Better guidelines would help our judges give consistent sentences

LUCIA O’FARRELL is distraught. Her son, Shane, has been killed and the man who took the life of the 23-year-old last week was given the choice of eight months in jail or leaving the country within 21 days.

Not surprisingly Zigimantas Gridzuiska, 39, is heading for Lithuania, his home country.

One wonders what they will make of him on his return. Will he drive, given that he has been told that he cannot drive in Ireland for the next ten years if he ever returns to the country? It’s not that he seems to have had too much respect for the law anywhere: the Irish courts have been told that he had run up 17 criminal convictions in his native country before coming to Ireland. He added another 12 convictions in Northern Ireland and 20 here in the Republic after he settled in Carrickmacross in Monaghan. Among his offences are theft, aggravated theft, drug possession, malicious damage and handling stolen property and as nine road traffic offences.

Last week Judge Pat McCartan in the Dublin Circuit Criminal Court handed down the choice of sentence to Gridzuiska when he heard further charges arising from the death of Shane O’Farrell, who died after he was struck by a car on the N2 Dublin to Derry road sometime after 10 pm on Aug 2, 2011. Some weeks earlier charges of dangerous driving causing death against the Lithuanian — to which he had pleaded not guilty — had been struck out at the direction of the judge for lack of evidence. There was also an issue as to whether Shane O’Farrell and his bike had adequate lighting in the twilight hour; this made it hard to prove that Gridzuiska definitely had seen his victim.

Indeed Gridzuiska had admitted that he struck O’Farrell. But here’s the key point: he did not stay and try to help the victim, did not seek medical assistance for him. He left him, apparently not knowing if he was dead or alive. He pleaded guilty to three related charges: failing to stop his car at the scene of this accident, failing to keep the car near the scene of this accident and failing to report the accident to gardaí. He also pleaded guilty to driving a defective vehicle.

This departure from the scene was callous in the extreme, but may also have denied O’Farrell the opportunity to receive help that might have saved his life. Instead Gridzuiska brought the car to a friend’s house to be minded, instead of bringing it home. Draw your own conclusion as to why he may have done that. He told his wife what had happened but she told the court that there was no discussion about ringing the gardaí. He went to the Garda station the next day. He claims that he had not been drinking or had not taken drugs the previous evening — and evidence was heard that a garda had stopped him earlier in the evening and had not formed the impression he had been drinking — but by that stage it would have been next to impossible to find out if he had subsequently.

His lawyer said that his decision to present himself at the Garda station should be a mitigating factor in any sentence. And he had to live with the consequences of what he had done. One has to doubt whether he has had many sleepless nights.

Lucia O’Farrell has had many sleepless nights since her beloved son died. I spoke to her live on radio last Friday and it was one of the most difficult interviews I’ve ever had to conduct. Her despair was palpable. Not only has she lost her only son but she feels let down by the legal system: this career criminal got free legal aid and had a team of lawyers to argue his case that way outnumbered the single lawyer representing the State. She and her family had no legal representation, no opportunity to outline the impact of his actions on them.

She feels let down by the letter of the law too. In Australia leaving the scene of a fatal accident is punishable by a sentence of up to ten years. She was told that here such a sentence extends to just six months. This is wrong for so many obvious reasons: leaving the scene does not just stop the provision of help to the victim but also reduces the chances of securing a conviction for dangerous driving causing death.

Judge McCartan made a controversial decision in suspending Gridzuiska’s eight month sentence on condition that he leave Ireland. It appears that he had few options when it came to the duration of the sentence. I suspect that he must have thought better to effectively deport him than have him backing roaming the streets in about six month’s time.

McCartan is widely regarded as a good judge. I know and like him and I know that he would have thought out his decision carefully. He couldn’t bring Shane O’Farrell back but at least he could make it far harder for this thug to do further damage in Ireland. It might be helpful if the judge’s actions prompt a wider debate about the length and appropriateness of sentences handed down, particularly if the aim of sentencing is as much about punishment as it is about rehabilitation.

That subject was brought into sharper focus in the last week when sentence was handed down in the case of two people who had been convicted for manslaughter through neglect of a family member.

Eleanor Joel, 38, and her partner, Jonathan Costen, 40, were convicted last December by a jury at Wexford Circuit Criminal Court of the unlawful killing through neglect of Joel’s mother, Evelyn, on Jan 7, 2006.

THE sentence handed down by Judge Seán Ó Donnabháin was stunning, at first sight at least. He ordered them to do community service rather than go to jail on condition that they be of good behaviour for a period of two years, including that they be sober in public at all times.

This hardly seems appropriate given what had happened. Evelyn Joel had multiple sclerosis. She had been taken to Wexford General Hospital a week before her death having been found at her daughter’s home Enniscorthy with bed sores and lying in her own excrement. Ó Donnabháin said: “The evidence was gruesome in the extreme — it was evidence of a terminally ill woman abandoned to lie in her own filth in her own room in the accused’s house and it depicted an almost medieval picture of neglect.”

Yet the judge decided that a 240 hours’ community service order rather than a custodial sentence was appropriate.

It seems that the defendants were helped by the fact that they supplied the relevant information to bring the case against them: they were more helpful in this than in seeking assistance for the dying woman.

So Fianna Fáil’s Niall Collins may have been onto something this week when he demanded reform of criminal sentencing, “to improve consistency and enhance public confidence in the system”.

He has proposed the establishment of a Judicial Sentencing Commission, similar to the model in England and Wales, which would issue guidelines on criminal sentencing to judges. He claims it would “promote a clear, fair and consistent approach to judicial sentencing and publish analysis and research on sentencing”.

Judges are in full possession of the relevant facts when it comes to deciding on a sentence for a guilty person and it is important that they have some discretion. But they don’t get everything right. Fuller guidelines might help.

nThe Last Word with Matt Cooper is broadcast on 100-102 Today FM, Monday to Friday, 4.30pm to 7pm.

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