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Justice Hunt took the opportunity to share his thoughts on something that "struck a chord" with him. irishphotodesk.ie
Sentencing

Why the judge couldn't send Puska to full life in prison in the Ashling Murphy murder trial

Judges in Ireland still cannot recommend minimum terms when handing down life sentences.

MURDERER JOZEF PUSKA, who killed 23-year-old Ashling Murphy in January 2022, was sentenced to life in prison today by Mr Justice Tony Hunt. 

Life sentences in Ireland, however, currently last on average between 19 to 20 years. The reason for this is that judges cannot impose minimum sentence terms in this country. 

In sentencing the 33-year-old, Justice Hunt noted that he does not have the authority to impose a minimum period to serve, and if he did, he would have considered a whole life term sentence in this case.

Inside the courtroom, Justice Hunt took the opportunity to share his thoughts on something that “struck a chord” with him.

Justice Hunt told the Central Criminal Court in Dublin that it is “long past time that judges should have some say in setting what the minimum terms should be” in life sentences.

He added that current sentencing restrictions mean a life sentence is a “one size fits all” but noted that “they (cases) are not all the same”.

The judge said that the case was “so far up the scale of gravity” and “well beyond” most of the things judges come across that, if he had the power to set a whole life order, it “would have been considered”.

He noted that his counterparts in the United Kingdom do have that power available to them, and that Irish judges “possibly will in the future”. Recently in the UK, former nurse Lucy Letby was sentenced to a whole-life jail term after murdering seven babies. 

Those on mandatory life sentences in Ireland are offered an opportunity for parole (an early release from prison under certain conditions) after 12 years and every two years after that.

This process is in harmony with the European Human Rights Commission as the Irish Parole Board, that assess convicts to determine if they are eligible for release, is an independent body – separate from the courts system.

If a person on a life sentence were to break their parole conditions, they are committed back to prison to serve out the rest of their sentence. In 2022, 28 applications for parole were made and just one person was released. 

Justice Hunt said that before Puska is considered for release, the person making that decision would have to take into account that we still don’t know why Puska murdered Ashling.

He added that unless the reason becomes known, “it seems to me unless enfeebled by disease or old age, the question of your safe return to society will be or should be a very open one”.

When imposing a mandatory life sentence, for murder or treason, judges in Ireland cannot recommend or set the minimum time the convicted persons must serve.

The only life sentence which carries an incorporated minimum term is when the accused is convicted for capital murder (e.g. killing a member of An Garda Síochána). This sentence carries a minimum term of 40-years in prison.

2013 report from the Law Reform Commission noted that judges “do not even have the power to suggest any specific minimum sentence, unlike the position in other jurisdictions”.

“For example, in Northern Ireland, the sentencing judge can recommend a minimum term that must be served before an offender is eligible for parole,” it said.

The Report on Mandatory Sentences is currently being used by the Department of Justice and Minister for Justice Helen McEntee as part of its programme to examine reforms on mandatory sentences.

The commission recommended that where an offender is convicted of murder, and is therefore sentenced to life imprisonment, “legislation should provide that the judge may recommend a minimum term to be served by the offender”.

Enacting this recommendation into legislation would grant judges the power to recommend a whole life sentence as the minimum. Today, Justice Hunt said, if it were available to him, a whole life order would have been “considered”.

In May 2022 Minister McEntee said that allowing judges to recommend a minimum sentence would “give the public greater confidence” in the judicial system.

She added that if judges had “discretion to set a minimum sentence of 20 or 30 years, or even more” it would recognise “the reality that over the past ten years, many people serving life sentences have been imprisoned for at least 20 years and in some cases considerably longer”.

As part of the Review of Policy Options for Prison and Penal Reform 2022-2024, published later that year, the minister said that judicial discretion to set minimum tariffs for life sentences will be introduced.

Publishing the review, McEntee said: “The introduction of minimum tariffs for life sentences will ensure that judges can ensure that a convicted person will serve a minimum number of years before they are entitled to apply for parole.

“Judges would have to take into account aggravating and mitigating circumstances. In practice, it could mean, for example, that a judge could decide to impose a life sentence and stipulate that a minimum of 20, 25, or 30 years must be served,” she added.

McEntee said it was “essential that the punishment that people receive matches the crime that they have committed”.

She added: “People who commit serious crimes which cause considerable harm and distress to victims, and to society as a whole, should be dealt with in a way that reflects the impact on victims and their family.”

Handing down the sentence to Puska today, Justice Hunt said there was only one sentence to hand down, which he said was “richly deserved”.

Mr Justice Hunt concluded by saying, “very well, you may take him away,” before six prison officers led Puska to the cell area.

Additional reporting by Eimer McAuley

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Muiris O'Cearbhaill & Eoin Reynolds