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December 11, 2006

Victim impact statements represent the sentimentalisation - the Diana-ification - of the criminal justice system, argues Theodore Dalrymple

Posted by Theodore Dalrymple

Mr ap Rhys Pryce was brutally murdered in Kensal Green, north-west London by a couple of young thugs who mugged him for his mobile phone and oyster card. Victim impact statements - where a statement by a victim of the crime is read to judges before sentencing - have recently become admissible in UK courts, and one of the first instances of its use was a statement by Mr ap Rhys Pryce's fiancée at the trial of his murderers.

Theodore Dalrymple has nothing but sympathy for Mr ap Rhys Pryce's fiancée and believes that his killers should be imprisoned in perpetuity without the possibility of parole. Nevertheless Theodore Dalrymple is left deeply uncomfortable by such statements. For such statements concentrate on the character of the victim, but the courts should be concerned with the character of the assailants. By all accounts Mr ap Rhys Pryce was an intelligent, caring, attractive and successful young man - but would the unprovoked murder in similar circumstances of a vain, boastful, lazy, ugly, humourless and disliked man have been any less of a crime? Would the killers deserve their punishment any less?

Self-expression is to thought what kitsch is to art. It is hardly surprising that it leads via literal-mindedness to emotional incontinence. We seem to have forgotten Voltaire's wise words (not all his words were wise by any means) that the way to be a bore is to say everything.

The cult of self-expression now seems to have reached even our courts. The victims of crimes are allowed to read out, or have read out on their behalf, victim impact statements. This seems to me to be a sop on the part of the criminal justice system to the public that it has so signally failed over the last few years to protect, consistently, persistently and culpably. Trials are not psychotherapy, though I have little doubt that convictions ease somewhat the suffering of victims.

I mean no disrespect to the fiancée of Mr ap Rhys Pryce when I say that I read with unease her victim impact statement to the court, published in the newspapers, after the two vile thugs who killed Mr ap Rhys had been found guilty of murder. Her dream of happiness with him was brutally and suddenly destroyed, and it was only natural that she should feel his loss deeply, more deeply in fact than is easily expressed in words.

It seems that we have now reached the point, however, at which we cannot take as read the feelings of a woman who has lost her fiancée to a horrible crime. In other words, the fact that such a person feels constrained to say anything at all is a sign not of the depth of our emotional understanding, but of its shallowness.

The victim impact statement, not surprisingly and indeed understandably in the circumstances, but nonetheless irrelevantly, made much of the victim's personal qualities.

[He] was determined from an early age to reach his full potential in life. He worked incredibly hard and made the most of every opportunity available to him. He gave his best in everything and he succeeded. Yet despite his many achievements, he was the most humble person I have ever known… I miss him more than I could ever describe: his beautiful heart, his brilliant mind, his big loving eyes, his gentle voice, his gleeful laugh…
I have no doubt that this is all perfectly sincere, but it nonetheless gives the impression that what was terrible about his murder was that he was such a nice, good, intelligent, successful man. Had he been vain, boastful, lazy, ugly, humourless and disliked by most of the people who knew him, his murder would in some way have been less heinous. It was most unfortunate, in effect, that the murderers happened to pick on a good man at random rather than a bad one as he came out of the underground station.

Surely the judge could not be expected, in his sentencing decision, to take note of the victim's qualities, however remarkable. At whom, then, is such a statement directed? At the perpetrators of the act? But is it really possible that the two young men would realise that what they had done was wrong because they learned that it caused such pain to the victim's fiancée? Do people of such sensibility as theirs, who go out and stab people whom they are robbing, suddenly undergo a Dostoyevskian moment of repentance because they discover that, in the words of the victim statement, "I miss us"?

Actually, a study recently conducted showed that many robbers enjoy inflicting more violence on their victims than is necessary to achieve their ends, because they enjoy humiliating them and they enjoy the violence in itself. A victim impact statement might therefore gratify them rather than the reverse.

The statement goes on to say that:

I despair at their [the perpetrators'] deeply misguided sense of logic - because it is not a man who attacks a defenceless person with a knife or any other weapon, or hunts victims down in a pack - it is the complete coward - someone who lacks the confidence to take someone on, on an equal footing…
This, too, strikes me as very odd. It suggests that, had the victim been challenged to equal combat as he emerged from the underground station, and had he perished in that combat fair and square, the murder would have been somehow less serious, less evil. And this, surely, is a very primitive view of proper social relations in a modern urban environment.

In any case, it is precisely to avoid the sway of violent emotions, understandable in those who have had the most terrible or terrifying experiences, that we have the law which is supposed to be impartial. Both the desire for vengeance and sentimentality - not so far apart as is often supposed - are a threat to the rule of law. The perpetrators of the murder of Mr ap Rhys deserved long sentences (in my view prison in perpetuity without possibility of release) not because he was a nice man with a brilliant future, and not because they were cowards who wouldn't square up to him under the Queensbury rules, but because they killed a man in cold blood without any excuse or mitigating circumstance, were likely to do something similar again if at liberty to do so, and needed for society's sake to be made a very clear example of. The character of the victim, or the effect his death had on his close friends and relatives who survived him, was quite beside the point.

Even police spokesmen, when talking of crimes that their forces are investigating, often use language whose implications they do not seem to realise. For example, a man who is killed more or less at random, say by a bullet aimed by one gangster at another that finds him, the innocent bystander, instead, is often said by such spokesmen to have been in the wrong place at the wrong time.

This rather implies, though no doubt unintentionally so, that it is the duty of the citizen to know when and where he should be if he is to avoid bullets fired by gangsters, who have a right after all to their firearms practice: that the citizen, in effect, should not gatecrash the party.

Even more egregious is the statement quite often heard, after an innocent victim has been killed by an armed robber, that "This was a robbery that went tragically wrong". The corollary of this would seem to be that a robbery in which the victim is unhurt and the robber escapes with the loot is a robbery with a happy ending. An odd point of view, one might have supposed, for a policeman to take.

Loose language suggests loose thought; and loose thought loose responses to dangerous situations. Confucius was right: calling things by their right names is the beginning of wise government.

Theodore Dalrymple is a writer and recently retired as an inner city and prison doctor.

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I (he says modestly) said much the same, here:

It's sad that between the appearances of my article and yours, it's gone from theory to unpleasant reality

Posted by: Alex Deane at December 14, 2006 12:50 AM
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