The scales of Justice


Sally Hayden argues for the need for more transparency and uniformity in manslaughter sentencing

Every so often there comes a murder trial that captivates the nation. Two weeks ago, Eamonn Lillis’s stint in the dock culminated in a seven-year sentence. With our now regular media masterclasses in the ins-and-outs of these crimes, the country seems now able to easily differentiate between murder and manslaughter, and many awaited with baited breath the final announcement of Lillis’s sentence while learning that this act – sentencing – is the only remaining segment of the judicial process in which judges hold true discretion.

But what a discretion it is. Last July the O’Riordan brothers from Kerry were sentenced to fourteen years’ imprisonment. Ronnie Dunbar (2008) was given life; the Colclough case (2006) earned ten years for its perpetrators; and Wayne O’Donoghue received a four-year sentence for his role in the death of young Robert Holohan – all for what was, technically, the ‘same’ crime – where each death was purported to be ‘accidental’ and an apparent element of surprise.

It’s the question mark over the facts, though, that really separates manslaughter cases from other, more clear-cut crimes. But in a situation where the defendant is often a proven liar, and an exact play through of events will regularly never be known, why is there such a disparity in sentences? And what is the solution?

If we are to judge the gravity of the crime by the recklessness of the accident, then one could argue that it is much more shocking for Lillis to accidently kill his wife who he has known and lived with for years and whose personal strength would be very familiar to him, and for O’Donoghue and Dunbar where an obviously weaker child was involved, than for the other cases where the victim was an unknown quantity. Similarly if we are to look at the untruths told, nobody can argue but that O’Donoghue was the worst perpetrator here, followed closely by Lillis. Previous convictions, of course, should be – and are – taken into consideration, as are victim impact statements and remorse on the part of the defendant. But it is questionable whether these factors are enough to merit the difference of a decade in retributive terms.

We do not live in an eye-for -eye society, where killing is met with killing and rape with rape. Therefore it is nigh on impossible to weigh a certain offence as being exactly equivalent to a certain sum of years in prison. However it seems apparent that there is a deficit in the system when sentences are regularly being met with public outcry for either their brevity or longevity, and even senior counsel are having trouble predicting what an outcome could be. The old maxim that justice must both be done, and be seen to be done, falls apart when citizens begin to lose faith in the system.

The arguments for mandatory sentencing are many, and include the idea that democracy is brought back into the courts. Giving unelected judges the option to choose to lock someone up for between four years and life for one particular crime is surely too broad a berth for legislation to remain inactive in, especially when judges must measure the weight of certain matters such as media intrusion, the importance of which surely varies from opinion to opinion.

Though judges are presumed to be impartial, the lack of transparency here is enough to fuel pointing fingers and accusations of judges’ personal biases because of race, socio-economic class and other issues. A justice system is supposed to be a tool of the people for the people, and yet many simply fail to trust in it. Mandatory sentencing also ensures consistency which itself enhances public trust in the law.

In addition to legislation, the government could consider introducing the crime of second-degree murder – a halfway house between first-degree murder and manslaughter. In the US this label covers non-premeditated killings resulting from an assault in which the death of the victim was a distinct possibility. The decision of which applied would then be transferred to a jury, lessening the judges’ freedom in this area once again, and increasing the transparency of the entire system.

Unfortunately murder and manslaughter charges are, by their nature, the ones that the media and masses follow – and consequently largely influence the national view of the legal system. Until something is done there will indisputably be the annual communal uproar following the sentence in every high profile case.