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Tag: Philip Sullivan

A Busy Year…

It’s the last day of the year and the end of the decade to boot.  Time to take stock and look back over the last twelve months with mixed feelings…whatever else 2009 has been it’s seldom been boring.  There have been opportunities and set backs but on the whole I think we’re going out with a bang.  It may have been used as a curse in the past but I’d rather live in Interesting Times than dull ones!

In terms of the courts it’s been a very interesting year.  In terms of both trials, and legislation that will affect both how I do my job and what happens in the trials I cover, there’s been a lot fitted into the past 12 months.  I’ll try at touch the main points but feel free to comment if I’ve missed anything.  I’ve linked back to my posts on the subject where they exist.  With the longer trials the name of both the victim and the accused should be prominent in the tag cloud to the right.

The year started off quietly enough.  In January Brian McBarron pleaded guilty to the murder of his girlfriend, nurse Sara Neligan, daughter of the prominent former consultant surgeon, Mr Maurice Neligan.  Sara had planned to leave him so he stabbed her.  He told gardai “she belonged to me.”

The same month serial child rapist Philip Sullivan had his life sentence overturned by the Court of Criminal Appeal.

In February, a familiar face, Kathleen Mulhall, mother of the infamous Scissor Sisters, pleaded guilty to concealing evidence about her daughters gruesome murder of their mother’s Kenyan boyfriend, Farah Swelah Noor.  She was sentenced in May to five years in prison.

March began with the passing into law of the Legal Services Ombudsman Act 2009 setting up the office of Legal Services Ombudsman to oversee complaints by and about members of the legal profession.  The office will also be responsible for making the public aware of what complaint procedures are available against solicitors and barristers.

In the Central Criminal Court a run of high profile murder trials began in March with that of Gerald Barry, the brutal killer and rapist who would be sentenced to life for the murder of Swiss student Manuela Riedo.

The Barry trial was swiftly followed by that of wife killer David Bourke.  Bourke had murdered his wife, Jean Gilbert, when she left him for an old flame.

In April we entered the strange world of Ronnie Dunbar, the man on trial for the murder of Sligo teenager Melissa Mahon.  Melissa herself was a waif like figure throughout the trial as we heard about her infatuation with Dunbar, also known as McManus.  We heard how her short unhappy life spiralled out of control in a few months in 2006.  Dunbar was eventually found guilty of her manslaughter and later sentenced to a life term.

After that run of trials things got a lot quieter in the courts.  During the summer break I was working on my first novel and a world away from murder.  During July though a rash of legal legislation was written into law that will definitely have an impact on the day job.

First up was the Criminal Justice (Surveillance) Act which controversially allows for covert surveillance to be used in prosecutions.  This kind of evidence will undoubtedly become a major part of any gangland trials that come to court from now on.

A couple of weeks later the Criminal Justice (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act introduced new laws governing the owning and use of guns.  Aimed at tackling violent crimes it also introduced new laws on knives and gave gardai greater search powers.

Hot on it’s heels came two highly discussed Acts.  The Criminal Justice (Amendment) Act allowed for gangland trials to take place without a jury in the Special Criminal Court (previously used only for paramilitary trials).  The three Criminal Justice Acts will all have an effect on how gangland trials are conducted…it’ll be interesting.

Passing into law the same day as the Criminal Justice (Amendment) Act was the long awaited Defamation Act. I’m not going to go into a full analysis of the new Act, which replaces the 1961 Act but there are a few points of difference.  Slander and libel are no more, they’ve been replaced by the cover all term of defamation – which’ll make life easier for anyone studying law as part of a journalism course in the future.  The act also allows a judge to direct a jury on the amount of damages they can award and allows the defendant to make submissions to mitigate damages.

But where the Defamation Act really hit the headlines was the controversial clause that makes blasphemy a criminal offence for the first time in Ireland.  We’ll just have to wait and see if that clause has any practical implications but many people felt that simply writing in what is essentially a religious law in the 21st Century was a dangerous step backwards.

The biggest development of year, court reporting wise was probably the completion of the place where I will be working from now on.  The Criminal Courts of Justice are now finished and they’ve been given a test run and we’ll all be moving in once the new term starts in a little more than a week.

New Criminal Courts of Justice photo by Michael Stamp all rights reserved.

To go with the new courts a new piece of legislation, the Courts and Court Officers Act was brought in in November, to make changes to bail for those on trial and also to make provisions for those in custody in the same circumstances.  A final bit of t-crossing and i-dotting before the big move.

So that’s a round up of the trials and legislation that shaped my year.  2010 is getting off to a lively start with the trial of Eamonn Lillis, accused of the murder of his wife, former Bond girl Celine Cawley.  It’ll be the first big trial in the new courts so it looks like there will be more interesting times ahead.

I’ll be back tomorrow looking forward instead of back.  Until then, a very happy new year to all my readers.  I hope 2010 brings you everything you’re looking for.

