Crime and Punishment - Unjust Desserts

The courts are plagued with erratic sentencing, which encourages the belief that the scales of justice are bent, if not broken
By Kerry Dougherty

On Friday morning, March 5th, in Courtroom 15 of the Central Criiminal Court, Justice Frank Martin made an example out of a 22 year-old petty criminal named Gerard Cowzer. Martin sentenced Cowzer to 12 years penal servitude for the theft of £1,290 during a February, 1981, robbery of the Irish Permanent Building Society in Baggot Street.

During the robbery for which Cowwzer was tried and convicted, three men - one armed with a lead pipe and all wearing balaclavas - entered the Bagggot Street premises and demanded money. The case was handed over immediately and no one was injured. Cowzer, who entered a plea of not guilty to the crime, was convicted largely on the testimony of one Irish Permanent employee who claimed he recognized Cowzer's eyes and on the existence of a smeared fingerprint which an expert witness said may not have belonged to the accused. The two other robbers were never apprehended.

Before passing sentence, Justice Martin asked that crime statistics, which showed a sharp increase in the number of robberies in the Dubin area, be introduced as evidence. When sendding Cowzer to Mountjoy prison until 1994, the judge said that the stiff senntence should be a warning to all would-be thieves that crime does not pay in Dublin.

News of the l2-year sentence was greeted with horror from several trial lawyers who called it "savage" and "barbaric". Several solicitors speculatted that certain occurrences in the city around the time of Cowzer's trial may have contributed to the unusually severe sentence. One factor, they said, may have been the call for law and order from both sides during the elecction campaign. A second element might have been the shooting of Garda Pat Reynolds in Tallaght just 13 days before Cowzer's conviction.

Whatever the reason, the "lock 'em up and throwaway the key" philosophy of crime prevention was clearly gaining popularity.

As the judge read out the sentence, the Cowzer family sat in stunned silence. They were amazed then, as they are now, that Gerard was ordered to spend 12 years of his young life in prison as a one-man deterrent against crime.

"He (Martin) read out crime figures that went back to 1970 when my boy was only ten years old," said Rita Cowzer several weeks ago during a bus ride back from Mountjoy Prison. "There's no use in saying Gerard was never in trouble, he was. If there had been guns involved I'd never take his side. But 12 years for £1,290 is ridiiculous."

Indeed the Dublin-born Cowzer has been in trouble. Ever since he was caught stealing sweets from a sweet shop at age eleven, Cowzer has been involved in minor scrapes with the law. It could be argued, however, that the petty crimes on Cowzer's adolescent record are not unusual for working class youngsters growing up in the Pearse Street area. In fact, until quite recently, the Cowzer family - five children and two adults - lived in a one bedroom flat in the dilapidated Markievicz Flats complex on Pearse Street.

In recent years, Cowzer has been in more serious trouble. He served a 12 month jail sentence for burglary and is currently serving another one year term, this time for maliciously damaaging a building. (Judge Martin speciified that Cowzer's l2-year sentence should not begin until he has served his full 12 month term).

Since that March 5th morning, the Cowzer family has searched in vain for a sentence more ruthless than the one Gerard received. Each night the broothers and sisters contact their parents - comparing sentences which were reported in the Dublin papers that day. With each passing newspaper ediition, the Cowzers say they are more convinced that unless Gerard is grantted an appeal he will be doing time far in excess of his crime.

Adding to the sense of injustice which plagues the Crowzer family, has been the discovery of lesser sentences - some would say far more serious offenses - handed down around the time of Gerard's conviction.

Just days before Cowzer was given 12 years, a Dundalk man named David Ward was sentenced to only 3 years in prison for kicking a mentally retarded man to death.

Three days after Cowzer was senntenced, Francis Reilly, 21, was given 7 years for his part in an armed robbbery in which two men were shot and £2,000 was stolen.


