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Saturday, 8 October 2011

Murderous career ...

In the news this weekend is a case which must surely raise questions about the current practice of releasing murderers into "supervised freedom" after serving half their sentences. I refer to the case of Robert Black, currently appearing before a court in Armagh for a murder he committed 30 years ago. In order to protect his "right to a fair trial" the jury were not aware of the fact that he has been convicted of three other murders - all of them children whom he had sexually assaulted - and one attempted abduction.

He is now 64 and given the fact that he will be likely to survive to at least 80, can expect to be released into "community care" well before the end of any so-called "life sentence" - which he is still presumably serving for the other murders. Though I would suspect that as he was first convicted in 1996 he may well have been elligible for release now, had the Northern Irish Police not managed to bring the new charges against him.

Repeatedly we see cases like this where someone with a long record of violence, abuse or murder gets the benefit of legal protection in order to avoid "prejudicing the jury" and in some cases they actually get away with it. One high profile rape case saw a jury bring in a verdict of "not guilty" because some of its members didn't trust the police - only to have the jury foreman declare publicly afterward - once the man's full criminal record had been revealed in the press - that had they known about it the verdict would have definitely gone the other way. Not surprisingly, the same man appeared a year or so later in court, charged with rape and attempted murder and almost got away with it again.

My own feeling is it is time to call time on juries. Most people called to jury duty are not competent to weigh up the facts or the evidence they hear. A panel of Judges with Lay Assistants drawn, perhaps, from a qualified pool, should replace them and the emphasis must also shift away from the "rights" to concealing such matters as a criminal record where it is pertinent to the case and the evidence. Far too many criminals walk free because some members of a jury cannot assess evidence or are simply unable to lay aside their own prejudices against the police, the law or society.

The second part is that there needs to be a reappraisal of the practice of routinely releasing convicted killers and other violent criminals onc half a jail term has been served. Most are not fully supervised and many reoffend within a very short space of time, often with tragic consequences.

Time for a complete overhaul I think.

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