A Dangerous Recidivist

Simon McGinley was sentenced to 21 years in jail today at the Central Criminal Court.  His crime was a horrific attack on an 86-year-old woman, who he raped after breaking into her house in the middle of the night.  21 years is an extraordinarily long sentence for rape in an Irish court but McGinley was no ordinary rapist.

He had appeared before the Central Criminal Court before and the crime he was accused of then caused the “C” case controversy when his 13-year-old victim, who had been taken into care after she became pregnant from the rape, had to apply to the courts to travel for an abortion.

Miss C was in the court today to see the man whose children she had once babysat, who had only been sentenced to six years for what he did to her twelve years ago, sentenced for this latest crime.

Through the sheer range in the ages of his victims, McGinley showed himself to be a dangerous predator who had shown no sign of reform.  Although he was sentenced to 21 years he will not serve the full term as Irish sentences include an automatic 25% remission as a carrot to encourage good behaviour in jail. But Mr Justice George Bermingham’s decision to hand down such a long sentence is definitely a step in the right direction.

Depressingly the six year sentence he was given for his earlier crime is more or less the norm for rape sentences in this country.  I’ve talked about this before on this blog and no doubt it will be a subject I return to as long as sentences for rapes here remain so pitifully short.  It’s worth noting that in the past, people who have raped children younger than 13 on numerous occassions have received sentences of a few years, or, as in the case of Philip Sullivan, have had  a weighty sentence reduced by the Court of Criminal Appeal in January this year.

McGinley has shown no remorse.  As he was brought out to the prison van past the waiting photographers today he turned to the cameras and said “I’m innocent.  I did not do this.”  This was in the face of over whelming DNA evidence.  It will be very interesting indeed to see how he fares on appeal.

If someone who has committed two such terrible crimes and continues to show no remorse or acknowledge what he has done does not warrant the life sentence, then how bad does a rape have to be to get it?  Getting a young teenager pregnant only warranted six years.  Isn’t it time that these sentences were looked at and minimum sentences introduced?  21 years was a good length but it shouldn’t be so rarely applied.  Rape is a serious enough crime to be tried in the Central Criminal Court – the sentences should reflect that.  Most rapists get less than people who are tried on certain drugs offences…in the Circuit Criminal Court.

With new legislation being passed through both houses of the Oireachtas recently that deals with “gangland” crime, surely they could have looked at an area of offending that has been needing reform for years.  Judges like Mr Justice Bermingham and Mr Justice Carney are attempting to hand down tougher sentences but they do tend to get reduced on appeal.  McGinley deserved his sentence but there are others who have been guilty of equally brutal crimes who have and will serve far fewer years.  Something will have to change.

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Remembering why you do it…

Back in January I wrote about the overturning of the life sentence for child rapist Philip Sullivan.  I discussed the sentencing in rape cases in the Irish courts.  Working down in the Four Courts you get to see a lot of things that you wouldn’t necessarily agree with.

I’m used to writing nice, clean, impartial copy on the facts of the case for work but here I don’t have to be quite so impartial.  This blog contains my own views and while, even here, I might hold back on occasion if there’s something I feel strongly on it will eventually be written about.

Writing a blog can feel a bit like shouting into the darkness.  You sit at your computer and type away and chances are the vast majority of readers will drop by without leaving a comment.  That’s why when someone does comment on something I’ve written it is always much appreciated.

I got a comment for the Philip Sullivan piece a couple of days ago that quite simply made this thing I do worthwhile.  I’ve had comments on court related posts before but usually from people who disagree with my point of view.  This comment on the other hand was from someone who has good reason to feel passionately about the subject of rape sentencing because she has been through the ordeal of facing her rapist in court.  You can read the comments at the bottom of the Sullivan post.

Way back when I first considered journalism as a career I had visions of being the kind of crusading hack that you see in the movies.  After a total of five years in college I was happy to get whatever shift work came my way and any crusading tendencies got quickly swamped by the necessity to pay the bills and a general news room cynicism.  The problem with being on a general news beat, especially in broadcast journalism, is that stories rush past so quickly during a day that you don’t really have time to have an emotional reaction to any of them.

When you’re stuck finding enough stories to fill five minute hourly bulletins there’s no time to save the world.  Even as a freelance I find myself writing about stuff I know will sell rather than anything that will make a difference.

Down in the courts it’s easy to get blind to it all.  There’s such a never ending stream of human misery down there that a certain gallows humour tends to develop and stocks of sympathy run dangerously low.

But I suppose deep down inside, what I’m really looking for is appreciation, in a rather puppy like way.  I know that the dream has always been for someone to come up to me and say, spontaneously without me fishing for it, that they love what I write.  I’m not talking about editors and agents here but about the end readers.  I became a writer because I had an emotional response to what I was reading and I suppose that’s what I want to give to someone else.

