More changes are needed to give victim’s families a louder voice in the parole hearing process.
That’s the view of Lisa Stewart, whose sister Michelle was murdered in 2008. She says her family was left dismayed when they realised that her killer could be released this year.
17-year-old Michelle was stabbed 10 times by John Wilson as she was leaving a local shop in Drongan, East Ayrshire 15 years ago. He pleaded guilty to her murder and was given a 12-year minimum jail sentence.
Wilson was last denied parole on March 7 of this year but is due to apply again at another hearing at the end of this month (November 2023).
Lisa shared some special memories of Michelle: “She was the baby of the family – there were 13 years between her, and I. Michelle was very shy, she was very caring about people and she was always smiling.”
Her family started a campaign to allow victims’ families a larger input in the lead up and during the hearings; this was duly named Michelle’s Law which was started in 2018.
It focuses on changes to legislation that allows offenders to be released back into the communities where they committed their crimes.
Lisa said: “We started the campaign through getting a letter from the victim notification scheme advising us that he (John Wilson) was coming up for consideration for first grant of temporary release, which is preparing long term prisoners for life back out within the community.”
“We were completely unaware of how the judicial system worked. It was day release, which would then work up to weekend release and in total he’s entitled to be out for a week at a time without any supervision.”
“That was all new to us and prompted me to contact MSP John Scott and through him got in touch with different people within the Scottish Parliament. We put together what they thought would be a good name for it; Michelle’s Law.”
“We’ve campaigned to introduce more rights and a fairer system. What we’ve felt is there’s not really any representation for victims once it’s been at court – they’re kind of forgotten about.”
In a change to parole hearing regulations brought in at their request, victims’ families can now attend, although they are not permitted to speak.
The family’s worse fear is if they meet and encounter Wilson in their home village again if he is released.
Lisa stated: “The parole board can apply license conditions such as setting up exclusion zones, however it is very rare. Since Michelle’s Law started there is more consideration given to this. Victims are also more aware of the right to ask for exclusion zones to be applied to license conditions.”
Michelle’s Law has also contested for changes within the victim notification scheme.
Lisa said: “You only get that chance at the start to sign up for the victim notification scheme, you don’t get a chance further down the line, we’ve fought for changes to that.”
“Maybe victims think at that moment, when it’s all a bit raw, they don’t want to hear about that person ever again. As time goes on, maybe they would want to be aware when they are due for release.”
The family are hoping that the new Victims, Witnesses and Justice Reform (Scotland) bill, which is currently being heard before the Scottish Parliament, will look at further proposals from the campaign.
There is one certain thing. The Stewart family and Michelle’s Law will relentlessly push for more victim’s rights in the future.