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Monday, August 02, 2010 

The criminal justice system, a book and a life.

One of the problems for those of us who think for the most part the criminal justice system tends to do an incredibly difficult job about as well as can be expected is that for however many cases where that does happen, there are always a minority which stick out as examples of either justice not being done, where it has actively been denied, or where the end sentences have either been too harsh or alternatively, not harsh enough.

Unity reminded us a couple of weeks back when it was decided that the police officer who struck and pushed over Ian Tomlinson would not be charged that others have previously been convicted of manslaughter when there was not even any physical contact involved. Sarah Campbell and Kim Woolley, both heroin addicts, had demanded money from Amrit Bhandari, who, terrified, refused to hand any over. Woolley, in response, then loudly claimed that Bhandari had raped her. Neither could have known that Bhandari had a weak heart, and overcome by the stress of the situation, he collapsed and died. Campbell and Bhandari then compounded the offence by stealing his wallet as he lay stricken on the pavement, claiming later that they had believed he had simply fainted. Campbell was on the autistic spectrum, had been sexually abused, had a history of depression and had made numerous previous attempts at taking her own life. She took an overdose the day after she began her three year prison sentence.

Her mother later made the point that the courts tend to come down harder on women, and especially on drug addicts, even though Campbell had succeeded prior to the trial in getting clean. Normally, you would also presume that a sentence for manslaughter would tend to be longer than one for handling stolen goods, yet today that wasn't the case. Admittedly, the "goods" which Raymond Scott handled were extraordinarily rare: one of the few surviving 17th century examples of Shakespeare's first folio, stolen from Durham University back in 1998. Ten years later while in America he took it be to valued at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington DC, where, suspicious, they called the police. While the book itself was not damaged, the title leaf and binding had been cut off in an attempt at removing any easily identifying features. Interesting is the language used by one of the experts from the Folger library:

"This is a cultural object which represents literary history, civilisation of humanity and the spread of the arts.

"It's not just a book, it's a cultural legacy that has been damaged, brutalised, mutilated.

"The damage to the book is unconscionable; it's irreparable."

Ever so slightly hyperbolic perhaps? It's not as if this was the equivalent, deliberate smashing of an ancient, genuinely irreplaceable vase into smithereens, the Taliban destroying the Buddhas of Banyam because of intolerant religious fanaticism in an definable act of cultural vandalism, nor as the vice-chancellor of Durham University had it, the taking a knife to Constable's The Hay Wain; this was an act of theft and the covering of tracks which didn't overall affect the work itself. Even taking into consideration Scott's record of dishonesty and past offences, six years for handling the book and two for taking it out of the country seems excessive.

It seems even more so when on the same day Michael Ridley was sentenced to five years in prison for manslaughter and grievous bodily harm. In one of those stupid, senseless and completely avoidable incidents which seem all too familiar, Ridley struck Chris Chacksfield and his wife Adele with such force after they apparently knocked into him while on a night out that both were thrown to the floor. Chacksfield died of head injuries three days later. Ridley, like Sarah Campbell, almost certainly didn't intend to kill Chacksfield, yet even if he had been drinking he should have known the possible consequences of hitting someone, especially as an amateur boxer. Five years might well be around the right sort of time frame for such an offence, especially as Ridley plead guilty, although many would doubtless say anything up to 10 years would be appropriate, yet it seems especially light when total terms for handling a stolen book, however valuable, and taking it out of the country result in three years longer.

The idiosyncrasies of the system, it should be pointed out, are balanced by the ability for sentences to both be extended as unduly lenient if the attorney general refers the case to the court of appeal, while they can also be reduced in a similar fashion by appeal if it felt to have been to harsh or if the judge has erred in law. One of the positives of the system which should be defended is also that judges still do have at least a vestige of personal discretion, and having heard all the evidence, they are in the best position initially to determine what the sentence should be. The details of the cases can sometimes play into the personal biases of the judges; who knows how far the cultural aspect of the Shakespeare theft and vandalism of the book, even if neither were actually committed by Scott, played into his sentence, while the fact that both Chacksfields were in the armed forces may have made into Ridley's. It doesn't however provide any comfort that the law is essentially saying that a book is worth more than a life, and how that poses a direct challenge to those of us who would do nothing to change that, however correctly.

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