abnormal menace” to the community.  Murray was unsuccessful in his action but you only have to look at the criticism that gets thrown at the press with every high profile trial, or even, as I’ve found out, any book about a high profile trial, to see that it’s by no means a given that any future case would get the same ruling.

Yes the press get excited about people like Murphy and Murray getting out of prison.  Yes sometimes the coverage can get a little over the top.  But ultimately the press are only doing their jobs.  Things that make people feel unsafe make good stories and sell newspapers and I’m sure over the next few weeks we’ll hear arguments for some of the more shameless red tops that a public service is being done. 

The problem is that it’s really not their job to keep an eye on dangers to society.  It’s something they’ll do but for very different reasons from the ones such a job should be undertaken for.  I’m a great believer in an ethical press and think that a strong media is necessary to protect society from corruption and injustice but I’m also a realist.  There will always be other reasons why something like this makes a good story.  A lot of those reasons have very little to do with altruism or ethics.  Do this job long enough and the cynicism comes naturally.

The people who should be keeping an eye on people like Murphy are not the press but the gardai.  The problem with that is that with the best will in the world, the gardai are unlikely to be up to that particular job.  They can’t shadow Murphy 24 hours a day, 365 days a year and they’re going to have to  rely on him to cooperate with them to keep tabs on him any other way.

The real problem with this mess is that this point has been reached so soon.  Ten and a half years is not a long time for such a brutal rape – but then rape sentences in this country are usually on the short side.  I’ve written here at length in the past on the subject of rape sentences and once again I’ll say they are too short.

Generally speaking it’s only the very brutal rapes that make the headlines.  While the media will be all over this case, where an Irishman has carried out a brutal attack on an Irish woman, they have been a lot less quick to cover equally nasty rapes involving an accused and a victim from outside Ireland.  I’ve covered enough rape trials for news agencies to know how depressing it can be to write copy about horrific events day after day and send them out to every newsroom only to have your work ignored time and time again. Unfortunately familiarity breeds contempt.  Newspapers want news and court cases tend to be too repetitive to give that newness.  As a reading public we won’t read the same stories over and over again so why should the papers publish them?

There’s also the issue of sensitivity of course.  The fact that rape trial reporting is a tricky business with the need to ensure anonymity of both accused and victim for the duration of the trial at least, doesn’t help matters.  Consequently it tends to be only the most brutal, the most scary and predatory attackers that make the headlines.  Only the most shocking cases.  There are a great many more trials that go on without a murmur and whose sentences are not remarked  upon.

When someone like Murphy gets out after ten years there’s an outcry, and there should be but this is a problem that is there all the time.  Rape sentences are frequently under ten years.  Life sentences are rarely given and when they are more often than not over turned on appeal.  That needs to change.  Someone who kidnapped a woman and threatened to  kill them should have been sentenced to a lot more than 15 years.  If someone’s a menace they should be taken off the streets until they are no longer a mess.

Instead we offer carrots to people who don’t deserve them, a light at the end of the tunnel for people who only deserve to see the light from an oncoming train.  I’m thinking in particular of Gerald Barry, sentenced to two life sentences last December for the rape of a French student less than two months before he went on to brutally murder Swiss student Manuela Riedo.  When he was handing out sentence Mr. Justice Paul Carney mentioned the quarter off saying that Barry was a perfect illustration of why it should be discretionary.

Surely it’s time we gave judges the power to set the upper limit of a sentence for serious crimes?  The Court of Criminal Appeal would always be there but why can’t trial judges decide, like their English counterparts, that someone convicted of rape or murder should serve a minimum amount of time behind bars.  You will never hear of someone being sent to prison for “at least 35 years” from an Irish court because the judges are not allowed to do that.  They pass their sentences according to very strict rules.  I can see why those rules are there but there has to be more flexibility to punish those guilty of the worst crimes this society has seen.  There would still be the freedom to decide on a case by case basis.  If someone is found guilty of an inconceivably horrific crime the courts should be able to ensure they never see freedom again.

If someone is going to remain a serious threat to society they should not be allowed back into it, even if that means holding them in continuing custody “just in case”.  I’m well aware of the human rights side of this, and the fact that our prisons are already overcrowded and our courts are working more efficiently than ever, but beside all of this there has to be justice.  There are certain crimes where the punishment should be life and there should be the freedom to ensure that life does mean life.  As it is we will see the same circus as we have today the next time someone particularly nasty walks free while still in the prime of life.  It’s not up to the press to shout about the unfairness of it all, it’s something that needs to be changed as a matter of policy, not a kneejerk reaction or vote catching sop.  Until then there will be too many victims who feel that justice wasn’t served and too many women afraid of real bogeymen.

1 Comment

  1. Clare

    A very measured response to the Larry Murphy story. As always, you write about the crux of the issue rather than the topic that necessarily makes the headlines. Sentences for rape in this country are unbelievable low, and together with the low conviction rate, it’s very difficult for justice to be done.

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