Very few people in Ireland this weekend do not know that Larry Murphy is a free man. Branded by the media as a “brazen beast” and “psychopath”, the convicted rapist was snapped wearing dark shades, a New York Yankees sweater and a baseball cap at the gates of Arbour Hill prison last Thursday morning.
The headlines screamed “Evil walks among us”, “Larry's let loose - every woman should memorise his face” and He's out - monster rapist walks free”. His attempt to hide his image was futile. The photograph of Ireland’s latest “evil rape beast” is as familiar to us as are the details of his horrendous crime against a Carlow woman.
Almost every media outlet has informed its readers, viewers and online visitors of who this man is and what crime he committed. Many will now go a step further this weekend and tell us where this “monster rapist” now resides.
Murphy has reportedly already complained to Gardai about press intrusion a few short hours after his release. He now appears set to challenge the media on their coverage of his movements and whereabouts.
As Murphy whiled away his last days behind bars, he will have closely followed a recent legal challenge brought by Michael Murray to the right of the media to identify where a convicted sexual offender is living.
In 1996, Murray was jailed for 19 years for the rape of four women and sexual assault of two others. He also had a previous rape conviction in Britain. Similarly to Murphy, Murray was released into a haze of publicity in July 2009. Each time he moved, so did the press and its readership. New home, new neighbours, new headlines.
The “beast in the snow”, according to one newspaper report, was not amused. His privacy was being invaded. Murray responded by issuing High Court proceedings claiming compensation for mental pain, panic attacks and depression caused by press interference with his privacy and his right to maintain a permanent home. He also argued that press intrusion stopped him earning a living, damaged his rehabilitation and threatened his right to life.
Described as Ireland’s “most dangerous serial rapist”, Murray said he feared for his own life and safety, so he also applied to the High Court for a temporary order to prevent the media publishing his photograph and any information identifying where he lived until his case was heard by the courts.
Ms Justice Mary Irvine sat for two days to hear Murray’s application for a gagging order. She later issued a 62 page written judgement slamming the hall door firmly in Murray’s face and flatly refusing to interfere with the media’s right to report on this violent sex offender’s whereabouts. Freedom of expression remained intact.
The newspapers in that case argued that sex offenders such as Murray are at risk of re-offending. Statistical evidence proved their point. In her judgement on his application for an interlocutory injunction, the judge roundly criticised Murray for failing to satisfy the court “with proper and cogent evidence” that he was unlikely to re-offend. She also emphasised the interest of the public in being able to identify persons convicted of violent offences and where they live.
She said that “such knowledge may allow members of the public to adjust their behaviour un whatever manner they feel might best protect them from any risk to which they may legitimately feel exposed”. Further judicial dismay was expressed at Murray's failure to show that the interference with his rights could not be justified in the public interest.
For many, Irvine’s decision was spot on. If Larry Murphy gets out of a taxi this Sunday afternoon and opens the door of that corner house neighbours said ‘would never rent in this market’, you will know who he is.
But this may not always be the case, and one suspects that Larry Murphy already knows this. The right of the media to always identify convicted sex offenders and their whereabouts is not guaranteed. Murray’s case is not over - the full hearing of the privacy action has yet to be take place.
If the full Murray privacy case runs, the presiding judge will ultimately have to balance two competing rights – freedom of expression and the right to privacy. Woven into the case presented by each side will be detailed legal submissions on a variety of matters from recidivism to special public interest considerations and previous and Irish, UK and European court decisions on these issues.
A recent legal decision in Northern Ireland does not bode well. Convicted sex offender Kenneth Callaghan succeeded in preventing the media from publishing his photograph. According to Judge Stephens in that case, there was “a clear public interest in ensuring that prisoners are re-integrated into society if they are deemed not to be at risk”.
Irvine distinguished this case in her judgement last month. She said that Murray, who had a history of repeated crimes, had produced no evidence that he was unlikely to re-offend, whereas Callaghan was found on expert evidence not to have constituted a significant risk to the public.
The legislature needs to step in now, and create proper information structures in relation to sex offenders and their reintegration into society post conviction. The public is crying out for this to be done. This is too serious an issue of legitimate public concern for the media to be the only realistic source of information and knowledge.
Larry Murphy pulled his baseball cap tightly over his head as he left prison this week. We presumed that beneath the cap sat that now familiar and untidy mane of brown hair. But, is he, in fact bald? Or maybe sporting a Mohican? Or perhaps his hair and features have just changed with time? Freedom of expression is the cornerstone of a democratic and safe society. Without it, and as that taxi turns into your street, will you recognise him?
This article first appeared in the Sunday Business Post (15 August 2010).