Belfast Telegraph

Editor's Viewpoint: Murder case wake-up call for our legislators

Editor's Viewpoint

Those who argue for stiffer tariffs for defendants found guilty of murder will use the case of Northern Ireland man William John McFall as proof that the present system is flawed.

McFall and Stephen Unwin were found guilty at Newcastle Crown Court in England yesterday of the murder of a Vietnamese mother-of-one after subjecting her to an horrific four-hour ordeal and then setting fire to her car with her inside.

But the court heard that both men had killed before and served prison sentences for those crimes. McFall had bludgeoned elderly neighbour Martha Gilmore to death in her Greenisland home in 1996 with a hammer.

He was jailed for life the following year, and released on licence in 2010.

Unwin had murdered a pensioner in 1998 and was jailed for life the following year. He was released on licence in 2012.

When discussing jail terms for convicted criminals it has to be remembered that judges have to abide by fairly prescriptive sentencing policies, which take into account matters like how the defendant pleads or the amount of force or violence used during the crime.

And it must also be remembered that prison is seen not just as a punishment, but also as a positive place of rehabilitation.

It would appear - although hindsight is always perfect - that in the case of these two men any attempt at rehabilitation failed. In the latest murder they displayed chilling cruelty, premeditation and a desire to cheat justice by blaming each other.

Did those who released both men on licence - in what were totally separate cases - believe that, on the balance of probability, neither posed an obvious threat to the public? If they did then subsequent events were to prove them pitifully wrong.

In the wake of this latest case there has been a call for life sentences to mean a minimum of 40 years behind bars. There is a long-standing maxim that hard cases make bad law, essentially meaning that an extreme case is a poor basis for a general law meant to cover a wider range of less extreme cases.

But if there is a general public clamour for longer minimum sentences in cases of murder then politicians, who are the legislators, would do well to heed the public mood.

Judges can only work within the laws presented to them by the legislators.

Belfast Telegraph

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