Thursday, June 22, 2006

Anne Atkins: Sentence for Dobrowski murderers was 'prompted by political correctness'

Thank you for all your comments on Anne Atkins' little talk on Radio Four's 'Thought for the Day' yesterday. Please keep them coming.

Below, I have attempted to rebut some of her points. The text of Ms Atkins’ speech is in italics, with my comments in bold. The BBC report of the result of the trial of the murderers of Jody Dobrowski is here.

Hate crime is as hateful as the name suggests. Jody Dobrowski was murdered, not for his wallet nor because he happened upon the wrong place at the wrong time, but because he was gay. A crime of chance or greed is undiscriminating, and anyone might have died in his place. But Mr. Dobrowski's death was personal: attacked for his identity, assaulted for who he was, murdered for his very nature. Shockingly, if he had been different he would still be alive.

So under the Criminal Justice Act 2003, those guilty have been jailed for twenty eight years - and not a day too many... though twice as long as they would have received if their reason had been different: crimes prompted by race, religion, disability or sexuality now attract far heavier sentences. An understandable reaction, I realised when I heard of a man in America being dragged behind his car for a mile because he was black.

So far, so good.

Suppose, though, his torturers had objected to his hair colour? Or name, or make of car? Would his death have been any less dreadful? Does motive make a murder so much more wicked?

I am not aware that there is a vast prevalence of hair hate crimes in this country. There is, however, an intolerably high level of homophobic crime. Surveys suggest around 40% of the gay and lesbian community have experienced homophobic incidents within a year of being questioned.

The Crown Prosecution service says that sentences should reflect the need to encourage people to come forward to report such crimes: “Research studies suggest that victims of, or witnesses to, such incidents have very little confidence in the criminal justice system or those agencies that are part of it. Consequently, incidents of this nature have gone largely unreported because the victim or witness often believes either that they may become the subject of a police investigation themselves or that they will be treated disrespectfully because of their sexual orientation or gender.”

There is only one legal type of murder in this country. So, murder is murder. It is the same offence. However, the sentence required to adequately respond to particular murders does necessarily vary.

Hitler killed for reasons of race, religion, disability and sexuality, and his crimes still - and rightly - revolt us. But he also hated those who helped his targeted victims. Was it worse to kill a Jew than someone who - voluntarily and bravely - helped a Jew escape?

A lawyer in Mr. Dobrowski's case is quoted as saying that "we are moving towards a saner society in which everyone's human dignity and personality, whatever his lifestyle, is fully recognised" - a surprising observation when, as one commentator has pointed out, if Mr. Dobrowski had been heterosexual, his life would seem to have been valued as only half as precious.

No, the murder would still have been “murder” and there have been some pretty hefty sentences for murders unmotivated by the victims' sexuality. For example, two teenagers were jailed for a minimum of 22 and 18 years respectively for the murder of a six-former on a beach in Wales. That was only last week – you can see a news report of the trial here.

So we no longer have a set punishment for a certain crime then, but a system that seems subjective in response to circumstances.

Different sentences for murder have been around for an awful long time – certainly from way before the 2003 Criminal Justice Act. A 'mercy killing' receives a lesser sentence than a case in which someone is tortured to death, for example.

Of course, the sentencing of a judge is “subjective” but what does Ms Atkins suggest instead? Is she seriously suggesting that there should be, for example, an invariable 20 year sentence for murder? If so, does she really believe that a man who murders his terminally ill spouse by helping her to die should receive a 20 year sentence in the same way as a drunken skinhead who bludgeons to death a complete stranger because he is gay? Should a wife who murders her husband as he attempts to physically abuse her, after years of abuse, and shows remorse for her crime, receive the same 20 years as a man who tortures to death for gratification a complete stranger, and shows no remorse?

It was recently the 20th anniversary of a case that caused outcry for similar reasons, when the perpetrators of the violent and terrifying Ealing vicarage rape were given lenient sentences because, the judge said, the victim's trauma "had not been so great". This was retribution based on reaction rather than reason: now we have a penalty apparently prompted by political correctness.
Following the Ealing rape controversy, under Sections 35 and 36 of the Criminal Justice Act 1988, the law was changed to allow the Attorney General to refer sentences he or she regards as unduly lenient to the Court of Appeal. This facility is now used on a routine basis.

It is a long established feature of British justice that the judge, taking into consideration the relevant legislation and circumstances, sets the sentence, which is subject to appeal. That is not political correctness (whatever that vague Daily Telegraph rallying cry means). It is a long accepted principle of justice in this country. The deterrent effect and the risk of re-offending are taken into account, for example. I believe most people think this is reasonable although, obviously, sentencing is a controversial area.

