The Blanket

No Punishment Too Great?

Anthony McIntyre • 20 July 2002

Interred in a Brighton cemetery lies seven year old Maria Colwell. Almost thirty years ago she was beaten to death by her step father, William Kepple, after prolonged abuse. The latter included starvation and beatings. She had sustained brain damage, a fractured rib, black eyes, external bruising and internal injuries. One of the more psychological but no less cruel punishments inflicted on Maria by Kepple was to buy his other children ice cream while making her stand in the corner as they ate it. Incapable of love or compassion for a child not biologically his own, Kepple pursued his violence with discriminatory fervour.

The social services of the day were as culpably inefficient as Kepple was guilty, being completely illiterate when it came to reading the signs. The judiciary were little better, Kepple, if I recall correctly, receiving a mere eight years for manslaughter. The name of both killer and killed have stayed in the recesses of my mind. I had followed the case at the time courtesy of the Daily Mirror - maybe even the Sun or Star - while a young apprentice Terreza layer on a Belfast building site. It was big news then in the English tabloids, standard lunchtime reading for underpaid, overworked Belfast kids.

There is something about cruelty against children that brings out an anger even in the most placid and laid back of people. While it is estimated that in Britain around six children are murdered every year by strangers an average of two each week die at the hands of a parent. The NSPCC claim that 34, 000 children each week are at risk from either neglect, violence and possible death in the home in the same country. The recent trial of Paul Owens for the murder of his daughter, three month old Jasmine McGowan, made prime time news each day it lasted but it hardly constituted enjoyable viewing. What is it that causes an adult to murder a child in a domestic setting? Paul Owens should never have been in the dock given the evidence against him. It was one of those cases where, if justice even managed to get a foot in the outside lane, it was always going to romp home. Owens was acquitted and whoever murdered the child was not called to book.

Another case, neither as tragic in its outcome nor as well publicised as the murder of either Jasmine McGowan or Maria Colwell but still anger inducing was that of Cork man Gerard Quilty who was convicted of beating his ten year old son for the 'offence' of asking to switch TV channels so that he could watch cartoons. Flicking the channels is a permanent feature in any modern home which combines children and televisions. Christopher Quilty spent three days in a local hospital having sustained injuries to his neck, back and spine. Luckily for the child, he managed to escape from the house before his drunken father could inflict more permanent damage with the hard plastic toy truck he used as a weapon.

Examples of violence against children range across the spectrum from slaps to inflicting fatalities. We hear of it, abhor it and have little sympathy for the perpetrators when they find themselves in prison even if they are on the receiving end of their fellow prisoners' contempt and retribution. But our fundamental belief systems are rarely radically changed by it.

A few days ago, my wife, a Californian, was in tears as she hugged our 17 month old daughter and read to me an account of the kidnapping of five year old Samantha Runnion back in her home state. Referred to by her mother, who studied Latin American culture in college, as 'mi cielito linda' (my pretty little sky) and 'tigrita' (my little tiger) Samantha lived with a sense of alertness to the dangers that confront youngsters. Erin Runnion had went to great lengths to caution her only child against approaches from strangers even acting out possible worst case scenarios in the family living room. Samantha told her mother that no stranger would succeed in taking her as she could run 'really fast and was as strong as Hercules', the latter being subject to the adoration of the child - she had his poster in her bedroom. Samantha would have been six this week and was to have celebrated the occasion in Disneyland. Found murdered a number of miles from the spot where she was grabbed she will never enjoy her birthday. Investigators believe the infant was held for several hours, sexually assaulted and strangled before being dumped naked on the road.

It is a case like this, as distinct from the others, which causes me to feel the ground beneath my feet pulsate and vibrate with irruptions of doubt. The once terra firma which rooted a strong personal opposition to capital punishment seems to open up like a mouth, and its teeth wrench at abolitionist certitude. Suddenly, it becomes all the more difficult to dig deep and muster opposition to the 19th century French novelist, Alphonse Karr, who argued 'If we want to abolish the death penalty, let our friends the murderers take the first step.' Still opposed to it, seeing little in it apart from Hammurabi’s "eye for an eye", I nevertheless battle to stop my resolve slipping each time I read of a child being murdered in circumstances similar to Samatha Runnion.




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Does fining a criminal show want of respect for property or imprisoning him, for personal freedom? Just as unreasonable is it to think that to take the life of a man who has taken that of another is to show want of regard for human life. We show, on the contrary, most emphatically our regard for it, by the adoption of a rule that he who violates that right in another forfeits it for himself.
- John Stuart Mill

Index: Current Articles

4 August 2002


Other Articles From This Issue:



Davy Carlin


Sectarians For Peace?
Sean Smyth


Nuff Said
Eoghan O'Suilleabhain


Saol Nua

Sean O'Lubaigh


Stake Knife Runs the Rafia
Brian Mór


The Death of Cú Chulainn
Brian Mór


SAS Stake Knife
Brian Mór


No Punishment Too Great

Anthony McIntyre


Foul Shots

Karen Cox


Insanity or Security?
John Chuckman


2 August 2002


A Scam In A Pint Glass

Anthony McIntyre


Meeting the Paramilitaries

Davy Carlin


The GFA's Failure to Deliver An Honest and Genuine Constitutional Settlement Keeps Northern Ireland Divided
Paul A. Fitzsimmons


Hold Firm
Niall Fennessy


Super Stake Knife
Brian Mór


Stake Knife Logo
Brian Mór


The Ethics of Revenge

Sam Bahour and Yitzhak Frankenthal


A Tale Told By An Idiot
John Chuckman




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