The family of murdered Ballycarry woman Nichola Dickson claim they were “kept in the dark” over her killer’s release from prison.
Twenty-six-year-old Nichola was brutally murdered by her partner, David McCord, at her Ballycarry home in 2003.
McCord was sentenced to a minimum of 11 years behind bars, but has been back on the streets since July under a pre-release scheme.
Shocked to learn that McCord has effectively been released six months early, Nichola’s brother Gareth Smyth and her mother Linda Brown have paid a visit to Attorney General John Larkin, QC, to discuss the case.
The pair spoke to Mr Larkin of their displeasure at the “lack of information” available to them surrounding McCord’s release.
Gareth told the Times: “We have been virtually excluded from the parole process, and have been shown no proof that McCord has been rehabilitated.
“We got a vague letter in July informing us that McCord would be getting out of prison for prolonged periods of time on a pre-release scheme leading up to the end of his tariff.
“We took this to mean he would be out for a week or two at a time, but were shocked to find out recently that McCord has been out for months, and we have no idea if he will be going back inside.
“We don’t even know if a date has been set for McCord’s parole board hearing, and victims’ families have no right to representation at these hearings.
“The process needs to be more open and transparent and take the needs of victims’ families into account.”
Gareth said the Attorney General was “very sympathetic” to the family’s plight.
“He agreed that changes should be made to the parole process to give victims’ families more involvement,” Gareth added.
Mr Larkin also told the family he would press Justice Minister David Ford for changes to be made, and asked if he could refer to Nichola’s case when making his representations.
While Gareth acknowledges that any changes to the process would come too late to help his family, he hopes it could spare others from experiencing the same trauma.
He added: “McCord destroyed our lives when he took Nichola from us, and just when we had started to put things back together, this happens and takes us right back to square one.
“Some members of my family are frightened knowing that McCord is no longer locked up.
“What makes it worse is that we don’t even know if he has shown any remorse for what he did.”
Gareth and Linda now plan to lobby the Justice Minister to find out why McCord has not served his tariff.
“I feel the minister is burying his head in the sand on this issue. Hopefully he will agree to meet with us so we can get some answers,” Gareth concluded.
Meanwhile, east Antrim MLA Roy Beggs, who accompanied Gareth and Linda to the meeting with the Attorney General, said “the rights of victims need to be adequately taken into consideration by the parole system, rather than focusing on the needs of prisoners”.
The Ulster Unionist representative also said he was grateful that Mr Larkin was so keen to meet and discuss the case.
He added: “It is important that they have the opportunity to express their feelings and raise their concerns. At this stage there are probably more questions than answers, and mostly those answers need to come from the Minister of Justice.
“I have written to him in detail about this case, and am waiting for a full response.”
Mr Beggs told the Times that one of the specific issues which emerged at the meeting with the Attorney General is the “inadequate” participation rights for victims in the parole process for life-sentence prisoners.
He added: “In England, the Victims Commissioner has recently made strong recommendations to the Government to make parole panel hearings more open and transparent, with victims granted the right to attend the hearing and receive a written summary of the panel’s decision with some explanation of how the decision was reached.
“At the moment in Northern Ireland, even the Attorney General does not have the right to see the reports of the Parole Commissioners – the body which decides whether a prisoner should be released at the end of their sentence.
“Why must we always be playing catch-up with the rest of the UK? Victims like Linda and Gareth deserve more attention and the whole Victims Information Scheme needs reformed,” Mr Beggs concluded.