Abigail Rieley

Writer and Author

Tag: Sentencing

On hashtags, secrets and the balance of power

This post is a hard one to write. I’ve kept this blog for years but this is the post I’ve always second guessed myself out of writing. I’ve written about dysfunctional homes so many times, homes that weren’t safe, predatory men, an inadequate legal system, but I’ve never said that what I had a personal stake in what I was writing – that I understood, that I’ve been there. I know what it’s like to live with a volatile narcissist who will make you doubt the facts in front of your nose. I know what it’s like to dodge ever-changing emotions. I know what it’s like to fear for your life – a dull practical alertness, not a nerve jangling panic.

Writing these words I’m consumed with an urge to qualify, to minimise, to explain. It’s an urge that always comes but I’m not going to listen to it today because I’ve got a few things to say. What happened to me happened. It wasn’t as bad as things that have happened to other people but it was sustained, and it lasted and I was in the middle of it – and I still feel my heart race when I think back to that time. I still jump to the doomsday scenario when I’m stressed because I spent long enough thinking about the bleakest outcomes because they were the only ones I could see. I read Lolita or watch Jessica Jones and I’m floored by the memories. I walked away and I rebuilt myself but I’m never free of it. Not really. I still have days when I’m caught by the tangled mess in my past and held by it. I might see his face in a crowd or on television. These cracks will probably always be there but these days the seams of their joins rarely intrude into day to day living.

So when a hashtag like #MeToo comes along I always think about writing this post. Don’t get me wrong, I think that this public sharing on social media is important. That by opening up the conversation about female safety and the ubiquity of sexual assault perhaps things will finally change – although I doubt it. When the outrage dies down will anything actually change? Will we see changes to the law? Will we see a proper societal shift? Call me cynical, but I doubt it. I’ve seen this before, I’ve read the articles by survivors who bravely shared their stories and the newspaper comments that called each time a watershed, a line in the sand. Things need to change, but will they change now? I’ll not be holding my breath.

You see, apart from having written about violence against women for a long time, apart from having gathered information for most of my adult life, I’ve been through it. A couple of years ago I went to survivors’ charity 1 in 4. With their support I contacted the Gardai and I told my story. Over three days I gave a series of detailed statements. I know what’s needed. I gave my statement to two very experienced gardai, who are used to taking statements, to analysing witnesses. They discussed the case with their superintendent who agreed there was a case to pursue. That man was questioned. The DPP were informed…and then it went no further. I still haven’t had any official notification that the matter has come to a close. I was only a witness after all. He was told. Of course he was told.

I’ll stop again here to silence that persistent little voice, the one that’s telling me I shouldn’t be talking about this, that there was no case to answer. Once again I’m going to silence it because I know what happened to me, and I also know that when it comes to justice for the victims of sexual abuse and assault Irish law could do much, much, much better. On my first visit to 1 in 4 they warned me about going to the gardai. They told me that of the people who come to them the majority choose not to report the case if it’s not necessary because there’s a continuing risk to children. According to the 2002 Sexual Violence and Abuse in Ireland (SAVI) Report, commissioned by the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, only 8% of those abused disclosed to the gardai. Only 16%  of that 8% got to court. That’s a little over 1% of abuse cases.  According to a 2013 report from the CPS less than 1% of allegations of rape are prosecuted as false accusations (even though this is a British figure the percentage is a pretty standard one for false accusations). So when I’m writing about my experiences of this, even though my abuser was never convicted, I’m statistically far more likely to be telling the truth.

But again, that’s my instinct to minimise, to justify. It’s a normal response.

This is at the heart of what I’m writing here. I’m tying myself in knots because I know as a journalist that without a conviction my story is weakened. I can’t name my accuser, although I’d dearly like to. During the process of making my statement I mentioned that I thought there had been another victim. The gardai said they’d check it out. I told her I was writing this. We keep in touch – we’d known about each other for years and she’s the only other person who knows what it was like dealing with him. But the law makes me question my own experience because it wasn’t given a chance to stand up in court. And that’s  the problem with #MeToo. The abusers, the harassers, the rapists among us, live in a world that’s underpinned by that law. They are protected, their good name and innocence is sacrosanct. As the Garda Inspectorate report on responding to child sexual abuse points out “although substantial research in Ireland and elsewhere indicates that only a small percentage of allegations of child sexual abuse are false, the Inspectorate is mindful of the devastating consequences in those cases as well.”

