Wednesday, 24 March 2010

Jon Venables case reveals victims having too much say

The sight of Denise Fergus commenting on the case of Jon Venables marks a growing trend on the part of victims having a say in the fate of offenders.
Fergus, the mother of murdered toddler Jamie Bulger, is reported to have had a meeting with Justice Secretary Jack Straw to discuss the case. The immediate question must surely be why Fergus should be asking such questions or courting such publicity?
Venables and co murderer Robert Thompson have served their prison sentences. They are now out on licence. Venables has been returned to prison, having broken the rules of his licence.
The murder of Jamie Bulger was an horrendous crime and Fergus and her family have suffered grievously but whether Venables has now committed another crime really is none of her concern. It is a separate case that has to now go through the courts.
As many have pointed out the intervention of Fergus and feverish searching around by some in the media for information about Venables serves only to make the chances of justice being achieved in the latest case less likely, leaving some other potential victim feeling let down.
Fergus later intervened again when she called for the sacking of Maggie Atkinson, the new children's commissioner over her suggestion that the age of criminal responsibility should rise from 10 to 12. Venables and Thompson were 11 when convicted for the murder of Jamie Bulger.
From the media perspective there has always been the need to have a public demon with which to frighten people. Venables it would seem fits the bill, a worthy successor to Moors murderer Myra Hindley, especially in tabloid editors minds. These stories sell papers, so any means will be used to manipulate victims to that end. Some victims it would seem are also ripe for manipulation.
This whole Venables episode though marks a further example of the unhealthy development of victims seeking to have an ever bigger say in the fate of offenders.
A previous example came three years ago when Frances Lawrence, the widow of murdered headteacher Philip, intervened when it was revealed that the killer Learco Chindamo would not be deported to Italy to complete his sentence because it would breach his human rights. An Asylum and Immigration Tribunal ruled that Chindamo had a right to a family life under the Human Rights Act 1998.
Lawrence reaction was understandable but subjective. She had lost her husband in tragic circumstances, for which this boy was responsible. Now he was seemingly getting special treatment. Lawrence though seemed to be saying that she was the final arbiter over his rights. She was not an objective witness or judge, so should have remained outside the debate.
Prior to Lawrence there was Sara Payne, whose eight year old daughter Sarah was murdered by paedophile Roy Whiting in 2000. Understandably, Payne threw herself into campaigning on the issue of child protection. She was appointed Victim’s Champion by the government last year.
Payne pushed for a law to be adopted that enabled parents to know if paedophiles live in an area. A scheme is now to be extended across the country giving parents the right to ask police if someone with unsupervised access to their children has a conviction for sex offences. It is an approach modelled on Megan’s law that operates in the US.
There was an element of victim turned expert in the metamorphosis of Payne, something also seen with some of the knife crime cases like Brook Kinsella, Eastenders actress and sister of murdered teenager Ben, who knew best how to remedy that situation.
Messrs Fergus and Lawrence have both suffered grievous tragedies as a result of the actions of others but justice demands that they step back and let due process take its course. Harsh as it may sound, it is not just for the victims to work out some of their grief by continuing to get involved in the lives of those who perpetrated the crimes against their loved ones.
The danger is that again this country is about to adopt another of the worst elements of the American justice system, namely victims having a say in the punishment that offenders receive.
This is not to say that there is not a role for some connection between victim and offender. The restorative justice models that allow offender and victim to come together and for some reperation and reconciliation to result are excellent. These schemes though are played out under controlled situation supervised in private between individuals. They are not media circuses.
The narrative of much of the media in the area of crime and punishment is strictly old testament – an eye for eye a tooth for a tooth. The worry with cases like that of Fergus, Lawrence and Payne is that in seeking to exorcise their grief they become victims all over again, replaying the past tragic events, only this time for the benefit of those seeking to sell newspapers. The victims need to pull back from the criminal justice process in order that justice can be done and seen to be done.

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