Death (2 victims) by arson 2 years
Beating to death 3 years
Rape leading to death 4 years
Indecent assault at knifepoint 5 years
Armed robbery with fatal shooting 6 years
Robbery (£2,000) and shooting 7 years
Three armed robberies (£40,000) 7 years
Robbery (£1,290) without violence 12 years


One week after the Cowzer sentenncing Justice Frank Martin sent Derek Quane and Patrick Higgins to prison for five years for indecently assaulting a woman at knifepoint. Martin expresssed disgust for the crime and was quoted as saying that in 25 years on the bench he thought he had heard cases which plumbed the depths of human degradation. This crime, howwever, reached a new low, Martin said. The maximum sentence the two men could have received was ten years.

Deepening the sense of bitterness and frustration that the Cowzer family feels is the growing awareness that only if Gerard had killed someone would he have received a stiffer senntence. But even that isn't necessarily true.

On January 28, in Justice Barringgton's courtroom, a 36 year-old man named John O'Hullachain was sentenced to two years in prison for deliberately setting a fire in the Liffey Guest House last June. Two people died in the blaze and O'Hullachain was originally charged with murder. The murder count was eventually dropped, however, and he was convicted on only an arson charge.

Last October, a 27 year-old man, Niall Francis Kelly, pleaded guilty to raping a 61 year-old woman who died as a result of the attack. Charges of unlawfully killing the woman were dropped and Kelly is now serving only fOUT years in jail.

In February, John Meredith, 32, of Ballymun, received a 6-year sentence from Judge Barrington for his part in an armed robbery in which Lorcan O'Byrne was shot dead during his own engagement party at the Angler's Rest pub in Chapelizod. Meredith had 12 previous convictions including burrglary and larceny.

Equally horrifying, although there was no loss of life, were the recent crimes of Patrick E. Holland and John Brett. Both received milder senntences than Gerard Cowzer.

Holland was convicted last year of three separate armed robberies which yielded more than £40,000. During one of the robberies Holland carried a sub-machine gun, a revolver, 127 rounds of ammunition and two smoke grenades. Justice Neylon of the Central Criminal Court sent him to jail for 7 years.

Corkman John Brett, together with several companions, last year cut the telephone wires to a house and then entered the dwelling and terrorized three elderly women for several hours. One woman was 92, another was a nun. Brett received a 3-year suspended sentence for what Justice Barrington called "an appalling crime against three old ladies."

What the Cowzer's are discovering through their own crude researching techniques is what many legal experts already know - that erratic sentences are one of the major problems with Ireland's judicial system.

In Ireland judges are given a set of maximum sentences for each crime, but no guidelines for sentencing withhin that framework.

Unlike in England and the US where judges meet frequently to set sentencing policy, Irish judges appear to never meet to discuss uniform senntencing.

The result of this judicial indepenndence is that sentences for similar crimes vary wildly and leave the public questioning whether justice is actually being served.

"The court is brought into dissrepute by uneven sentences," says Mary McAleese, a professor of Criminal Law at Trinity College. McAleese, who has been a long time proponent of consistency in sentencing, says that Ireland has one of the most erratic sentencing procedures in the West.

McAleese says that the Cowzer senntence was "simply outrageous", adding that there is nothing "exemplary" about a lengthy sentence which makes the court look foolish when compared with other sentences.

In addition to making the courts' look foolish, vagaries in sentencing leave people like the Cowzer family feeling desperate.

As the Cowzer's search for a way to get Gerard's sentence reduced or connviction reversed they say they believe that there really is no justice for the working classes. They say Gerard was hit with a hard sentence because the judge knew he was poor and on legal aid, (there are, of course, no objecctive reasons to substantiate this charge in this case.)

In their desperation, the Cowzer's are trying to raise money to pay their own senior counsellor whom they beelieve will "fight harder" for Gerard in

court. To get funds, Cowzer 's mother and sister are working at a city hotel and his father, Charles, who had twoothirds of his stomach removed last year and is afflicted with TB, is workking overtime shifts in his jo b as a fitter for Dublin Gas.

The family is also pooling their valuables for quick sale when - and if - they are notified of Gerard's appeal being granted. Gerard's older sister Deirdre says her diamond engagement ring will be the first to go, then anyything which can be pawned or sold for quick cash.

"I never had any dealings with the law before this happened with Gerard," says Deirdre Magrane, his 24 year-old married sister. "When Justice Frank Martin sentenced Gerard to 12 years in prison he might as well have sentennced the whole family."