Anton Mulder thought that killing his wife would be worth his while. He told a friend he was going to do it.
“In this country it’s easy,” he said. “Five or six years’ jail and I’m still young when I’m out then.”
In December 2004, Mulder, who is South African by birth, strangled to death his wife Colleen in their home in Dunshaughlin, Co Meath. The previous July Ms Mulder had suffered a miscarriage and their relationship deteriorated over the following months.
Mulder was convicted of murder in February 2006, but the Court of Criminal Appeal set aside the verdict because Mulder’s brother had interfered with the jury. In 2008, he was convicted for a second time and sentenced to life.
His prediction about the Irish criminal justice system proved to be wide of the mark.
In 2020, after 15 years behind bars, he was released. At the time of his conviction, lifers could become eligible for parole after seven years and the average time served was around 13 years — but that has changed hugely since. Today, 12 years is the minimum to be served before being eligible and 20 years is the average time spent in prison.
There are probably many who feel that Mulder got off lightly.
I covered his first trial for the Sunday Tribune and the evidence about his premeditation in the run-up to the murder was chilling. He quite obviously had made a decision that his marriage was over and the best financial outcome of the break-up of the union would be for his wife to die violently.
Last week, Mulder gave his considered opinion on another wife-killer to the Daily Mirror. He was asked what he thought about Joe O’Reilly, who had murdered his wife Rachel in their home within months of Mulder’s own crime.
“He should do more time than me I think,” Mulder said. “Why? He’s not even admitting to his crime. I admitted my crime and I behaved with the rules. If you don’t admit your crime you can’t have remorse.”
The trial was also the first in which mobile phone technology was used. The prosecution was able to show through mapping the phone’s activities off various masts that O’Reilly had travelled to the couple’s home on the morning that Rachel died.
When the verdict was announced, the assembled gardaí and Rachel’s family and friends erupted in wild cheering before many lapsed into tears. It was like nothing I’d ever seen in a criminal court before or since.
Both of these murders were shocking crimes but were not identical. Yet the respective judges in each case had no option but to apply the mandatory life sentence with no input into how long should be served. Irrespective of the evidence in each case, the disposition of the defendant, or the content of a victim impact statement, there was no mechanism for a judge to recommend a minimum sentence in order to reflect the details of the crime.
Until last year, it was the justice minister who would be the final decision-maker on whether and when a prisoner serving life was released on licence.
That system was wholly unsatisfactory as it brought into the political arena what was a criminal justice matter. The length of time served often was dependent on how it might be perceived publicly if a lifer was released.
The Parole Act, which came into force last year, transfers that decision to the Parole Board, but, even within that process, there is little emphasis placed on the original crime.
Now, finally, that is about to change. The Review of Policy Options for Prison and Penal Reform published on Wednesday recommends the introduction of “judicial discretion to set minimum tariffs for life sentences and (to) examine the effectiveness of use of mandatory minimum sentences for certain crimes”.
As with much to do with penal reform, this has been a long time coming, having first been recommended by the Law Reform Commission in 2013.
“Judges would have to take into account aggravating and mitigating circumstances,” Justice Minister Helen McEntee said at the launch of the review.
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.
The new system will ensure that at least some natural justice will apply to both perpetrators and victims. Some murders are simply more vicious and callous than others.
It is only right that a judge has the discretion to reflect that within the framework of the mandatory life sentence.
This has been a feature in the criminal justice systems of most of our neighbours for years, if not decades, and the imperative now must be to have the legislation enacted as soon as possible.
That’s at one end of the penal scale. The review also made cogent recommendations at the other end, in particular, to find alternatives to prison for short sentences of less than 12 months.
This is again nothing more than common sense and another measure that should have been implemented years ago.
“Punishment alone, as experience and research have shown, does not prevent offending or make everyone safer,” the Executive Summary of the Review states. “Interventions and services to promote pro-social behaviour, rehabilitation, and desistance from offending are necessary to drive and sustain real change.
“Non-custodial sanctions, particularly those that are supervised in the community, play a significant and vital role in addressing criminality, reducing reoffending, and providing protection to the public.”
What remains to be seen is whether there is enough political will to apply the resources and attention to ensure that we finally have a more enlightened penal system, based not on punishment but on restorative justice and rehabilitation. This is vital for victims, offenders, and society.
Meanwhile, the minimum tariffs for life sentences will also bring the system into line with best practice. Looking back on those trials in the years immediately after the respective murders that they dealt with, the distance stands out.
As somebody who sat in the courtrooms all those years ago, I can reflect on all the living I got to do between then and now. For the murderers that living was done in a suspended reality in prison.
For the victims, it was decades unlived, which were robbed from them, leaving the state to attempt some form of justice for the violent ending of their lives.
The very least that their memory deserves is a penal system that functions properly in the best interests of society as a whole.