Murderers go to Supreme Court over mandatory life sentences
THE Supreme Court will this morning hear an unprecedented legal action by two convicted murderers who are challenging the constitutionality of Ireland's mandatory life-sentence regime.
The case may have widespread implications for hundreds of convicted murderers and comes at a time when victim's rights groups and opposition politicians are calling on Justice Minister Dermot Ahern to introduce a mandatory 25-year term for murderers.
At present, 'lifers' serve an average of 17 years -- an increase on previous years, when the average life term for a murderer was between 12 and 14 years.
Lifers can only be released at the discretion of the Justice Minister after their cases have been reviewed by the Parole Board -- whose recommendations the minister can accept or reject.
The Supreme Court challenge has been brought by Peter Whelan and Paul Lynch after the rejection of a High Court action three years ago.
Whelan is serving a life sentence after pleading guilty to the murder of Nicola Sweeney (20), a student, at her home in Underwood House, Rochestown, Cork, in April 2002. He was also jailed for 15 years for the attempted murder of her friend, Sinead O'Leary, on the same evening.
High Court judge Ms Justice Mary Irvine, who rejected the 2007 challenge, said both women were "savagely stabbed" without provocation.
Lynch was sentenced to life imprisonment in 1997 after pleading guilty to the murder of Donegal pensioner William Campbell (77) at the victim's home in September 1995. Mr Campbell died after he was repeatedly struck over the head with a saucepan in a robbery.
The family of the late Nicola Sweeney is expected to attend the appeal, which will be heard over two days.
After the failed High Court challenge, John Sweeney, Nicola's father, said he hoped this would represent an end to Whelan's legal challenges. In that case, the men claimed mandatory life terms were unconstitutional because they treated all murders as identical for sentencing purposes.
They also complained that they had a right to have their sentences reviewed by an independent and impartial body, rather than have their release subject to a discretionary decision by Mr Ahern.
In her 70-page High Court ruling, Ms Justice Mary Irvine found that Section 2 of the Criminal Justice Act 1990, which provides for the mandatory life sentence for murder, breached neither the Constitution nor the European Convention on Human Rights Act 2003.
While noting that the State had accepted that the Parole Board was not an "independent and impartial" tribunal within the meaning of Article 5.4 of the European Convention on Human Rights, the judge said the men had no right to a review of their detention by an independent body, given that the life sentence for murder was "wholly punitive" and contained no element of preventive detention.
She said the pair had not established that the European Court of Human Rights now recognises that all life prisoners have a right to have their detention reviewed regularly.
Such a right applied only to those detained solely for reasons of dangerousness and whose retributive sentences had expired.
Judge Irvine found the Oireachtas was entitled under the Constitution to provide for a mandatory life sentence and there "could be nothing offensive" in the Oireachtas promoting respect for human life.