Daily Archives: 21 August 2007

How society has failed Frances Lawrence

Frances Lawrence has been doing the rounds on TV and radio today, expressing her outrage at the fact that her husbands murderer will not now be deported when he finishes his sentence. For liberals, issues such as these place us in a tricky position. No-one wishes to cause Frances Lawrence or her family any further grief, but what if pretty much everything she says is utterly wrong?

First of all, the Human Rights Act is a sideshow here. The real issue is that we are members of the EU and as an EU citizen Learco Chindamo has freedom of movement within the community. There has to be a compelling reason to not only send him back to Italy – a place he left when he was six – and not allow him to come back. Now, if he was a threat to the Lawrence family, or indeed anyone, then that might be a reason for keeping him in prison. But how is that a reason for keeping him in Italy?

Bizarrely, if the guy was a UK citizen, we wouldn’t even be having this debate. This isn’t, ultimately, about whether ‘criminals’ should have more rights than ‘victims’. This is a debate about whether ‘British criminals’ should have more rights than Italian ones. More than that, this is a debate about whether the perpetrators of media-friendly crimes should be treated more severely than the perpetrators of the majority of crimes that the media couldn’t give two hoots about. Chindamo would not be embroiled in this row if he’s murdered another black kid, as that is just black-on-black crime and therefore to be disregarded. If his victim had been Stephen rather than Phillip (I’ve seen at least one person get these 90s Lawrences confused), we’d have never heard of either the murderer or the victim.

He’s currently serving life imprisonment and having served 12 years is now entitled to parole. But that doesn’t mean he will automatically be released now. But more to the point, he’s spent his entire youth in confinement. This is not, as Frances Lawrence puts it, someone who is free “to pick and choose how he wants to live his life.” Iain Dale seems to think he’s had a light sentence. Call me a bleeding heart, but I most certainly don’t. His life has been thrown away – he isn’t going to just walk away. I’m not saying he didn’t deserve it; just don’t tell me that 12 years of imprisonment at an impressionable age is something you can just shrug off. Is it so outrageous to suggest that someone like Chindamo – who clearly had a young chaotic life – having served his sentence, should be allowed to try to rehabilitate in the country he has spent 21 of his 27 years in? Are there really no grounds for even an inch of compassion for this pathetic creature? Are we really so keen to create another Hindley-esque monster to tell campfire stories about?

What should the alternative be? There are plenty of Tories – including if I recall their own Shadow Home Secretary – who believe that what should have happened is that Learco Chindamo should have been marched off to a gas chamber on his 16th birthday (because obviously you don’t murder children in cold blood – that would be inhumane), as they do in many US states. Short of that though, at some point the guy was going to be released. If he’d been given a minimum sentence of 30 years, I can guarantee that Iain would have been writing in 2025 “So a headmaster’s life is only worth thirty years. That is perhaps just as big a scandal as the abuse of the Human Rights Act.”

Meanwhile, Home Office Minister Tony McNulty claims that by committing a heinous crime, Chindamo has “forfeited his human rights.” This is now familiar New Labour rhetoric. To counter the Tories’ call for no-one to have any rights at all, Labour prefer to say that only the innocent should have rights. But how far should this go? If Chindamo has forfeited his rights, then presumably torturing him in prison would have been fair game? Indeed, how far does ‘heinous’ go? Speeding and killing a child is pretty heinous. Pinching from pension funds is pretty heinous. Where do you draw the line? Get a judge to decide? They’re supposed to be the problem in the first place!

Writing as an atheist, and a rationalist, whatever happened to those very Christian concepts of redemption and forgiveness? Whatever happened to hating the sin but loving the sinner? I find it hard to see how a society can function without these principles and stay sane (even Sharia law has a certain crude concept of rehabilitation). Yet a lot of the same people who are first in line to denounce how ‘family (Christian) values’ have been lost seem to have no truck with the idea that such values ought to apply to them as well.

How did society fail Frances Lawrence? Fundamentally, by not letting her get over it. The media have lapped her up as a cause celebre, endlessly reinforcing her quiet sense of outrage by having to rehearse it to camera ad nauseum. The Home Office clearly mislead her by confidently assuring her Chindamo would be deported when they surely had scant grounds for believing it. And the criminal justice system has failed her by not letting her confront directly the man who destroyed her family. I suspect that half an hour in a room together would do both Frances Lawrence and Learco Chindamo a lot of good. It would enable Mrs Lawrence show Chindamo the effects of his crime and force Chindamo to confront his evil act. She’s correct to say that Chindamo’s lawyers reassurances that they are unlikely to meet in the street is missing the point, but perhaps for the wrong reasons. All the evidence I’ve seen suggests that restorative justice is of huge benefit to the victim. The right however would prefer it if victims held onto their sense of injustice. It saddens me that she will now be used as their preferred political football of choice for the next 48 hours. Scrapping the Human Rights Act won’t bring her husband back and it won’t get her justice.