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'Seven years seems like a lot - for us it's nothing': Murder victim's brother welcomes parole reform

The government supported a Fianna Fáil tabled bill this week, which would give victims and their families a voice in parole reviews.

Image: Graham Hughes/RollingNews.ie

PROPOSALS TO REFORM parole legislation in Ireland have been broadly welcomed by victim support groups and the families of victims of serious crime.

Fianna Fáil’s Jim O’Callaghan brought his Parole Bill before the Dáil this week and received cross-party support for the legislation, which would see the establishment of an independent parole board and the implementation of a more transparent process with greater input from victims and their families.

Under current law, prisoners serving long-term or life sentences can be considered for early release after seven years. Their case is examined by the Parole Board but the ultimate decision is up to the minister for justice.

John Whelan, who works with advocacy group Advic, said he does not believe it is appropriate that decisions about the release of murderer from prison should lie with the minister. His sister Sharon and two nieces Zsara (7) and Nadia (2) were murdered by Brian Hennessy on Christmas morning in 2008.

“For it to be truly representative, I would like to see, and we’ve asked for this before, a representative of the victims’ families on that board,” he told TheJournal.ie.

O’Callaghan’s parole bill suggests board membership should include a psychiatrist, a psychologist, a prison service representative, a garda representative, a probation or welfare officer and a nominee of the Irish Penal Reform Trust.

The board will be able to receive written submissions from any victim of the person whose parole is being considered and, if considered necessary, allow any victim to appear and make oral submissions at a hearing.

Whelan said this input from victims and their families “would be very important” and something that he would welcome.

‘It’s nothing for us’

Sharon Whelan’s killer is eligible to apply for early release in November this year, having served seven years, and her brother said his family is “very upset about it”.

“It’s a needless thing to put a family through who have been through that misery already. People might think seven years seems like a long time, but for us it’s nothing. I mean, for taking three lives. My parents are beside themselves wondering what will happen. It’s the thought of him even being given the opportunity to look for that.”

His comments were mirrored by Stephen Walsh, whose sister Ann Walsh was also murdered in 2005. Her killer, Raymond Donovan is appealing for parole after serving just 11 years of his life sentence.

We feel like as a family that he should serve a lot more time. My sister is gone, we can never seen her again, we can never talk. He can always talk to his family, at some stage in his life he’ll be able to get out of prison and move on with life and he’ll be able to live, he can still breathe. My sister was only 23 when she was killed.

“To even mention parole is awful,” Whelan told RTÉ’s Liveline on Thursday.

Donovan strangled the 23-year-old woman on the grounds of a church in Kilrush in August 2005.

He said his family’s hearts had been broken and that their lives had been changed forever.

“I feel like I’ve the weight of the world on my shoulders.

She was of life, only starting out. She never had a chance to have kids, never had a chance to do a lot in her life, her life was taken – in the blink of an eye – was taken from her.

He told presenter Philip Boucher Hayes that “life should mean life”.

Eligibility 

Under Fianna Fáil’s legislation, inmates serving life sentences would be eligible for parole once they served a minimum of eight years.

Speaking in the Dáil this week, Jim O’Callaghan said:

While I am aware that some people may be concerned that individuals may apply for parole after eight years, in most years, they will not be granted parole, particularly in cases involving life sentences. As the Minister will be aware, in most cases, there is a rule that parole is not granted in cases of life sentences until a term of 15 years has been served.

On Wednesday the government accepted the Fianna Fáil bill on a statutory basis, with Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald telling TDs that there are a number of points that will need consideration at committee stage.

She said the government needs to “provide for the perspective of victims’ families and other relevant people in granting parole”.

“That has probably not received adequate consideration over the years and needs to be far more central now.”

Read: “I remember seeing dad’s body on the ground”: The Irish murders that rocked Melbourne>

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