This has ended up a rather advanced navel gazing exercise so please excuse me.  I was proud to receive the comment on the Sullivan post and it made me think about why I became a journalist in the first place.  That bleeds into why I became a writer and this is the result.

Another Sentence Controversy in the Irish Courts…

Yesterday 45-year-old Philip Sullivan learned that the life sentence he had received for the rape and violent sexual assault of two young boys had been over turned.  The Court of Criminal Appeal once again decided to go on the light side when it came to the sentence a convicted sex offender should serve.

Sullivan will now serve 12 1/2 years of a 15 year sentence.  He’ll probably be out sooner than that.  As a prisoner under Irish law he’s entitled to an automatic quarter off his sentence and today he Minister for Justice announced that he would wouldn’t be touching this automatic entitlement any time soon.

In fairness this isn’t all that much sooner than he’d be back on the streets if the life sentence had been left intact.  The average length of jail time for Irish life sentences is about twelve years.  That includes those who received mandatory life sentences for murder.

The subject of minimum sentences has been buzzing around for years and there are arguments on both sides.  Certainly sitting in court on a regular basis and watching the sentences handed down I’ve often heard Judge Paul Carney voice his displeasure of the Court of Criminal Appeal’s tendency to knock down the more punitive sentences to an arguably lenient average.

Take the Sullivan case.  I covered that sentence last year and the story was immediately the fact that a life sentence had been handed down and the speculation about whether it would stick.  This was a particularly nasty case.  Sullivan was in a position of trust as a caretaker to an apartment building.  He was a repeat offender.  The victims were only nine and eleven years old and his crimes were of a particularly nasty type.

The guy is a predatory paedophile who had served time on previous occasions and yet went on to abuse these two boys over a period of over two years.  12 and a half years just doesn’t seem enough.

With the Finn Colclough sentence there was some surprise when the figure turned out to be ten years.  Quite a few of those in the press bench had been speculating a lower figure.  The sentence for manslaughter can be anything from a suspended sentence to life.  It seems to average out at around seven or eight years.  Wayne O’Donoghue served three for the accidental killing of 11-year-old Robert Holohan.

Rape sentences are usually in and around eight years but have notably been a lot less.  Adam Keane hit the headlines in 2007 after his three year suspended sentence for rape was activated and subsequently extended by the Court of Criminal Appeal to seven years after it emerged he had made a triumphalist gesture at his victim as they caught the same train home.

That’s another trial I followed and coincidentally yet another sentence handed down by Mr Justice Paul Carney.  Looking back on the cases I’ve cited here they’re all his sentences.  He’s often quoted as making side swipes at the CCA as he hands down sentence and it’s easy to see why.  He’s the most vocal of the judges who dislike having their sentences more often than not reduced.

I’ve often wondered if some of the more lenient sentences he imposes are there to make a point on the assumption that they’ll end up the standard length on appeal.  The Adam Keane sentence would fall into that category.

But back to the subject of minimum time served.  I noticed another news story this evening while I was checking the rss feeds on my phone.  A judge ruled today that a man who raped and murdered a women should serve at least twenty two years in jail.  As soon as I saw the headline I knew it wasn’t an Irish story.  No matter how bad the crime, here a judge won’t be able to say how much of a life sentence the accused should serve.  Sure enough it was a court in Belfast.

Mandatory minimum sentences do exist under Irish law but only in very specific circumstances.  Murder carries a mandatory life sentence but as I’ve already said that can end up meaning as little as twelve years.  Some drug sentences have mandatory minimums but that’s about it.

Covering rape after rape after rape and seeing traumatised women watch their attacker walk off to serve a sentence that doesn’t usually even hit double digits, it’s hard not to be in favour of minimum sentences.  Rape is considered serious enough to be dealt with by the Central Criminal Court, the highest criminal court in the country.  But the sentences don’t always reflect that.  Of course every case is different but the average sentences for sexual offences in this country tend to be pathetically low.

I’m generally madly here but it’s something that you see again and again.  A man who stole the childhood of his now adult victim gets a pitiful couple of years compared with the lifetime of damage he’s inflicted.  Those who have held a woman against her will, terrorised her, traumatised her get a sentence in single figures once all the mitigating factors are taken into account.  I’ve watched trials that would fit these descriptions and each of them has helped to make up my mind on this one.

The subject of sentencing is always going to be a minefield, once again by virtue of the fact that each case must be judged by it’s own merits but as long as stories keep appearing that this one has been released early or that one had their sentence reduced on appeal it’s going to feel as if an attitude exists that sex crimes are somehow less serious.

I wouldn’t be in favour of mandatory life for any rape conviction but there should be some that deserve the same automatic penalty as murder.  In the meantime these stories will keep cropping up and the perception that you can commit a crime in Ireland and be out in a flash will prevail.

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