Sunday, August 15, 2010

There's a single, practical reason Larry Murphy was released early

By Jennifer O’Connell

Even with the passage of more than a decade, the facts of the case lose none of their power to shock. The cold carpark at Bagenal Court in Carlow town on a February evening. A young woman, locking up, bringing the takings to her car. Out of nowhere, the thump. The broken nose. The Fiat Punto, waiting quietly in a dark corner.

The terror of the nine mile journey. The stereo blaring. The first rape, on a dirt track between Beaconstown and Moone, in north Carlow, not far from where another young woman, JoJo Dullard, had previously vanished.

Kilranelagh in the Dublin mountains

The macabre pilgrimage though Carlow and Wicklow. The second stop, fourteen miles on, at Kilranelagh in the Dublin mountains. The third rape, and the fourth. The pain so awful she begged him to shoot her. Him revealing the names of his children. Her sudden, brave decision to cling on, to fight back with an empty aerosol can. The plastic bag on her head. His hands on her throat, his hands slamming the boot on her legs.

The car lights as two fox hunters, Ken Jones and Trevor Moody, drove up. The unbelievable relief she must have felt. The unbearable pain.

Last Wednesday marked exactly ten years and six months since the night that woman was abducted, brutally raped and almost suffocated by a then 35-year-old carpenter and father of two from Baltinglass in Co Wicklow called Larry Murphy.

She would very likely have joined the ranks of the disappeared-without-a-trace, had Jones and Moody not arrived as he was trying to kill her.

Last week, seeing his face splashed all over the newspapers - that distinctive dimpled chin, the neat haircut, the slight frown over the dead eyes - ahead of his scheduled release on Thursday, it must have felt that while his sentence was coming to an end, hers was only really beginning.

It’s often said that tough cases make bad law. And it’s hard to imagine a case tougher than this, or one which makes a more compelling case against automatic remission for sex offenders.

Larry Murphy qualified for remission not because he had made any great strides towards rehabilitation – according to his own estranged brother, Tom: “He didn’t receive any help, he wouldn’t take help.”

Nor did he qualify because the parole board believes he no longer represents a threat to society; in the same interview on Miriam O’Callaghan’s RTE television show last month, Tom revealed that his brother has offered no greater insight into his motivation than the kind of thing a teenager might say if you asked them why they failed their biology exam. “I went numerous times to speak to Larry after he going in, and the answer I got from Larry was ‘I flipped’.”

No, he qualified for remission because of a provision in our legal system which automatically reduces every sentence, other than life sentences, by a quarter.

I spoke to legal sources last week and no-one seemed entirely sure of the rationale for this practice, which was entered into the Irish statute books in 1937, beyond the fact that it also exists in Britain, and gives prisoners an incentive to behave.

Exactly what they’d have to do not to qualify for remission isn’t clear though: the killers of Garda Jerry McCabe actually took a prison officer captive, and they still had their sentences cut short by a quarter. Murphy has reportedly been a trouble-free prisoner.

At the time of the release of killers of Garda Jerry McCabe in 2009, one prison source was quoted as saying: "There are procedures in place to cancel some of this .. but it would be very difficult to enforce and would set a legal precedent."

This seems a fair point: before the courts last month was the case of Noel Callan, a man who has already served 25 years for the murder of a garda during an armed robbery in 1985. Callan was originally sentenced to death but this was later commuted by President Hillery to 40 years’ penal servitude with no possibility of remission.

Callan claims he is being discriminated against compared to others given life sentences, who are allowed out after spending various terms in jail.

But there is another, more pressing reason, for maintaining the status quo, and even – in some cases – increasing the extent of remission available from 25 per cent to 33 per cent of the sentence originally handed down. And that is that our prisons are already bursting at the seams. There simply is not the space to keep every prisoner in for the full term of their sentence. By May of this year, the number of inmates in Irish jails had reached a record 4,200 - over twice the total in 1990.

At first glance, Fine Gael’s policy of not allowing sex offenders to qualify for standard remission unless they are willing to undergo rehabilitation seems a sensible compromise, and would have kept Larry Murphy in jail for up to another four and a half years.

But that’s until you realise two things. The first is that one in every seven male prisoners in the country is in for a sex offence. The second is that there are only 20 places on rehabilitation programmes designed for sex offenders.

The prison service has said it would be willing to put up more, but there isn’t the demand.

In the meantime, a revolving door is a practical measure that seems to work for everyone.

Judges get to impose what they feel are appropriate sentences. The prison service gets to immediately reduce these to a more manageable 75 per cent or – in some cases – 66 per cent. And usually, by the time the prisoner comes round for release, the public interest has moved on so that no-one much – other than the victim – cares anymore.

That might have been the case last week, except for a few factors: the brutality of Murphy’s crime; the fact that his name has also been linked by gardaí to the disappearances of Annie McCarrick, JoJo Dullard and Deirdre Jacob; and the bravery of his brother in giving an interview to RTE.

Regardless of the public outcry, the early release of Larry Murphy was always going to go ahead.

The concept of automatic remission is just one anachronism of many, in a system that is not going to be fixed by the introduction of clearer sentencing guidelines or longer jail terms.

Until we sort out the overcrowding problem, everything else will have to wait. And with plans for Thornton Hall dragging on, that’s not going to happen any time soon.

This column was first published in The Sunday Business Post on August 15, 2010


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