Last week, Cork man Trevor Casey was sentenced to thirteen years in prison for the rape and sexual assault of two teenage girls. During sentencing, the judge referred to a letter from Labour Deputy Kathleen Lynch indicating that Mr. Casey was from “a good family”. On Sunday, Deputy Lynch issued a statement accepting that “it was inappropriate for a TD to have become involved in any way in a case of such seriousness”, and she subsequently appeared on RTE radio stating that “I do now believe that there should be guidelines laid down and I have already been in contact with Eamon Gilmore and we have agreed that that will happen within the Labour party”.
Deputy Lynch’s intervention was inappropriate – but it was by no means unprecedented. In 1999, it emerged that Taoiseach Bertie Ahern – together with a number of other political and judicial movers and shakers – had intervened to secure day release for Philip Sheedy, who had pleaded guilty to dangerous driving, causing the death of Mrs. Anne Ryan.
One of those writing on behalf of Mr. Sheedy (in 1997, while Mr. Sheedy was on bail awaiting sentence) was the current Minister for Justice, Brian Lenihan TD. An astute politician, Deputy Lenihan did not write to the judge. His character reference was simply addressed “To Whom it May Concern”, and stated that :
“[…] He does come from a very good family. He is in his occupation an architect. He is a respected member of the local community in Coolmine. I know him to be of good character. A custodial sentence in this case would lead to the destruction of his career as an architect”.
So there we have it. Two convicted criminals. Both of ‘good family’. Both the subject of representations by politicians. The salient difference between the two cases is that, while political interventions apparently secured Philip Sheedy’s early release, Judge Patrick McCarthy ignored Deputy Lynch’s intervention and sentenced Trevor Casey to thirteen years in prison.
In both these cases, public commentary focused on the inappropriateness of politicians intervening – directly or indirectly – in the judicial process. But there is more at stake here than political misjudgment.
The ‘good family’ or ‘respectable home’ argument is regularly trotted out by defence counsel – whether or not they have politician’s character references to back up their claim – and all too often accepted by judges as a mitigating factor.
The most notorious recent example occurred in March 2007, when Justice Paul Carney imposed a three-year suspended jail sentence on a man convicted of raping a woman as she slept in her bedroom in Ennis, Co. Clare. Justice Carney accepted defence evidence that the offence was out of character and that the perpetrator came from a “respectable home”. The sentence was subsequently appealed by the DPP, but not before a great deal of distress had been caused to the victim in this case.
There is, of course, a subtext running through these “respectable home” arguments: a subtext of class. Politicians and judges internalise social attitudes and, as a society, we mentally divide criminals into two classes. Those from families who are, to use that phrase beloved of the media, “well known to the Gardai”, and those ‘accidental criminals’ from “respectable families” whose crimes are (to cite Mr. Justice Carney again) “out of character”.
Labour’s Senator Brendan Ryan summed the issue up in May 1999. Speaking in a Seanad debate on the Sheedy affair, Senator Ryan said:
“Class, the influence and sympathy that goes with class and the perception that some are more deserving of sympathy than others is at the base of this affair. People commit suicide in prisons but because they are from the wrong class humanity and compassion do not operate with the same intensity. Unfortunate wretches from the centre of this city in Mountjoy Prison will not have family who will be either in a position geographically or in terms of nerve to, for instance, walk up to a Supreme Court judge while out shopping, meet and make representations to the Taoiseach in a pub or make contact with the Taoiseach.”
While the Labour Party’s decision to draft ‘guidelines’ governing such interventions is an understandable political response to the controversy over Deputy Lynch’s letter, it is no substitute for a sustained analysis of the class bias which informs many of our attitudes to crime and criminals.
Such an analysis might refer, inter alia, to two statistics:
- In 2007, the Sunday Tribune found that seven of the eight Supreme Court judges had been educated at Ireland’s top fee-paying schools.
- A study of those appearing before the Children’s Court in 2004 found that children from the poorest parts of Dublin were thirty times more likely to face court than their wealthier counterparts.
There is, of course, an inescapable connection between disadvantage and crime. But there is also a connection – equally inescapable, but less studied – between advantage and the consequences of crime for the perpetrator.
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