Sunday 18 August 2019

Families join in bid to stop killers being granted day release

Relatives have found their voice as they fight to keep the murderers of their loved ones behind bars, writes Maeve Sheehan

Mark Costigan
Mark Costigan
WIFE KILLER: Brian Kearney
Maeve Sheehan

Maeve Sheehan

Ronan Quinn was 14 when his childhood friend murdered his mother. Ronan had tonsillitis that day. His mother, Christine, took him to the doctor in Kilkenny and he helped her with some shopping afterwards.

They parted ways at 12.20pm, when she made for home. His last words to her were: "I'll see you at 6pm for dinner." He came home to a crime scene. He was told there'd been an incident and was put into a car to be brought to the garda station. As they drove out of the estate, Ronan saw his friend Mark Costigan and another friend sitting on a wall, watching. "I waved to the two of them. Then Mark Costigan waved back at me, sitting there smiling," said Ronan.

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The chilling memory has stayed with Ronan in the 14 years since Costigan was found guilty of Christine Quinn's murder. He stabbed her 35 times in the kitchen of her home in December 2002, probably when she disturbed him trying to burgle the house. He was later captured on CCTV with a bloodied arm buying a PlayStation game from a store in Kilkenny - a PlayStation was the only thing stolen from the house. Costigan was 16 at the time of the murder, 18 when he was sentenced to life.

Now a father with three children of his own, Ronan was told two weeks ago that Costigan had been approved for an escorted visit to a relative's grave. "My mother worked with his mother. My aunty went out with his father. The first family dog we got from his family. His sister would be up having tea with my mother. We knew them growing up," he said. Ronan also knew that Costigan's relative died almost two years ago, so why was he looking to visit the grave now? He also knew that Costigan didn't get along with this relative.

Ronan joined other families of victims of homicide and violent crime protesting outside the Dail last week over temporary and day releases for the perpetrators. The following morning, he received an email from the prison service informing him that Costigan's graveside visit had been cancelled but instead, he had been approved to visit relatives this weekend at a 'neutral location' in Kilkenny.

The thought that at a time unknown over the weekend Costigan would step outside of the prison grounds for the first time since he was sentenced to life 14 years ago is deeply concerning to Ronan. Particularly, he said, "given the fact that threats have been issued from prison, that he is going to stab me, stab my family".

Costigan has never expressed remorse. "The simple fact is, if you don't own up to your crimes, how can you be rehabilitated?" said Ronan.

In recent weeks, Frank McCann, who murdered his wife and 18-month-old foster child 25 year ago after setting fire to their house, has been photographed on day release going to college. Another double murderer, David Curran, was granted escorted day release to visit family, nine years into his life sentence for stabbing two Polish mechanics to death with a screwdriver.

Many of the families affected by the actions of some of Ireland's most high-profile killers attended last week's demonstration. The grim roll-call of perpetrators included Brian Kearney, who murdered his wife, Siobhan - he has been denied parole for now but was approved for visits with his family; and Gordon Molloy, who stabbed 22-year-old Ciara Ni Chathmhaoil 28 times in 2007. Ciara's mother, Paidi, said last week that he was due to get day release this weekend - his second in 12 months - but the Justice Minister emailed her the night before the protest to say it had been postponed.

While it might seem like a disproportionate number of Ireland's notorious killers are being prepared for a return to society, it may be more accurate to say that families devastated by these killers have found their collective voice.

The Sentencing and Victim Equality group (Save) wants a minimum tariff to be served before parole can be considered, and supports for families of victims; an end to day release and parole; and a State-backed organisation to support victims' families. It is a relatively new movement, and a belated one, according to its founder, John Whelan, whose sister Sharon and her two daughters, Nadia and Zarah, were murdered by a postman, Brian Hennessy, on Christmas Day, 2008.

Save is not looking to lock up killers and throw away the key. "But just to be clear, we would be of the opinion that there should be provision for judges to hand down whole life orders like they do in Britain. In the case of multiple murder, we feel that should be an appropriate sentence," said Whelan.

Prisoners serving sentences of eight years or more come before the Parole Board seven years into their sentence, but even if released, they remain under life sentence and can be returned to prison. The Parole Board makes a recommendation to the Justice Minster who has the final say. Reforms are in the pipeline. Some lawyers believe the input from victims should be limited. But a Bill proposing more input from victims in the parole process, removing the minister from the decision-making and increasing the parole threshold from seven years to 12, will be debated in the Oireachtas.

Save's message has connected with hundreds of families affected by violent crime, evidenced in the surge of contacts made via the organisation's Facebook page.

"We have a meeting in the next couple of weeks to see where we go from here," said Whelan. "We will be seeking a meeting with the minister and his officials, to let them know we are going to be around for a long time, until changes start happening."

Meanwhile Ronan Quinn, who works in a shopping centre in Kilkenny, will be keeping a watchful eye out. Because of the short notice, he did not have time to organise a day off. But at least the feeling of fighting a battle behind closed doors has eased: "I think that's why all the families decided they have to form this group and take time out of their own lives to speak for the silent ones, because they can't speak for themselves."

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