Commenting on the early release of the murderer of Ballycarry woman Nichola Dickson, Roy Beggs MLA has criticised the pre-release system- which has seen the prisoner effectively released 6 months prior to the expiry of his 11 year minimum ‘life’ sentence. The Ulster Unionist Party’s East Antrim MLA will meet the Attorney General on Thursday 14th November with Nichola’s mother and brother to discuss this case in the context of guidelines for life sentence tariffs in Northern Ireland.
Mr Beggs commented:
“It seems no time at all since the controversy around the lenient sentence handed out to the murderer of Nichola Dickson in Ballycarry in my constituency of East Antrim. That fact in itself shows that the life sentence handed down in this case makes a mockery of the term ‘life sentence’. The murderer was sentenced in June 2004 with a minimum tariff of 11 years which meant that with time spent on remand the earliest he would be considered for release would be January 2014. Yet he has been out of prison on a pre-release scheme since the start of July this year.
This case has also raised questions about the way information on pre-release schemes are provided to victims’ families. The correspondence sent to Linda Brown, Nichola’s mother about the prisoner’s pre-release was not clear and unambiguous. She found out almost by accident that he is already on the streets. That has contributed to a re traumatisation of Linda and her family.
It was emphasised by the authorities at the time of sentencing that 11 years was only a minimum tariff, and that the prisoner would not automatically be released. In light of the current circumstances these assurance are now ringing very hollow indeed.”
Roy Beggs MLA added:
“In terms of the wider issue of the discrepancy between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK in life sentence tariff guidelines, I have to ask what exactly have our MPs at Westminster been doing since 2005 about ending this anomaly? Similarly we have had a Minister for Justice at Stormont talking of reviewing and consulting about life sentence guidelines for over three years now. This situation simply should not have arisen”
Notes to Editors:
Regarding the McCord life sentence, former MP Roy Beggs Snr wrote to the Secretary of State Paul Murphy on 4 August 2004 stating “The parents of the victim have requested that I convey to you their firm belief that McCord should under no circumstance be considered for release by your successor and the Life Sentence Review Commissioners when his paltry 11 year minimum term has elapsed…it is vital for public confidence in the criminal justice system in Northern Ireland – which has been shaken in recent years- that this man remains behind bars for a great deal longer than 11 years.”
In reply the Rt Hon Paul Murphy wrote on 25th August 2004 to emphasise that 11 years was only the start of a process: “The tariff imposed represents the minimum (his underlining) period which the offender must serve before their case can be referred to the independent Life Sentence Review Commissioners for consideration of their release. Completion of the tariff period does not qualify a prisoner for automatic release…”
In a letter to Linda Brown on 20th October 2004 Lord Goldsmith wrote; “ …whilst you refer to McCord’s sentence being one of 11 years, the sentence in fact imposed is one of life imprisonment. He will certainly not be release before he has served 11 years in custody and will not necessarily be released after that…this may be a relatively short period or may be up to the maximum of the sentence- life.”
The Trial Judge, The Hon. Mr Justice Coghlin in passing sentence on Friday 25th June 2004 emphasised the minimum nature of the 11 years: “I fix the minimum period that you should serve as one of 11 years. The period served in custody to date should be deducted in the usual way…I formally sentence you to life imprisonment and the minimum term that you must serve is one of 11 years.”