This is what I see when I see the outpouring of shared experience under #MeToo. Our experiences are endemic because there is no come back. We are silenced because of the standard of proof of a behind closed doors experience, of our word against his, of his good name against the assumption of our untrustworthiness. I believe in the presumption of innocence, it is an important basis for a system of law. But it won’t lay to rest the experiences that are being shared at the moment or give us justice or peace. For that we would need a fundamental shift in the balance of power – and I don’t think we’re quite there yet.

Lovely Girls, 20 Years On…

You’re the state broadcaster of a small country. You’ve secured the first European interview with two of the recently released Russian punk feminist activists Pussy Riot. Do you arrange an interview with one of your most experienced interviewers, a woman possibly, known herself for her championing of women’s rights in Ireland? Do you plan a wide ranging issue that will cover the context of these courageous young women’s stand, their subsequent incarceration and their points about the Russia they’ve grown up in? Do you draw sensitive comparisons with tensions in Irish society to produce a hard hitting interview that will be shown as a stand alone broadcast with quotes trailed across news coverage and circulated to other news outlets both in Ireland and abroad to generate as much coverage of what is undoubtedly an important and notable coup for the station?

Or do you instead put the interview on a light entertainment show on a Saturday night, giving the host the brief to approach his guests with all the sensitivity of the famous Lovely Girls episode of Father Ted? The state broadcaster is RTE. The country is Ireland. The interview takes place on the Saturday Night Show. It’s the car crash you would expect – and you don’t have to take my word for it. Here it is.

I mean, where do you start with that? Host Brendan O’Connor stays true to Father Ted by repeatedly referring to Nadezhda Tolokonnikova and Maria Alyokhina as “girls”. O’Connor, fresh from the previous week’s Iona-gate, or should that be Panti-gate,  transcript here, feels the need to have an explanation of why he was caught kissing a bloke on the telly. He asks them whether they think Madonna is an activist like them. He tells Nadezhda and her husband Pytor Verzilov to stop having a “domestic” (although I would dearly love to know exactly what the two women were actually saying in Russian. I have a feeling Pytor was delivering some of the most tactful translation we’ve seen on Irish television in years. My respect for them all actually went up by a couple of notches when they lasted to the end of the interview, even if they made a pointed exit at the earliest opportunity.

I wish that this thing was a one off but sadly it’s not. The list of mind boggling clangers from the national broadcaster is far too long to go into here – those moments when you do a double take because you can’t believe you’ve just heard or seen what you have just heard or seen. The moments when you take to Facebook or Twitter because if you didn’t laugh you’d cry. The moments when you find yourself referencing Alan Partridge or Ricky Gervais, when you ruefully say “I hope this doesn’t go viral”. We’re used to it here. Ireland is a small country and sometimes the inevitable tinge of parochialism lends itself to rather jawdropping lapses of judgement.

The Irish tend to be a kind nation. You won’t get the character assassinations here that accompany a high profile slip elsewhere. It might be hard to  believe in the cut and thrust of the social networks but there’s still a very strong sense of the old adage, if you can’t say something nice, say nothing. But this one humane characteristic can also be one of the most dangerous. It can mean that the bar isn’t raised high enough because the constructive criticism wasn’t there. It can mean that complacency flourishes and egos go unchecked. At it’s worst it can lead to a blind eye being turned on a golden child.

We cringe at the Pussy Riot interview, as we should, but that’s not enough.  We should also be angry at a wasted opportunity. Pussy Riot protested against an oppressive, intertwined church and state. That’s something that should ring a few bells over here. We live in a country where the state broadcaster will buckle at the first hint of a threat from the Catholic right. We live in a country where there is no legislation governing fertility treatment, where we have abortion law for less than a month. We live in a country where men are routinely allowed to escape jail time for sex crimes if they have a large enough wallet – there’s even another one today. But we cringe and we let it go, until the next time. We vent on Twitter, maybe go on a march, but what ever really changes?

