No this isn’t a writing related post, I’m not talking those kind of sentences. I’m talking about the sentences handed down by Irish courts, the Central Criminal Court in particular and Eamonn Lillis’s sentence to be specific.
Since he was given seven years on Friday the papers and the airwaves have been full of condemnation of judge Barry White’s sentence. I agree that seven years, or six years and eleven months to be precise, isn’t a lot for the taking of a human life but it’s not an unusual length for a manslaughter sentence in the Irish courts.
I’ve written here before about the need for more severe minimum sentences for crimes like manslaughter and rape but it’s an ongoing problem.
When I was asked on Twitter what I thought the sentence was going to be on Friday morning I said that I thought it would be in the area of seven to ten years. I was going by what I’d seen in previous trials and knowledge of the judge involved. As it turned out Mr Justice White said that he considered the correct sentence to be ten years, but reduced it on considering mitigating factors – chief of which appeared to be the level of media scrutiny Lillis can expect when he gets out of jail.
I’m not going near the whole media as mitigation thing. We do our job and Eamonn Lillis, or for that matter Jean Treacy, would not have been of interest if he hadn’t killed his wife. That’s the way it works. Newspapers wouldn’t waste the ink if stories like this didn’t sell papers. While I’ll admit that some of my colleagues might fan the flames of interest quite strenuously, they, or for that matter myself, would not be concerned with this kind of story if it didn’t pay the bills. As a species we are fascinated with our own kind. Crime allows us greater access to the workings of people’s lives and minds than we get in the normal paths of our daily lives. But I’m going off the point, this post is about sentences.
A lot of people are saying that Eamonn Lillis got what is perceived as a light sentence because he is rich. His route through life might have been eased by money but when it comes to the courts it generally makes very little difference. I’ve seen people at both ends of the social spectrum have the book thrown at them, for different reasons and I’ve seen sympathy shown just as diversely.
Finn Colclough, from Waterloo Road in Dublin, was given ten years for the manslaughter of Sean Nolan but it’s not just those with posh addresses. In April 2008 21-year-old Limerick student Jody Buston was sentenced to a mere 6 years for stabbing a pensioner in the heart after wandering into his house and mistaking the old man for a ghost. The year before three Limerick teenagers who had intentionally run over apprentice electrician Darren Coughlan after mistaking him for someone else were given a maximum of seven years. Finally in November last year the first person to be convicted in the new criminal courts complex at Parkgate Street was sentenced to ten years for stabbing a man outside a Galway pub.
If sentences are too short in the Irish court system it’s generally not due to some partiality of judges or an old boys club of partiality in terms of the accused, it’s because that’s the way the law is. It’s even worse when it comes to rapes. I’ve written here before about the Court of Criminal Appeal overturning the life sentence handed down to Philip Sullivan who raped two small boys. It’s a problem throughout the system and one, certainly that needs to be changed.
But shouting about it because of perceived social inequality is missing the point and allowing for the wider issue to be ignored. Eamonn Lillis didn’t get seven years because he’s a millionaire, he got it because that was what he was always going to get if convicted of manslaughter. The fault is with the system on this one, not the individual judges.