Relief of slain officer’s widow as 14-year jail term of killer is referred to appeal court for review
The widow of the first PSNI officer to be murdered says she hopes a review of the sentence handed to one of his killers will discourage would-be young terrorists.
Kate Carroll had spoken of her disgust at the minimum 14-year jail term given to John Paul Wootton, who was 17 at the time of the 2009 Continuity IRA murder, but has now welcomed a decision by the Director of Public Prosecutions to refer the case to the Court of Appeal on grounds that the penalty may be unduly lenient.
“I am hoping it will deter young people from trying to make a name for themselves by killing someone,” Mrs Carroll told the Belfast Telegraph. “I am not saying that a police officer’s life is worth more than anyone else’s life — all lives are precious — but policemen and women go out and lay their lives on the line every day. They are specifically targeted when they are on duty or not.”
Constable Stephen Carroll (48) was shot dead responding to a 999 call in the Lismore Manor area of Craigavon on March 9, 2009, just days after two soldiers were gunned down at Massereene military base in Antrim.
There have been growing calls for Northern Ireland to be brought into line with England and Wales where the minimum penalty for killing a police officer is 30 years’ imprisonment, but increased or lowered according to aggravating or mitigating factors. In the Republic anyone convicted of killing a member of An Garda Siochana could face at least 40 years behind bars.
There was a massive public backlash against the 14-year tariff for the teenage killer who is now aged 21.
Wootton’s co-accused, former Sinn Fein councillor Brendan Mc Conville, was ordered to serve at least 25 years behind bars before being considered for parole. Yesterday Lord Justice Sir Paul Girvan, who presided over the nine-week trial, took the unprecedented step of calling for an overhaul of Northern Ireland’s sentencing policy claiming there was a “heightened need for deterrence and retribution”, especially concerning the terrorist murder of a police officer.
The judge said: “Insofar as it is open to a trial judge to express a view questioning the continued validity of the existing guidelines, I feel bound to express the view that the current guidelines and the case law based on them do require reconsideration to take account of modern conditions and to properly take into account the argument that there is a heightened need for deterrence and retribution in the fixing of tariffs, at least in relation to certain categories of murder including, in particular, the terrorist murder of a police officer as in the present case.
“It must be a matter for the Director of Public Prosecutions to decide whether a reference should be made and if a reference is made it must be for the Court of Appeal, after due consideration of the difficult issues involved, to decide whether the guidelines require modification or clarification.”
Judge Girvan was also at pains to point out that “judges are not free to act in accordance with their own unfettered viewpoint” when passing sentence.
Justice Minister David Ford said: “I have sympathy for Kate Carroll. We are doing a lot of work around sentencing guidelines with the Chief Justice at the moment. We are looking at the appropriate way to handle things and I welcome the opportunity to discuss that further when I have read the comments of Lord Justice Girvan.
“What we are talking about is a life sentence and the appropriate level of the tariff before consideration of release. It is clear that there is an issue that needs to be addressed and I am quite happy to do that in line with other work we are doing around sentencing guidelines with the judiciary.
“If there are specific proposals which go beyond judicial guidance and require legislation then I will take them to the Executive.”
DUP MLA Paul Givan, chairman of the Stormont justice committee, said: “It is unprecedented and I welcome the fact that they want the decision to be referred to the Court of Appeal. The Director of Public Prosecutions can do that, I have called for that, and I expect it will happen.”
Ulster Unionist MLA Ross Hussey, who sits on the justice committee, said: “The comments from the Lord Justice Sir Paul Girvan are to be warmly welcomed.”
An Assembly motion asking the Justice Minister to bring the law here into line with England is expected to be discussed on June 11.
Story so far
John Paul Wootton (21) and Brendan McConville (41) were sentenced for the murder of Constable Stephen Carroll (right), who was aged 48, at Belfast Crown Court on Monday, after a nine-week trial. Both were given life sentences. However, Wootton, who was two months off his 18th birthday in March 2009, received a minimum tariff of 14 years before being considered for parole. The sentence was based on current sentencing guidelines and case law. It sparked a massive public backlash with calls for the case to be urgently reviewed.
I must live with my life sentence forever... so should he
By Kate Carroll
This case has struck a chord with everyone. I am not saying that a police officer’s life is worth more than anyone else’s life — all lives are precious — but policemen and women go out and lay their lives on the line. They are specifically targeted in Northern Ireland.
John Paul Wootton may have been 17 at the time but he knew exactly what he was going to do. It is not as though he was a young child. My grand-daughter knows right from wrong and she is only five years old.
If you are brave enough to drive a car to or from a murder, then you should be able to take the consequences.
He has already served three years, so the 14-year sentence means he could be out in 11 years. I was disgusted by that. Any murder is wrong. I believe life should mean life. I have been given a life sentence and have to live with this forever.
If these terrorists had to go out every day in a uniform and face their adversaries — face those who were trying to kill them — would they be so brave?
Over the past few days I have had phonecalls, text messages, emails from all parts of the country.
People have also been stopping me in the street saying ‘we are so proud of what you have said’ or ‘we agree completely with you’.
I am not calling for a return of capital punishment, but I do believe that the law needs to be looked at — the victims have no say. Everything seems to be geared towards helping the perpetrators.
While I know that judges’ hands are tied and that they have to work within the guidelines, I was delighted to hear that this case may go to appeal and that it may be reviewed and changed.
I am hoping that it will deter these young people from trying to make a name for themselves.
Kate Carroll is the widow of Constable Stephen Carroll