Nadezhda and Maria are obviously highly intelligent young women. I wouldn’t be surprised if they chose to accept an Irish pitch for their first European chat show interview because they were aware of at least some of the issues we have in Ireland. I wouldn’t be surprised if they felt a degree of kinship with feminists here. Perhaps they saw Ireland as a country that had come further than Russia but that knew how hard the road was to travel. What they found though was how little has changed. How few women have a voice on primetime broadcasts and how little the status quo has been rocked. The gaffs O’Connor made were those of a man who’s used to referring to his female friends and colleagues as “girls”, who would still make sexist jokes without really thinking about it, who hasn’t really put much thought into the whole sexual equality thing. To be fair, he may well think he’s a fully reconstructed new man who could easily navigate the interview. Someone really ought to tell him otherwise.

What is crushingly depressing about the Pussy Riot interview is the whole inevitability of it. It would have been more surprising to have seen them interviewed by someone like Miriam O’Callaghan in a serious, wide ranging interview that sat proudly in the Prime Time strand or out on its own. That’s what should have happened, but it was never going to. Over the years as a journalist I’ve worked with so many talented, intelligent women, many of whom have gone a long way. But when you step back and take a long look, it’s not enough. I was watching the last part of The Bridge last night and it struck me just how many strong female characters there were. But the really extraordinary thing was that this wasn’t a thing. It’s not a madly feminist series. These were just women. Some of them were cops, some of them were stay at home mothers, some were CEOs or scientists. It really wasn’t a thing. That’s equality. I don’t think we’re even ready to begin that discussion here yet.

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.

Facts and Figures

The Courts Service today released their Annual Report for 2009.  As usual it’s always an interesting read for those of us who work down there.  Apart from seeing in black and white how busy it actually was it’s interesting to put things in some kind of context, to see the breakdown of what actually happened in cool columns of statistics rather than the blur of day to day reporting.

It came as no surprise that murders were at their highest level in eight years.  Last year was a pretty hectic one.  53 murders were sent to the Central Criminal Court in 2009 of which 49 were dealt with.  There were 15 guilty pleas leaving 31 cases to go to trial.  Of those 31, three defendants were found not guilty by reason of insanity, one was acquitted and the rest were convicted – which rather puts the lie to the assumption that the majority of murder trials end in acquittal, certainly not my experience.

There were 18 convictions of murder and 22 convictions for other offences, including manslaughter. If those figures don’t seem to add up that would be because the not guilty by reason of insanity verdicts would still result in some form of detention, usually to the Central Mental Hospital in Dundrum.

The 18 murder convictions all received the mandatory life sentence as did one of the manslaughter verdicts (Ronald Dunbar, who was convicted of the killing of Sligo teenager Melissa Mahon – his appeal is due to be heard soon.) There were another ten sentences of ten years or more.

Looking over the trials I covered last year those figures mean a lot of trials that went under the radar.  For every David Bourke, Ronnie Dunbar or Gerald Barry there many more trials that didn’t peak the media attention and were heard without the fanfare that the high profile trials get.  I’ve written before about the trials that go uncommented. I know there’s been a lot of criticism in recent years of the level of press attention that turns certain murder trials into cause celebres but the flip side of that is that those that lose their lives get their stories told.  I couldn’t list off the names of the defendants in the trials I didn’t cover, let alone the victims.

The only type of criminal trial that was down in numbers was rape down 37% from the 2008 figure of 78.  Before you get excited that’s not as positive as it sounds.  There were still 52 cases in front of the courts.  18 ended with guilty pleas but 25 went forward to trial.  Of the 21 sentences imposed there were 3 life sentences, 5 over 12 years and the rest between 5 and 12 years.

