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Explainer: What is ‘capital murder’ and why is there a special category for the murder of gardaí and prison officers?


(stock photo)

(stock photo)

(stock photo)

The crime of capital murder is one of the most serious offences on the Irish statute books carrying a minimum sentence of 40 years’ imprisonment.

It legislates specifically for gardaí, or prison officers, who are murdered in the course of their duty.

For a conviction under capital murder the intent of killing or causing serious harm must be proven as well as that the person knew, or was reckless to the fact, that the victim was a garda.

However, despite several officers being shot dead or killed in the course of their duty in recent decades, the last capital murder conviction was 35 years ago.

That case involved another man from the same small Armagh town on the Border as Aaron Brady.

Crossmaglen man Michael McHugh was one of two raiders involved in the cold-blooded murder of Sgt Patrick Morrisey near Tallanstown, Louth, on June 27, 1985.

The two men had just robbed a local labour exchange when they were being pursued by the unarmed garda sergeant.

McHugh turned on Sgt Morrisey, shooting him in the leg and, while he lay injured on the ground, approached him and fired a fatal shot into his head.

The killer and his co-accused, Castleblayney man Noel Callan, were later sentenced to death by hanging but their sentences were later commuted to 40 years’ imprisonment without parole by President Patrick Hillery.

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In 2013 they won a Supreme Court case entitling them to the standard 25pc remission afforded to other prisoners and they were released in 2015 after serving 30 years.

The mandatory sentencing for capital murder had been introduced as part of the Criminal Justice Act of 1990 by then Justice Minister Ray Burke. The act also abolished the death penalty which remained in place for capital crimes.

Ray Burke said that civilians may become a victim of murder for a myriad of reprehensible motives including passion, revenge and avarice.

He said the risk of this happening was relatively remote and a matter of fate.

The Justice Minister said, however, that gardaí and prison officers are brought into frequent contact with violent people through their duty to protect the public and as a result cannot simply choose to avoid danger.

Mr Burke said this group deserve “the utmost protection we can give them” and that we must rely “heavily on deterrence to protect them”.

He acknowledged it was a harsh sentence but that he could not say a lesser sentence would be adequate, and that his primary responsibility was to provide the maximum protection “for the lives of those who serve society and not for those who do mischief”.

There was some opposition to the bill and Deputy Pat McCartan of the Workers’ Party, who later became a Circuit Court judge, said he was “not happy at all” with the mandatory sentence and that the 40-year sentence without remission is “as barbaric as the penalty of death” and “far too severe”.

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