Justice systems struggle with the question: when does life mean life?
The question posed for the Supreme Court in last week's decision in Noel Callan's case was: does a person who was convicted of capital murder and sentenced to death, but whose death sentence was commuted by the President (acting on the advice of the government) to a period of 40 years' penal servitude, have the same entitlement to remission as any other prisoner serving a sentence of definite duration?
In December 1985, Noel Callan was sentenced to death by the Special Criminal Court for the capital murder of Garda Sergeant Patrick Morrissey. He continued to serve his commuted sentence – with "imprisonment" now substituted for penal servitude. It was surely the understanding of one and all at the time of the commutation that he would serve 40 years with no remission. The trouble was that this was not expressed in the advice the government gave the President and, therefore, was not in the instrument the President signed allowing the commutation. So the court held that Callan is entitled to the same remission as other prisoners.
This was the latest in a series of attempts by Callan to have his sentence reviewed. The supreme irony about the case is that, on the facts, it is difficult to see how he should have been convicted of capital murder in the first place. Led by a fellow accused, Michael McHugh, they set out to rob the labour exchange at Ardee. They made their escape on a motorbike, which was then involved in a collision, before the injured Callan made his way to a farmhouse.