I’ve written at length here in the past about the low sentencing for sex crimes in this country and these figures bear that out.  Rape isn’t an offence that has an inbuilt lesser charge like the majority of murder trials.  You are either guilty or you’re not.  To give someone convicted of rape a mere five years is ridiculously lenient.  I’ve covered a lot of rape trials in the past and I’m well aware that there are different degrees of aggression involved but rape is rape.

Of the life sentences given last year, two of them were to the same person, Gerald Barry.  He had already been convicted of the brutal murder of Swiss student Manuela Riedo in Galway and was later sentenced on two counts of rape for his hauntingly similar attack on a French student only a few short weeks before he killed Manuela.  I was at that sentencing in Galway.  Judge Paul Carney told Barry that he had no hesitation giving him life sentences on both counts and expressed the view that for someone like him the carrot of the automatic quarter off his sentence that every prisoner receives was a waste of time.

But this means that only one other rapist was given a life sentence, the maximum any of the others received was 12 years.  Life is the maximum sentence that can be given for rape but based on these figures you’d pretty much have to go on to kill to be given it.  But I digress.

In the Circuit Court the bulk of the cases were theft and robbery.  Up by 28% since 2008, there were over 1500 dealt with.  The next largest category was assault, up 5% to 1100, followed by drugs offences, approaching the 1000 mark and up by a depressing 23%.  The most shocking jump is the rise in child abuse and child trafficking offences, up from 10 in 2008 to 397 last year, although this leap was due to just two cases each involving over 180 individual offences. However it was only earlier this month that an international report slammed Ireland for it’s record combating child trafficking.

Apart from the crime figures, the main focus of press attention on the report has been concerning the massive increase in debt matters.  Bankruptcies were up by over 100% at 17 and there were almost 70% more orders to have businesses wound up – 128 in total.  This section of the report makes depressing but rather unsurprising reading for anyone who’s picked up a paper over the past twelve months or so.  Numbers in every area have risen except for new businesses – rather unsurprisingly there weren’t as many people looking to take out restaurant or hotel licenses last year.

The grim economic climate has even made itself felt on matters of the heart.  Divorce, separations and annulments are all down on 2008 as are applications for quickie marriages.  Domestic violence applications are down as well though you can’t help wondering how representative those figures really are.

The Court Service Annual Report always gives an interesting reflection of the state of the country.  It might be a reflection of a moment in time some distance away, given the time things take to get to court but it’s an overview of life that’s difficult to see anywhere else.  The courts reflect the darker sides of society, the rotting underbelly that’s frequently hidden from our gaze. Looking at these figures might give us a slightly twisted view of the world we live in but it’s an accurate one nonetheless and says a lot about where we are, or at least have been, as a country.

Back to the Subject of Sentencing

The subject of sentencing seems to be in the air this week.  I was reading an interesting post from Hazel Larkin this morning within minutes of  reading two letters (here and here) in today’s Irish Independent and it got me thinking.

It’s very easy to get upset about some of the sentences handed down in Irish courts.  When you see rapists routinely sentenced to ten years or less, as in the particularly brutal case from Clare that was sentenced yesterday, it can be hard to see how the punishment fits the crime.  But blaming the judges, as the letters to the Indo did today isn’t the answer.  It’s a far more complicated situation than that and the judges are the least of the problem.

I’ve been covering the courts for more than four years, I’ve written on sentencing here on several occasions but it’s a subject that is just going to run and run.  It can be very hard to fathom how a rapist, whose crime is deemed serious enough for the highest criminal court, the Central, is frequently handed a lower sentence than someone convicted of a drugs crime in the lower Circuit Courts.  This isn’t because Central Criminal Court judges are softer than their Circuit Court counterparts, it’s the way the law is constructed.

There exists in Irish law a presumption of degrees.  For example, if someone is convicted of possession of drugs worth more than €13,000, with the presumption that he has them for sale or supply, he must serve a mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years.  This is all very well.  If you take the drugs of the streets you might end up saving lives – or they could end up with the dubious delights of the Head Shop and you as government are left with another hole to plug.

