ALISON O'CONNOR: Punishment fails to fit violent and sexual crimes inflicted on women

Tara Byrd, left with her father Willie Byrd at Cork Circuit Criminal Court. Picture: Cork Courts Limited

There are many difficult things about being a parent but one I struggle often with is how to explain the horrible things that can occur in the world, and why they might happen, writes Alison O’Connor.

The first instinct is to protect your children, but you also have to be realistic. How much information do you give, how much do they need to know, will they end up looking like eejits in the playground, or is ignorance indeed bliss?

In our house, we’ve not yet had any discussion on how it is that men can behave with such sickening violence towards women; how they get into rages, and get jealous, and always blame the woman and the “drink” and that such things happen all the time. I can imagine the chat and trying to explain to someone — new to the concept — how such depraved acts happen regularly. I can also imagine the disbelief from my two daughters upon hearing of how the punishment so frequently does not fit these crime.

Recent days have seen the internet almost explode with the Stanford University case, in which a young unconscious woman was savagely sexually assaulted on campus by student Brock Turner, who was was found unanimously guilty of three charges, yet sentenced to a mere six months in county jail. The woman’s powerful victim impact statement, read by millions, spoke out against many things involving her attack and how such cases are tried, not least the male privilege involved.

Her statement would make you want to weep. I found myself enraged by what I read, just as I had been only a few days previously by a case in Dublin. It involved an Italian man who viciously beat his ex-girlfriend.

The woman, who had met the man while on holidays in Italy, was attacked on the day of their child’s christening. They were no longer a couple but had gone shopping together ahead of the baptism. Back at her house in Dublin the man, Davide Sanfillipo, saw a message from another man on her mobile.

Again I imagine explaining this scenario to someone unfamiliar with gender-based violence of how, afterwards, these two people got into the car, where their child was strapped into it’s seat in the back. As she was driving, he began punching the woman repeatedly to the back of the head, dragging her head from side to side. The Dublin Circuit Criminal Court heard last month that the man said he would kill her and she believed him.

She managed to escape the car and flag down a passing motorist, who took her and the child to a nearby Garda station. She had a swollen and bloody face and was holding clumps of her own hair.

Punishment fails to fit violent and sexual crimes inflicted on women

Afterwards Sanfillipo, who had an address in Drumcondra, told gardaí the woman had “played with his patience” and he had made a mistake. His counsel said Sanfillipo accepted that it was a “cowardly and violent assault”.

So what price, you might wonder, did Sanfillipo, pay for this mistake? Well as it happens the princely sum of €3,000 and a suspended two-year sentence.

Judge Martin Nolan called it a “cowardly attack” but said he had decided with “some hesitation” not to send him to jail because he would have a difficult time in prison due to his lack of English. What struck me rather forcibly about this, was that while Sanfillipo may have been hampered by a lack of talent on the linguistics front, the man had no difficulty whatsoever with the universal language of violence. At the time, I imagined there would have to be some sort of furore over the lack of prison time, but apart from a bit of social media action (sparked by myself), the case caused no outcry.

A further case that haunts my memory took place in March this year. It involved Dean Maughan of Innishannagh Park, Newcastle, Galway. He used repeated violence against his young wife, who had just turned 16 at the time of their arranged marriage the previous year. At one point he gave her the option of having a belt put around her neck or having her arm burned with a poker. The court heard that his victim opted for the burning because she feared for her life.

Theirs was an arranged marriage and they had a son. After the burning, the teenage girl told the court she was in a lot of pain but her attacker would not allow her go to a doctor or get any treatment for her injuries.

The details were truly heartbreaking. The girl’s sister, who had special needs, had died and when she came back from the funeral he gave her a “very bad beating”. Maughan, who was 19 at the time he married in 2013, denied the charges of assault.

Judge Mary Fahy sentenced Maughan to six months in prison for the first assault and imposed a consecutive six-month sentence on him for the second attack. She commended the gardaí for treating the case seriously and bringing charges.

“We hear, all through our society, and not just in relation to the Travelling community — it’s in all strata of society — that women are assaulted and abused and in some instances, it’s treated by the Garda as just domestic violence, but in this case thankfully, the gardaí treated it as seriously as possible and brought charges,” the judge said.

Roll forward to this week. We read of how Michael Lynch poured boiling sugared water on the legs of his then pregnant girlfriend Tara Byrd at their home on Old Youghal Rd, Cork, in July last year. Cork Circuit Criminal Court heard Ms Byrd recall how Lynch had told her he would kill her and bury her body in the woods if she cheated on him.

“He said he was going to boil a kettle of water with sugar in it and pour it on me,” she said. “Then he said that if I screamed, he would hit me over the head with an iron bar.”

He carried out the threat, and then would not allow her to go to the hospital for treatment for the burns. Through his lawyer, Lynch claimed that it was a cup of tea that he had made for his girlfriend that had spilled over her legs. What these guys lack in intelligence, they do make up for in sheer neck.

Ms Byrd, who was, we must remember, four and a half months pregnant at that time, spent 10 days in hospital with third degree burns to her lower leg and later had to receive a skin graft. Lynch denied the charge of assault causing harm in July 2015, but was found guilty by a jury, who also found him not guilty of threatening to kill his girlfriend on the same date.

Judge David Riordan sentenced Lynch to two and a half years. Unsurprisingly, Ms Byrd said afterwards she believed the 30- month sentence was light. I couldn’t agree with her more.

These cases are just a tiny sample of what pass through our court system. There are many thousands more which never move beyond the kitchen, bedroom, or indeed car, where the enraged and/or jealous man decides to beat up, burn, strangle, rape, smother, or whatever else might tickle his fancy, the woman in his life or, as in the Stanford case, a vulnerable female stranger.

When the time does eventually comes, I’ll have no choice but to tell my daughters that, with the way the world currently works, women simply have to suck it up.


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