Two stories caught my eye this week, both concerned with sentencing somebody found guilty of a crime. First, this: in which a psychology lecturer was sent to prison for three months for contempt of court. She’d been on jury duty, had looked up some details regarding the defendant on Google, and shared those with other jurors. Somebody told the judge, and she ended up in jail.
Fair enough: contempt is a serious business. The British legal system is flawed but it’s still the best available, and we have to cleave to the idea that the accused is tried solely on the evidence presented in court. Still, the severity of the sentence in this case leaves something of a bad taste in the mouth. There’s a feeling of examples being made, of a judge seeking a form of revenge for the disturbance caused to his court. It’s good law, but bad justice.
The second story came to my notice a little late, as it concerns a sentence passed a good few weeks ago on a defendant who was found guilty late last summer. The details – and they’re not pretty – are here (apologies for linking to the Daily Mail, but in its apoplexy it gave the most comprehensive account of the sentencing and the reasoning behind it).
This second story caused concern, not because of any defensive feelings towards children outside of the default concern that any human being with any morals or compassion should feel – I have no children and have no desire to do so, and outside of default compassion I frankly consider the majority of children to be unnecessary nuisances – but because it affected directly my own sensibilities.
I have no time for those who commit crimes of this nature, and am certainly not about to defend paedophilia. Nevertheless, the intense anger I felt on reading this story came as a surprise to me. I’ve always considered myself to be strongly liberal in matters of sentencing, always seeing a need to get to the root of a criminal’s psychopathy and work on the cause of their actions rather than just banging them up inside for life. I’ve studied the ‘three strikes’ law – though by no means deeply – and seen how it led to greatly increased crime everywhere it was enacted. I’m a Guardian reader who doesn’t read the Guardian.
The difference in this case is that it directly affected me. I know the man involved. Not in any personal capacity and certainly not in any way involved with his activities. He was a business acquaintance; I’d go so far as to say that although I knew his name, he probably wouldn’t have known mine as I was not the man he directly did business with. At best I’d be a nodding acquaintance within our common circle and an unknown outside of it.
He was known as a slightly strange man, even before the nature of his crime became public: he’d offer a can of beer, with the proviso that he opened it, from the bottom, and that you returned the empty can, undamaged, uncrushed. There was running joke in our business sector that if you needed to point him out to someone who’d not previously met him, you could just tell them to look for the guy in the light blue shirt, as that was what he always, invariably, wore. In fact, if you look at the photo in the report linked above, you’ll see that’s what he wore to court.
We know now that these quirks were the socially acceptable aspect of his terribly deep psychological problems, and again, while I don’t believe anybody could use those problems as a basis to condone or legitimise his actions, they do give us a form of insight into why he committed his crimes. I’d go so far as to say that given his psychology, he found it difficult to see a crime being committed. Bear in mind that although he was found with the country’s largest yet-known collection of pornographic images of children, and although he also made ‘pseudo-images’ of children, there is no evidence that he acted on or even felt any paedophilic impulses. His crime came about not as a result of his sexuality but as an extension of his compulsion to collect.
This is where the liberal side of me would say that we should seek to more fully understand the criminal act, and that prison would be a detrimental influence on any attempt at rehabilitation. The liberal side of me certainly would suggest some form of incarceration, but in an institution where he’d get the help he obviously needs rather than in a prison where he’d be ostracised at best.
But instead, I feel an unpleasant anger with him, a feeling that his sentence was trifling and insulting, that he should have been banged up and made to take his chances as a nonce, a kiddie-fiddler in a harsh environment where his kind would be the lowest of the low, subject to violence and abuse from other prisoners, serving a sentence brought upon him by a justice outside any known to you or I.
Why is this? As much as I dislike considering this, it’s become plain that I felt as angry with him as I did (and do) because he caused personal distress and inconvenience to me. Being informed that a person of your acquaintance is a criminal, especially of this sort, is not a pleasant thing to experience. There’s also the outrage felt that, given a slightly different slant on the reporting of the case, the industry I’m still a part of, which serves an artform that I still love, would have been tarred with the same brush.
There’s also a very strong feeling of betrayal, which I know I’m not alone in feeling; without trivialising the matter, it’s very much a third-act reveal where a trusted lieutenant steps out of the shadows and shows he’s been the leader of the bad guys all along. All of us who knew him, and happily chatted with him about whatever we’d chat about, are shocked at what’s been reported. We wonder if there was a darker aspect to the role he played for us, if his years of organising trade shows had always been a smokescreen or at best a way of facilitating his baser needs. We all stand at these shows and happily check out the female (or male) attendees; what if he was doing the same with the attendee’s children, or worse, the children who occasionally attended unaccompanied?
And lastly, the feeling that brings about the strongest sense of self-revulsion, is this: the initial reporting of this case was a major factor in the decision of the company with which I would attend these trade shows to stop doing so. As a direct result, I lost a small but nonetheless welcome portion of my income. So I am feeling this burning righteousness because of a crime, or because it’s cost me money? I wish I could give you a definite, honest answer.
Unfortunately, I can’t.