Of course, judges vary in their sentencing. It is an imperfect system, as is any system which involves humans. But the facility now exists for the appeal of unduly lax sentences, which is a very important safeguard.

It's a far cry from the statue of justice on top the Old Bailey, blindfolded because she shows no partiality towards persons.

That is not actually true. The statue of ‘Justice” by F.W Pomeroy on the top of the Old Bailey is not blindfolded. For evidence of this, please see a couple of art sites, which describe the statue here and here.

Very different too from the origin of judgement itself, the justice of God. Whose ruling is so objective that it is the same for sinner and saint equally; who despite His particular love for some yet treats all alike; and who is so scrupulously fair that good and bad - of any race, religion, disability or sexuality - will face the same Judgement... and are offered the same escape from it.

I agree with the last paragraph. But, my goodness, it was an arduous and tortuous trek getting there. There was quite a lot of hopping, skipping and jumping involved. ‘Thought for the Day’ on Radio Four is described as “A moment of quiet reflection amongst the turmoil of politics.” The turmoil of Ms Atkins’ alarming reasoning is hardly conducive to “quiet reflection”.

Why not play a recording of a pneumatic drill for two minutes? It would be more relaxing.

Don't the BBC expect basic journalistic standards from their contributors? So, for example, if someone is going to describe the statue of 'Justice' at the Old Bailey, might it not be a good idea that they check whether or not it has a blindfold before incorrectly stating that it has?

Of course, the good old BBC has a variety of contributors to "Thought for the Day". So, for every contributor who winds up certain sections of the audience there is another contributor who charms that same audience section.

It all leads me to conclude that if Anne Atkins was contagious, the antidote would be Lionel Blue.


  1. Hmm. It's an interesting debate, but have you rebutted her key claim?

    She says that the law directs the judge to increase the sentence based on the motivation of the killers. What is the need to do that? Is it because if their is an incident motivated by a particular bigotry, the minority in question - those not actually a party to the crime - feel less safe? Or is the intention that a murder motivated by bigotry is actually objectively worse than a murder committed at random?

  2. I usually find that Atkins grates, but I think in this instance she has - alongside the usual dental torture - provoked an interesting debate of sorts. Though I broadly agree with you, I think that once you strip away the sound of Atkins knee jerking about PC, and the fact that she would probably like to throw away the key for all murderers (i.e., in no way can her position be interpreted as to indicate she would like to see some offenders sentences shortened), I am left with her posing a more fundamental question. Should sentencing reflect equality of victimhood, and the essential similarity of all criminals, or does the social context matter?

    If it does matter (and I think it probably does), how best to incorporate this within the justice system? And who decides that certain contexts are serious than others? Domestic violence, hate crimes, crimes against children and so on.

    I wonder if it would not be better to let judges and courts to decide this without recourse to inflexible guidelines?

  3. Will - very good point. Rebutting all her points is a bit like shooting fish in a barrel and you're right I missed the biggest one!

    Simon - very good point and you're right - there is that fundamental question. It is a fascinating debate that she has raised. It would be just so much more pallatble if the message was delivered through Lionel Blue's mellifluous tones!

  4. Soaring my blood pressure as usual, I'd switched on some ELO rather than listen to her, but I've read what she's said since. Sigh.

    I think Will's hit on one of the two key points here - other than that the free platform to unspeakably loathesome religious bigots should be open to the same cross-examination as anything else on Today, so we can hear them taken to pieces instead of presented as 'truth' by Auntie Beeb, an unquestionable set of 'special rights' I find deeply offensive.

    The first is, do hate crimes deserve stronger sentencing? I'd say they do (and have piloted Lib Dem policy through to that effect). It's not simply to show moral abhorrence; that's always a sticky wicket for a legal system, though, as you say, motive has to be considered. It's because there's a wider circle of victims. A hate crime isn't just aimed at the direct victim, but pour encourager les autres. It's the same as putting up a sign saying 'All Queers Must Die' and dumping a gay corpse under it; a threat against a wider group of people. That's common sense, not special rights (an ironic claim by someone using exactly that category, in Remove Your Brain For the Day, to make outrageous claims but avoid having to answer criticism).

    The other issue is that she claimed a heterosexual murder victim's life would have been worth less than a gay one's (when she evidently believes the reverse is true). This is nonsense. If a group of gay thugs had beaten a straight man to death for his sexuality, they would receive and fully deserve the same aggravated sentence.

    I have, however, never heard of such brutal gay gangs, nor of gay spokespeople preaching the repellent bigotry that Ms Atkins uses to encourage hate in others. No wonder she feels the law's picking on her.

  5. Alex - many thanks for your thoughtful analysis. Just in case you didn't know, there is a comment section for Thought for the Day on the BBC website here

    ..and there are so far seven comments on AA's diatribe last week.