Natalie Solent

Politics, news, libertarianism, Science Fiction, religion, sewing. You got a problem, bud? I like sewing.

E-mail: nataliesolent-at-aol-dot-com (I assume it's OK to quote senders by name.)

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Wednesday, September 07, 2005
A hierarchy of murder. In the same edition the Independent there was a superb letter from one C. Lehman concerning the mawkish proposal to let the families of murder victims address the judge before sentencing.
The proposal that murder victims' families should be able to make direct appeals to judges before sentence is passed (report, 2 September) looks like more ill thought-out gesture politics from this Government and is one likely to lead to bad justice.

The losses and pain of crime victims certainly need to be recognised properly and there have been great improvements in the provision of support, for example by Victim Support, better liaison with criminal justice agencies so that the progress of cases is known to victims, and better provision of financial compensation.

But allowing victims or proxy victims to appeal directly to judges is a serious step too far. The criminal justice system represents the victim's interests and the interests of society in responding to criminal acts. In doing so, it has to operate more dispassionately and more proportionately than individual victims might wish. Sentencers already take a range of factors into account, including the general seriousness of the offence, individual circumstances and aggravating factors such as, for example, the age and vulnerability of a victim.

If we allow victims' families to speak to judges about the effects of someone's death, we risk creating a hierarchy of murder based on sentiment, the willingness of family members to speak and their fluency in doing so. Sentences should rightly vary according to the nature of the crime, but surely not according to whether a victim had a family who loved him, or whether the victim's family can speak fluent English.

And will victims' families really want this? Families already suffering from grief and guilt might feel that they have let their relative down if they either don't want to testify or find that testimony doesn't seem to have resulted in a longer sentence.

Grave crimes like murder and rape have grave consequences and it may be true that, in spite of the improvements that have been made in victim care, much more needs to be done to acknowledge the damage inflicted on victims and their families in these cases. Wouldn't this be better tackled by a rebalancing of sentencing principles overall than by allowing potentially unfair bias to enter in individual cases?


I had not thought of the point that if family members either could not face making an address or did yet failed to get an increase in the sentence it would add to their suffering. It had occurred to me that even as things stand today murder victims tend to be friendless or rejected by society: tramps, the mentally ill, drug addicts or prostitutes. Some killers correctly calculate that they are more likely to escape vigorous pursuit or punishment by going for victims in these categories. I don't want this calculation reinforced.