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Permanently on the run? The fate of high-profile offenders

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The concept of status degradation ceremonies has been central to the sociological understanding of the criminal justice process. The path from suspect to accused to defendant to convicted prisoner is marked by significant ceremonies or rituals that indicate and dramatize the change in status, whether this be detention for questioning, appearing in court in handcuffs or having to run the media gauntlet on the way to a prison van. The recent case of Eamon Lillis in Ireland would suggest that we should extend the process of status degradation ceremonies to include the release from custody. What happens here is central to understanding how the criminal identity is difficult if not impossible to escape and that what happens to certain offenders on release may be described as a series of “status reminder” ceremonies. The mass media, in particular the tabloid press, are the ringmasters at these ceremonies.


Eamonn Lillis

Eamon Lillis killed his wife, Celine Crowley, at their home in Howth in 2008. He hit her with a brick and while that did not kill her he failed to get the medical help that would have saved her life. He was less that forthcoming in telling the police what happened, blaming the incident on a mysterious intruder. It was only after an intensive investigation that he admitted to the row. He had been having an extra marital affair but denied that this had anything to do with the killing. The jury failed to agree on a murder verdict and found him guilty of manslaughter. He was sentenced to six years and nine months in prison. After 25% remission for good behaviour he was due for release on Friday 10th April 2015 but because of  the large media presence outside the jail he postponed his release until the next day, a Saturday, thus wittingly or unwittingly providing the Sunday papers with a lead story.


An essential element of status degradation ceremonies is the loss of control over one's own biography such that it gets rewritten to create a sense of inevitability in the outcome, to create a sense that particular events in an individual's life meant that it would inevitably end this way. Thus studies of juvenile offenders show how events in their lives on which they did not place a particular meaning, like being children of a single welfare dependent parent, are reinterpreted in the criminal justice process and become renamed as “symptoms” that led to criminal behavior. Once labeled as an offender, you lose control over the interpretation of your life and behaviour, and that becomes the prerogative of other institutions. For the prisoner being released, this power and this right passes to the media. They were not reticent to play their part.


The media had begun assembling outside the prison on Friday 11th April. Lillis left the prison on 12th April. Despite being pursued by reporters from the prison to the airport and, it would appear, on to Southampton, his only comment to them was that he “had served his time”. But this did not stop the media claiming privileged insight into his behavior. Indeed it probably gave them carte blanche to do so.


Media outside prison

Their interpretations were highly judgmental, the tabloids being particularly straightforward, branding him “an arrogant wife killer” (Irish Mirror, 13th April 2015), “the coward refused to leave Wheatfield Prison”… “The thug was handed temporary release yesterday but to the fury of prison bosses he refused to sign the order that would have given him his first taste of freedom in years”…It is understood the 57-year-old killer did not have the courage to face the waiting media presence at the gates of the Clondalkin jail”. Citing an unnamed and unidentified source, the Mirror described him as the “posh killer”, a description that encapsulates a lot of prejudices about who exactly kills. The Sunday Independent said that “having cowered behind prison walls from the media mob”, “he finally emerged”.


Some of the others were more subtle in their judgments. The RTE News (11th April), for example, reported that “he made no effort to conceal his face”, a statement that carries the assumption that like a leper he should. They also said that “he sat upright in the back seat” of his taxi. It is not clear how else they thought he would sit. He “appeared to have lost weight during his time behind bars – appeared angry and defiant”. He also committed the ultimate sin of “keeping the media guessing”. According to the Irish Independent (13th April, 2015), he “fled to his sisters house” though it had been clear for a long time that that was where he was going anyway. They said that on his first day of freedom he “chose to remain behind closed doors”. They also told us that “may already be planning his first trip to the cinema since his release from prison today”.


