Why victims should NOT have a voice
Last week at the Old Bailey a statement by Adèle Eastman, Tom Ap Rhys Price’s fiancée, was read out in open court, after his killers had been found guilty but before they had been sentenced. Ap Rhys Price had got a First in Classics in my Faculty at Cambridge a decade ago and then become a lawyer. His killing has seemed to many people peculiarly and horribly senseless.
The public reaction of his family has surpassed belief in its dignity. Together with his legal firm they have set up a trust in his memory to provide educational facilities for the disadvantaged – as, in one way or another, his killers certainly were. And, far from squealing for the noose, they decried the widespread carrying of knives. (Donations to the trust can be made online.)
But under a pilot scheme now running in England (influenced in part by practice in the United States), the bereaved were allowed to make their own courtroom statement about the impact that the crime had had on their lives.
I am sure that, had I been in Adèle Eastman’s position, I would have done exactly what she did. I am also sure that this innovation is a very bad idea.
Her statement was about as good anyone could do in the circumstances: a moving combination of rhetorical sophistication and those clichés that are the only way of express such raw emotions. It was reprinted widely in tabloids and broadsheets, often with photographs of the couple (a mawkish bit of sentiment that I am afraid I have repeated at the top of this post).
The main reason for my rather unfashionable dislike of all this is the different classes of victim it tends to create. On the one hand, there are those who leave behind them grieving lovers or mothers (Elizabeth Davidson’s statement about her daughter killed by a dangerous driver was the last such to hit the headlines) – bereaved women, who fit with a popular, even comfortable, view of tragedy and have the eloquence to write or speak as powerfully as the situation allows.
Then, on the other, there are those who leave behind those who are decidedly unglamorous in their grief: the frail elderly, the inarticulate, the criminals, the drug-takers – and those who, even with the help of a state-provided lawyer, cannot begin to encapsulate the impact of their loss. And of course there are those whose death is not mourned at all.
Judges are supposed to take account of the impact of the crime on the victim in passing sentence. But this is only one factor among many, and they are I am sure far too hard-headed to be swayed by any such popular notions of victim-hood. But all the same, in the press reporting of these cases, there is an underlying implication (as others have dared to point out) that the killing of some people deserves heavier punishment than of others – or even that the more upset the victim’s family are (or can show themselves to be), the longer the sentence that should be meted out.
The ancient world battled with these kinds of issues too. Certainly, the Roman courtroom of the first century BC saw more than its fair share of grieving wives and children paraded in front of the jury. But I was always taught that one of the greatest achievements of Athenian and Roman law was the way that it progressively took the power away from the individual victim – and gave it instead to a (hopefully) dispassionate state judicial process.
We seem now to be travelling in the opposite direction