3 Dec 2009

Life does mean life, judge in murder case says

7:00 pm on 3 December 2009

A High Court judge says there's a "complete misconception" among the general public about the non-parole period built into a life sentence for murder.

Justice Panckhurst made the comments several times on Thursday as he imposed a life sentence on murderer Ashley Peach at the High Court in Christchurch.

Peach has admitted killing volunteer worker Kerry Downey, who had come to his home to pick up a stray cat. He sexually assaulted her before killing her and dumping her body in snow on the Port Hills.

He will serve a life sentence with a 13-year non-parole period, but before handing down the term the judge made several mentions of the general public's perception of that penalty.

He said there was a complete misconception that the non-parole period was the final length of a sentence, when in fact life imprisonment meant just that.

'Very difficult' to get parole if serving life

Commenting on the judge's remarks, the Law Society's criminal law convenor, Jonathan Krebs, says the sentence of life imprisonment does not mean that for everyone, but in general, the worst offenders do not get parole easily.

He says he understands how it can be confusing for the public.

"Just because a person is permitted to apply for parole does not mean that they will get parole," Mr Krebs explains, "and parole in circumstances where a person's serving a life sentence for murder is very difficult to get."

Criminal record includes sexual assaults

Justice Panckhurst told Peach that he had preyed on a vulnerable, petite woman and that his crime no doubt had a sexual element. Peach's criminal record includes sexual assaults on women.

He said it was not uncommon for crimes against women like those Peach had previously committed to precede a violent and sexually motivated crime such as the murder of 52-year-old Ms Downey.

The judge told Ms Downey's family it would be up to the Parole Board to determine when Peach would be released, but he assured them that the man who killed their daughter and sister would not be free for at least 13 years.

He ordered that the pre-sentencing report, which outlines Peach's previous convictions and contains the assessment that he may always be a threat to the community, be made available when the Parole Board is asked to consider his release.

Family feels failed by justice system

The Downey family want to see Peach remain behind bars with no chance of release for closer to 20 years. Kerry Downey's brother, Martin Downey, said the sentence meant the New Zealand justice system had failed his sister.

Victim impact statements read by the Downey family described their daughter and sister as a beautiful, kind, and generous woman, who was highly intelligent and loved literature and travel.

They wanted to dispel the perception that she was a cat-loving spinster.

The police say they are happy with the life sentence. Detective Sergeant Nigel Hughes says it was a distressing case and his thoughts are with the Downey family.