But it is in a series of articles in the Sunday Independent (13th April) that we can see most clearly how, with released criminals, their biographies, their motives, and the interpretations of their behavior are in the media’s control. For example, Lillis was described as carrying the Oxford Book of American Short Stories, when he left prison. It was “held close to his chest”, and it was a book that the journalist said, contained a message for him. Under a headline “Macabre Reading for Lillis in his free time”, we are told that the message was in the story by Edgar Allan Poe, The Tell Tale Heart. This story, we were told, predicts his future, “[W]hile Lillis might be free from prison, the story reminds readers that he is not free from his own mind”. “Having shown no remorse to his daughter or Celine's family, Poe illustrates the human heart finds it hard to endure the burden of guilt forever, especially in the case of killing another human”. There was of course no evidence that he had read that particular story. In the airport the Sunday Independent told us “[H]e had done everything possible to get through the security gates to the safety of other side, where reporters could not follow him. He had bought his ticket while he was still in prison. He had checked in online and printed off his boarding pass”. (12th April, 2015) This is a normal way of boarding an aircraft now but in his case it is insinuated that it is somehow suspicious. The story goes on “[H]e then walked into the newsagents, where dozens of newspapers carrying his name and photo stared back up at him. In what looked like a very deliberate decision, Lillis ignored the newspapers and instead went for the paperbacks”. He picked up the latest book by John Connelly, a writer of suitably macabre and violent thrillers. He didn’t buy it. 

The article went on to draw further attention to his attempts to pass as normal. “Short in stature and neat in frame”, it told us, “for a newly-released institutionalised man he moved sleekly through the Loop Mall, like any regular passenger on the London 'red-eye' flights”. The Dublin to Southampton flight leaves at 8.40 in the morning. He even went to the duty free shop where “[H]e bought three boxes of ladies' cosmetics in a hasty purchase and made his way for the alcohol and chocolates”. However the vigilant reporter noted that “[T]he whiskeys caught his eye, but aware of lurking media, he refrained from purchasing any alcohol”. He “cut a lonely figure” while waiting for his flight. Once on board the plane he “settled into his window seat on the plane and, just as he was the model prisoner, he too was the model passenger. No celebratory tea, coffee or beer was ordered and not even a pack of pretzels was taken. As the flight took off from the east coast of Ireland, with Howth fading into the background, he didn't look back until the seatbelt sign had been switched off. There were four retrospective glances in total across his former landscape, but as the plane made its way into Southampton he put down his film magazine and gazed out the window, surveying his temporary new home. After landing, as the doors opened he gently rubbed his hands together”. The only word missing from that last sentence is “with glee”.

What this means is that as we live in an age where the digital memory is the source of media framings and knowledge of the past and indeed the source of the social memory, Lillis will never escape these kinds of understanding of his behavior and personality. The first part of his sentence was served in a state prison, the second part in the national media. The latter will last much longer than the former.

This example raises a number of questions for sociology and criminal justice policy. From a policy perspective it draws attention to the way in which prisoners are prepared for release. The former governor of Mountjoy Prison, John Lonergan, has suggested that they be prepared for the media frenzies that can surround their every movement. How likely this is to happen remains to be seen but with the seeming extensiveness of media sources within the prison service it is unlikely to be successful. Someone in the prison service will always have a whisper for the media.

From a sociological point of view it raises questions of why we focus on particular murders and murderers in this way and why they become iconic figures in the media memory. It is not simply about the crimes they commit.  They have all committed violent and brutal crimes but there are other wife killers in prison and their releases do not product these kinds of frenzies. It is not simply about the allegations in the media about the failure to express remorse either. The record would suggest that this issue is a bit more complex.  In the criminal trial Lillis expressed remorse but the presiding judge said that his “expression of remorse rings hollow to me and I consider it to be self-serving in light of the circumstances of the case." In a civil action he repeated his remorse, saying in an affidavit,  "I did not intend to kill my wife," … [H]e stated he was "filled with remorse" (Irish Independent , 17th November 2011). The fact that he benefited financially from the disposal of his wife’s estate may also be a factor. But it is hard to escape the aura of social class that permeates this issue.

If we consider the murderers who have become signal offenders and iconic figures in the media pantheon of villains - Joe O’Reilly, Graham Dwyer, Eamon Lillis to mention just three – they all are recognisably middle class. They are “people like us” and so when they behave in ways that we don’t they threaten the controlling bourgeois mind set and self-image and so they must be monstered for it. The fact that the name Ciprian Grozavu doesn’t immediately ring a bell with us is important here. He is also a convicted murderer but will never attain the level of vilification that these others have achieved. But then he lived in a squat in Bandon and had come to the attention of the Gardaí already for other offences. He had the kind of background from which we would prefer our murders to come.


Ciaran McCullagh was formerly a lecturer in sociology in University College Cork. He continues to write on crime and on the media.

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