The minimum sentence is all very well in principal, if you assume that everyone caught with vast quantities of drugs is a nasty predatory drug dealer but those guys very seldom seem to end up in court.  What you see instead are the pawns, the hopeless drug addicts whose debt has climbed too high or the hapless third world dupes who see a better future for their families with the proceeds of acting as a drug mule.  I’ve seen plenty of people who were as much victims of the drugs as the end users but all were sentenced to a mandatory ten year turn.

Then you have the rape cases.  Cases as I’ve said which are tried in the highest criminal court, it’s put up there with murder.  Yet there is no minimum sentence for rape.  A grown man who forces himself on a woman or, in some cases, on a young child, can walk away after three or four years.  Even if that attack goes hand in hand with false imprisonment, violent assault or psychological manipulation and entrapment.  I’ve seen a lot of incest cases where the now adult victim has had to endure years of systematic abuse then relived it on the stand only to see their abuser sentenced for one or two years because he’s now an old man.

It doesn’t seem fair that drugs are deemed worse than sexual crimes. After all there aren’t that many people who take drugs who are forced to take them against their will, who are threatened and terrorised until they snort that cocaine or whatever.  I’m not belittling those ravaged by addiction just making the point that those who are raped are never in a situation where they asked for it and very often are never in a situation where they can walk away.  It’s not something that abstention will wipe away and it’s never, ever sought for a rush.  Fine, drugs wreck lives.  But rape destroys them.  If there’s a minimum of ten years for some drugs offences shouldn’t there be a minimum for sex offences?

I’ve sat through a lot of both kinds of trials and I’m well aware that there are differences in degree, just as there are different kinds of killings but I can’t help but agree with those who say that for Central Criminal Court crimes the minimum sentences do not match the crimes.  There are many reasons why the sentences for rape or manslaughter are the length they are.  Judges have a complex way of arriving at their sentences. There’s the range of imprisonment for the crime in hand, then the mitigating factors that must reduce that term, with the sole exception of murder which earns a mandatory life sentence.

If the judge, who has sat through the entire trial, feels that a stiffer sentence than usual is fitting he must still bear in mind the Court of Criminal Appeal which has frequently overturned the longer sentences. 

Each rape trial is different just as each murder trial and each manslaughter trial is different and it’s right that there is flexibility in sentencing but surely a violent rape should be classed the same as a murder if we’re going to be serious about prison being a deterrent.  There are of course other factors in play as well, including the obligatory one quarter off their sentence that the convicted receive as a matter of course.  It was an nice idea, a carrot rather than a stick to ensure good behaviour but when those being jailed are guilty of some of the most heinous crimes committed in the country surely there should be a mechanism to remove the carrot?

I remember the sentencing of Gerald Barry for rape last year.  Barry had been convicted of the murder of Swiss student Manuela Riedo in March last year but it was only a couple of months later in July when a few of us gathered in Galway to hear Mr Justice Paul Carney sentence him for two ground of rape.  Barry had raped a French student just weeks before he killed Manuela in a hauntingly similar attack.  Judge Carney handed down two life sentences.  He said then that he did not think the time off should come into force for men like Barry.  He’s a judge who’s frequently outspoken.  But the wheels of justice move exceedingly slowly and many of the things he’s spoken out about are still very much in force.

I can also remember a sentencing for a very nasty case of child abuse where the judge had wanted to hand down consecutive sentences, which given the multiple counts, would have added up to more than 100 years.  Sadly there are strict rules governing whether sentences should be consecutive or concurrent (that is whether they run one after the other or at the same time) which means that consecutive sentences are a rarity, no matter how vicious the crime.  It’s these same rules that mean that David Curran will effectively serve one life sentence even though he killed both Pawel Kalite and Marius Szwajkos.

There definitely needs to be reform of the sentencing for certain crimes in Irish courts.  But from what I’ve seen it’s rarely the judges who operate from the coalface who are most at fault, it’s the appeal judges who base their decisions on a transcript or the politicians who pass the laws.  There’s a reason why the crimes that tend to be highlighted on the voters doorsteps or those that make the headlines – gangs and drugs principally – are the ones that get the draconian measures.  It’s time that someone who wasn’t after votes looked at the law and made the changes that could make Irish law as fair as it has the potential to be.  This is by and large a great system, but it’s things like this that make people think it can’t be trusted.

