A whole life tariff should have featured in the sentencing of a notorious former loyalist paramilitary chief for his “callous” campaign of sectarian murders, the Court of Appeal has heard.
Judges were told that should have been the starting point before cutting Gary Haggarty’s period of imprisonment for becoming a so-called supergrass.
The Public Prosecution Service is challenging the six-and-a-half-year term ultimately imposed on the UVF boss turned state informer on the basis that it was unduly lenient.
Even though any successful appeal will not lead to 46-year-old Haggarty’s rearrest and return to jail, judicial guidance may be given for how to handle similar cases in future.
Ciaran Murphy QC, for the PPS, argued that the reduced sentence he received under the terms of assisting offender legislation had been excessive.
“A defendant receiving a sentence in single figure for offences which otherwise would require him to serve a minimum of 35 years in prison ... the discounts have gone too far,” he said.
Haggarty, who has already been freed from jail and put into witness protection, appeared via video-link from an undisclosed location for the hearing.
He confessed to more than 500 offences committed while part of a UVF unit based in north Belfast.
His catalogue of paramilitary crime extended over 16 years, from 1991 to 2007, and included five murders.
He pleaded guilty as part of a controversial state deal that offered a reduced sentence in return for providing evidence on other terror suspects.
In January his prison term was slashed from 35 years to six-and-a-half years due to the information supplied on scores of loyalist killings and attempted murders.
But only one man is to be prosecuted over a murder using his evidence.
Despite Haggarty being released in May due to time served on remand, the PPS is seeking to have his sentence reviewed and increased.
Defence lawyers responded, however, by arguing that the legal move is academic.
Haggarty will never serve any longer behind bars because the murders were committed before the Good Friday Agreement, they insisted.
But Lord Chief Justice Sir Declan Morgan pointed out that the appeal represented an opportunity to give guidance on future cases.
He also asked: “Is it really the case that the absolute maximum discount can be provided to someone who has committed the most outrageous crimes?”
Reserving judgment, Sir Declan pledged to deliver a verdict as soon as possible.