Eilis O’Hanlon: ‘There is nothing unjust in insisting that life must mean life for murder’

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Eilis O’Hanlon: ‘There is nothing unjust in insisting that life must mean life for murder’

Ordinary people are right to be outraged at the prospect of convicted killers being allowed out on parole, writes Eilis O’Hanlon


Rachel’s parents Jim and Rose have written to the Parole Board to express their dismay at the prospect of her killer being released
Rachel’s parents Jim and Rose have written to the Parole Board to express their dismay at the prospect of her killer being released
Rachel Callaly, who was murdered in 2004
Murderer Joe O’Reilly was convicted in 2007. Picture: PA

Nowhere is the disparity between how ordinary people think, and the attitude of professionals who run the country, more evident than when it comes to murder, as the row over convicted wife killer Joe O’Reilly’s upcoming parole hearing attests.

The parents of Rachel Callaly, who was beaten to death by her husband in her own home in Naul, Co Dublin, in 2004, say they “hope to God that he doesn’t get out”. They have written to the Parole Board to express their dismay at the prospect, believing that he remains “a danger to be let out on the public”. But, even if he fails in his bid this time, he is now at a stage of his sentence where he is eligible to reapply every two years, meaning the clock is already counting down to the next time, and the time after that.

Since being sentenced in 2007, O’Reilly has embarked on a number of bids to have his conviction overturned, most recently in 2015. All have failed. It could be that it’s decided his release at this time is not appropriate either, but any relief can only be temporary. He only has to get lucky once.

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Step by step, he edges closer to release. Joe O’Reilly has now been behind bars for 12 years. The average time served by those who get parole in Ireland after being handed a life sentence is just 18 years. Murderers can still have full lives ahead of them after serving sentences of that duration.

Most ordinary people would have absolutely no problem with the argument that a man who does what Joe O’Reilly did should never be released. That he should spend his life, and die, behind bars. That they’re made to think that this is somehow a primitive and vindictive way to see the situation is a subtle form of gaslighting, to name the practice of distorting a person’s sense of reality to make them think it’s them, not the world, which is mad.

In the original film which gives this phenomenon its name, the woman on the receiving end of these mind games is proved to have been right all along.

Ordinary people are equally right when it comes to crime and punishment. There is nothing unjust about expecting those who commit horrendous crimes to remain locked up. On the contrary, it’s a measured and proportionate response to evil.

Life should mean life, just as, when it comes to sexual consent, no means no. Nobody should have to apologise for believing that to be true.

The answer which is commonly given by those who defend early releases is that such prisoners have a low rate of reoffending, and can be recalled to prison at any time, though, of course, if they do reoffend, then the damage will have been done; and one reoffender is one too many if it leads to one more victim.

The head of the Parole Board, John Costello, said last year that there were currently 85 former lifers at liberty in the country, and that they have posed no risk to the public, adding that, when they do reoffend, it is usually only minor offences. He believes that’s because they have spent so long inside and that “they have improved themselves and with age alone have gotten a bit wiser”. He further insists that “there has to be generally a universal opinion that the prisoner is at a low risk of reoffending” before experts on the board will recommend such a course of action.

But even if it could be determined beyond any risk of error that Joe O’Reilly was no danger to any other woman, what of it? It’s wrong to place too much emphasis on rehabilitation at the expense of punishment. An individual who’s committed terrible crimes may well move on and become a better person in time; that’s the luxury of being alive – a luxury that’s denied to their victims. Their personal growth is beside the point.

Indeed, if they have had the good fortune to become better people from being in prison, then the first thing they ought to realise is that the punishment which they received for the crime was wholly fair, and that accepting it with grace is the only way to show true remorse.

Joe O’Reilly has never apologised for what he did, or even admitted it, so that doesn’t even come into play in his case; but again, even if he did, so what? What’s done is done. The only option open to those left behind is to ensure that no advantage is ever gained from it by the killer.

Each case must be considered on its merits. One in 10 prisoners in Ireland is serving a life sentence, one of the highest rates in Europe, and the number has gone up sharply in recent years, from 139 in 2001 to over 300 at present. Among that total will be some for whom compassion or accentuating circumstances will need to be taken into account, but such cases should be the exception rather than an automatic entitlement.

It’s a process which should place victims and their families at its core, rather than as an afterthought. As things stand, they can write to the Parole Board, but don’t get a right to put their case directly to those making the decision.

Everyone gets a hearing in this process – psychiatrists, guards, the probation service, the Prison Review Committee, the governor of the prison where the guilty person is located. Everyone but the family, though even the Parole Board acknowledges that they will often still be “experiencing severe trauma and mental health problems” years after the death of a loved one.

Their objections are simply added to the file, which is made available in due course for the prisoner himself to read. Families will no longer even have the right to appeal directly to the Minister for Justice, since the recent Parole Bill removes the (admittedly rarely used) power from the minister to overrule the Parole Board. That reduces any potential risk of political interference in the criminal justice process, but also means that there is now no higher recourse for victims’ families

It’s not all negative. The bill also increases the amount of time a killer has to serve before being considered for release from seven years to 12 – and it’s worth noting that even this modest change was opposed by penal reformers, who felt it was too long. Seven years or 12, the emphasis is still skewed much too far to the benefit of the guilty.

Not all killers are eligible for parole.

Convicted murderers cannot be considered for release if their victim is the head of a foreign country; a serving member of government; a foreign diplomat; or a garda or prison officer killed in the course of his or her duty.

It is entirely our call as a society whether we extend that same protection to a young mother in her own bedroom.

Sunday Independent

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