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.