THERE was a killer on the radio during the week. His name was Richard Kelly and 30 years ago he stabbed a young man to death, plunging a knife into the man’s back. The victim, 23-year-old John Fox, most likely didn’t even see it coming
Mr Fox was from Tipperary and had been on a weekend away in Sligo with some friends when the attack occurred. The group had been walking home, minding their own business, when set upon by local lads, including 19-year-old Kelly. The local lads took a dislike to the Tipperary accents, according to one account. An altercation developed, and John Fox fell to the ground, knifed in the back, life ebbing away from him.
Kelly said during the week that he’d had the knife as a result of his love of hunting. He couldn’t remember the incident itself but he took full responsibility for it. He was very drunk at the time, may even have taken drugs on that particular night. One thing he did remember was a guard addressing him in the cell where he was being held a few hours after the incident.
“You’re fucked now, Kelly. That young man has died,” the guard said. And he was. He got 10 years for manslaughter, and ended up serving six and a half.
The night is still with him 30 years later. He told Joe Duffy on RTÉ’sthat he misses John Fox even though he never even knew the man, never set eyes on him before the moments ahead of killing him. Duffy asked Richard Kelly to elaborate.
“It’s a human being,” Kelly said. “You know you’ve taken something away and when it’s gone you miss it. There’s a piece of me that’s gone that night as well, a piece of humanity that was gone.”
A number of callers to Liveline thereafter spoke positively about Kelly. The callers emphasised that John Fox and his family were the victims, but it was obvious that Kelly’s contribution had punctured the lazy stereotype of all killers as callous individuals who escape a commensurate sanction for their awful crime.
People with Kelly’s record are rarely or never heard. Occasionally, serious criminals appear in the media and irrespective of what convictions they may or may not have, it would be foolish to believe a word uttered.
Kelly was obviously not in that category. He was somebody who did something awful that had horrendous consequences. As a result people like him are habitually dehumanised in the media, cast as killers devoid of compassion or conscience. That the real story is more complicated, if no less painful for those whom he bereaved, is rarely examined.
Kelly’s voice on Lifeline was prompted by the contribution on the same programme by John Fox’s brother, Declan, on March 1 last, the 30th anniversary of the killing.
Declan Fox spoke of the impact that night had on his entire family.
“We’ve all been murdered,” he said. “That’s how strong it was. We were a lovely, ordinary 1987 family. My da worked, my ma worked, we all got on well together, we played football together, we chased women together and he just murdered the whole lot of us that night.” He spoke of the years that his brother never lived. “My brother was going out with a girl at the time. He could have got married. He could have had kids. Murder is final. You kill a whole generation.” (Legally, Kelly was convicted of manslaughter, not murder).
Then there was the sentence that had been handed down for the crime.
“Six years for manslaughter…he’s never come to our family to apologise and explain his actions…and he thinks he’s paid his dues to society… life has become so disposable. If you kill somebody it is the perpetrator who has all the news worthiness.”
Declan Fox’s description of what had been thrust on his family was heartrending. Along with Richard Kelly’s words, it illustrated how bitter and painful ripples spread out from a moment of madness.
It would be entirely natural for the Fox family to resent Richard Kelly being able to resume his life after serving his sentence. It would be entirely understandable if the family believed – which they appear to do – that the sentence for taking their loved one from them was entirely inadequate. And it is those emotions that appear to dominate any discussion about crime, particularly violent crime, and the operation of the criminal justice system.
During the week one newspaper ran a campaign calling for lengthier sentences for violent crime, based on the premise that those convicted get off too easy. Naturally, the campaign had no problem attracting politicians. No politician ever lost votes with calls to get tough on crime, irrespective of how redundant or cynical such calls might be.
There is little evidential or experiential basis for such fulminations. The most punitive jurisdiction among liberal democracies is the USA, where even the death penalty has not acted as a deterrent for violent crime.
Is there any adequate sentence that could ease the pain of a family bereaved by a violent incident? Should that be the principal determinant in a sentence? Who should decide the sentence? The victims? Elements of the media looking for traction on an issue? Politicians rooting around for votes?
There are shortcomings in the criminal justice system as there are in most areas of public administration. A statutory sentencing council, as operates in the UK, would cut down on rulings that appear either too lenient or harsh. But should a perpetrator, such as Richard Kelly, spend, what, 20, 25, 30 years in prison? Would it make any difference to anything?
Everybody craves answers when confronted by the spectre of violent death. One area that remains underexplored is restorative justice, which brings together perpetrators and victims in the aftermath of a crime. It’s not used as a substitute to prison, but it can assist in healing, which is what victims need more than anything.
The most depressing aspect to what was aired during the week is that precious little has been learned in the last 30 years. The moments of madness, whether it be through weapons, or, the more recent one-punch phenomenon, still occur with alarming frequency. Alcohol and drugs play possibly an even greater role today in young men resorting to random violence. Lives continue to be shattered. Society as a whole merely shrugs its shoulders with little effort.
There are no easy answers. Fulminating on sentences is merely a symptom of the helplessness in tackling the issue.
The only immediate asset is the testimony of both victim and perpetrator of a moment of madness, both speaking from the vantage of middle age about a life forfeited, and those left behind shattered in a moment of madness.
The sound of the decades of pain and loss should be mandatory listening wherever young men gather.