Tuesday, September 12, 2006

First double jeopardy killer jailed

From Joshua Rozenberg's report, one might think the Government's decision to repeal the "double jeopardy" rule had been vindicated. Yet the logic of the rule was, in part, expressed in Blackstone's famous dictum "better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer."

Of course people are wrongly acquitted, just as people are wrongly convicted. The rule against double jeopardy was designed to ensure that the virtually limitless resources of the state were not mustered again and again to secure the conviction of a man once acquitted by a court.

It was a protection against the persecution and ruin of innocents, which sometimes - of course - resulted in the guilty escaping. Proof that a guilty man escaped in this case does not change that or surprise any rational observer.

Those who believe in the rule (enshrined in the US Constitution and therefore not so easily tossed aside on the other side of that Atlantic) have always understood that justice is not perfect. Nothing human is. Yet, at the instigation of a Home Secretary who is as imperfect a human as ever walked, the protection of the rule was lost after 800 years.

This article from the New York Times reports a study which suggests that many innocents are convicted at the first attempt, without the State having a second chance. There is no reason to suppose Britain is any better than the United States in this respect. From my own experience, I would guess it is worse.

Abolishing double jeopardy may have meant justice in the case of Billy Dunlop, but it will mean greater injustice in other cases. One mother's quest for vengeance, pandered to by an uneducated press and an unethical government, may lead to thousands more innocents in our jails. I do not question the lady's intentions. I am sure they were good, but they were the sort of good intentions with which the road to Hell is paved.

The jubilation of the victim's mother is understandable, but her hope that her family's love for the victim has "helped leave a lasting legacy that ... will pave the way for other families to achieve justice," is false and misguided.

The false chat-show notion that a victim somehow automatically acquires extra wisdom, or greater moral standing, leaves us open to the mentality of the lynch-mob.

New Labour knows no better, of course, but one might have hoped for more from the Daily Telegraph.

Telegraph | News | First double jeopardy killer jailed


Deogolwulf said...

"[A]t the instigation of a Home Secretary who is as imperfect a human as ever walked . . ."


Anonymous said...

I can't disagree with your point but I do think you have picked a poor link to back up your case.

It is highly problematic to extrapolate from "exonerations" in a highly specific sample to the general case.

The article speculates that many innocent people have been convicted of less serious crimes because they benefited neither from the intense scrutiny that murder cases tend to receive nor from the DNA evidence that can categorically establish the innocence of people convicted of rape.

Certainly this is possible. I could equally speculate that less serious crimes are less likely to be investigated by the police who focus their attention on cases where the evidence is more plentiful and reliable. My idle speculation is no more provable than that of the NYT.

Tom Paine said...

I take your point, John. There's a lot of other evidence out there. That article happened to be to hand.

Anyone who has worked in the courts knows that the magistrates, juries and judges do their best to do justice but are as imperfect as any other humans.

All the historic protections, like double jeopardy, deliberately skewed the system against the prosecution so as (a) to minimise wrongful convictions and (b) to allow free citizens to stand up to the state.

If a wrong word to a policeman or anyone in authority could lead to repeated prosecutions under a risky system, only the brave, mad or rich would be able to speak freely. I told a policeman where to get off years ago when wrongly accused of something. I asked for his badge number, threatened to speak to his Chief Constable and the problem went away. I would not dare to do that now. He has too many powers and is acquiring more every day.

I now treat a British bobby in the same way as a Russian policeman; i.e. I steer clear if I can and am grovellingly polite if I can't. Fear of policemen is an index of unfreedom.

I deliberately blogged this story rather than waiting for the first acquittal in such a re-trial, because I could more clearly make the point that some wrongful acquittals are a price worth paying. Only fools believe in perfect human systems. Those who understand the inevitability of imperfection want errors to work in their favour.

Anonymous said...

I suspect the next case to be retried will be that of the alleged killers of Stephen Lawrence. On the face of it I have no reason to believe that Jamie Acourt, Neil Acourt, David Norris, Gary Dobson and Luke Knight are innocent. After all they have been named the murderers by the Daily Mail, inviting a trial for libel. Their allegation has been quoted by other media outlets.

I wonder how fair their retrial will be.

Croydonian said...

And there was I thinking that I was alone in regarding multiple trials for the same crime as a bad thing.

The CPS is already a byword for incompetence, but if it knows that it can have as many bites at the cherry as it likes, stand by for even more ill-judged prosecutions based on flimsy evidence.