Another Controversial Manslaughter Sentence

Ann Burke, the Laois housewife convicted of killing her husband Pat in Ballybrittas before Christmas was sentenced today.  I covered the trial and felt at the time that I wouldn’t be surprised if a non custodial sentence was given.

Today she was indeed given a five year suspended sentence.  Outside the court her husband’s brother Tom made it abundantly clear that Pat Burke’s family did not agree with the manslaughter sentence.  He also said that describing his brother as an abusive husband had been a further assassination to his good name.

Even the judge noted that this was a rather skewed view considering the absolute litany of abuse both Ms Burke and her children described.  Her children stood by her throughout the trial and one of the images I’m left with after covering it is the sight of them clustered around her protectively whenever the court rose.  I’ve covered a lot of trials that have dealt with the darker side of married life but this case was one of the most graphic and most upsetting.

Pat Burke’s death might have been undeniably brutal, his wife hit him 23 times over the head with a hammer, but the life he forced her and his children to lead was also fairly brutal.  I know that grief can make any one of us gloss over the less palatable aspects of a loved one’s personality but seeking to wipe out the years of abuse Pat Burke was described as meting out on his wife and children doesn’t seem fair to those children and the woman who was by marriage part of that family.

Ann Burke’s story isn’t unique.  Up to the point where she picked up the hammer it is played out behind closed doors in every county in Ireland.  The men who terrorise their families should not be shielded by their relatives or by their community, they should be forced to stand to account for what they have done.  Holding down a job does not make a good provider, a good father or a good husband.

But whatever I think about the fairness of this sentence there are bound to be some who disagree.  The subject of manslaughter sentences is one I’ve discussed often and at length here.  It’s rare to see a non custodial sentence imposed but by no means unheard of.  At the other end of the scale you have people like Ronnie Dunbar who was sentenced to life  for the manslaughter of Sligo teenager Melissa Mahon.  In between you have the likes of Finn Colclough and Eamonn Lillis, who both received more usual sentences with ten years (reduced on appeal) and seven respectively.

Since the circumstances that tend to lead to a manslaughter verdict are varied in the extreme it makes sense that there should be such a variation in the sentences handed down.  Ronnie Dunbar was a manipulative schemer who was, according to evidence given in the trial, having an affair with the 14-year-old Melissa.  Ann Burke was a woman who had moved from an abusive childhood to a horrific marriage and eventually snapped.  I’m not saying it’s ever right to take another life but in her case it was probably understandable – certainly at least one of her children thinks so.

Sentences perceived to be on the lighter end of the scale are always the ones that provoke the most controversy.  But the real issue is that the sentences that are the norm, those that work out between 6 and 10 years, stick in the throat as a suitable punishment for taking another’s life.  It’s the same issue seen time and time again in rape and incest cases, where the sentences handed down simply do not seem to fit the crime.

It’s a very complex issue.  Several Central Criminal Court judges have been very vocal about their feelings of their hands tied by the Court of Criminal Appeal.  They will refuse to hand down a truly punitive sentence because of the likelihood of it being reduced on appeal.  Even without the Court of Criminal Appeal though there are issues that reduce the majority of sentences by far more than you would guess.  Chronic overcrowding in many of the country’s jails mean that prisoners are routinely released early and it’s written into Irish law that everyone convicted on a crime has an automatic one quarter off their sentence, a juicy carrot intended to encourage better behaviour in in jail.

Judges here do not have the option to stipulate a minimum time to be served, as they can with a life sentence in the UK.  If sentences are going to change, then there’s a lot that needs to change within the system as a whole.

Having said that, I think today’s sentence was a very merciful sentence.  Ann Burke will have to life forever with what she did.  She didn’t need prison walls to underline that.

And We’re Back to The Subject of Sentences

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.

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