Debating current affairs
Paul Thomas is a Weekend Herald columnist

Paul Thomas: Judiciary dancing to tune of offenders

Stewart Murray Wilson, dubbed the Beast of Blenheim after being convicted of multiple rapes in 1996. Photo / Supplied
Stewart Murray Wilson, dubbed the Beast of Blenheim after being convicted of multiple rapes in 1996. Photo / Supplied

The system is failing the community on whose behalf it operates

The outbreak of Nimbyism (Not in my backyard) among Wanganui residents at the prospect of serial sex offender Stewart Murray Wilson, aka the Beast of Blenheim, being parachuted into their midst highlights yet again the disconnect between the system and the public when it comes to violent crime.

The system's position is based on legality - under the law as it stood when Wilson was sentenced, he has to be released - and realism - he has to live somewhere.

Why Wanganui? Well, apparently the Department of Corrections didn't have many other options because Wilson's victims are here, there and everywhere. Which is precisely why the locals are up in arms: who wouldn't strenuously object to having this wretch living next door? Instead of "why Wanganui?" we should be asking "why anywhere but a jail cell in a maximum security prison?"

A compassionate society is a civilised society, but there are limits to compassion.

Why should we bestow it on those who show no pity for their victims and no remorse for their cruelties? To prey on vulnerable human beings repeatedly and over a long period of time, evincing a total disregard for law, decency and morality is to separate yourself from society. You are effectively at war with those you live among.

If Wilson were a reformed character, there could be no objection to him being allowed back into society. That, however, is far from being the case. According to reports, he is unrepentant about his 25 years of violent sexual offending and unwilling to engage with treatment options.

There is a high/acute risk that he will reoffend. Furthermore, he's mounting a legal challenge to parole conditions imposed on him to reassure and protect the public.

There's the argument that you cannot legislate retrospectively, nor can you legislate for individuals. The counter-argument is that a society which cannot muster the gumption to protect itself against known predators risks sliding into decadence.

The same disconnect was apparent in the aftermath of the Scott Guy murder trial when it emerged that information about crimes committed by defendant Ewen Macdonald had been suppressed.

It seems strange that the jury wasn't allowed to know about something which was surely deemed significant by detectives investigating Guy's murder: that Macdonald and an accomplice bashed to death 19 calves belonging to a neighbour.

After Macdonald's acquittal, the media was quick to portray his barrister Greg King as an ace, one of the best in the business. If the slaughter of the calves was indeed beside the point, then surely our home-grown Rumpole would have had no problem kicking it into touch. And if jurors are so impressionable and unsophisticated that the judiciary must censor evidence that's put before them, should they be entrusted with pronouncing judgment in cases of cold-blooded murder with far-reaching consequences for the victim's family? Why not just leave it to the judge?

Then there are the deeply disturbing Ministry of Justice figures recently obtained by the Herald which show that between 2006 and 2010 23 people were convicted of murders committed while on bail. A further 21 were convicted of homicide-related offences - manslaughter, attempted murder, driving causing death - while there were 763 instances of sexual assault or offending committed while on bail.

All told almost 70,000 offenders committed new crimes after being granted bail. This mirrors the British experience: last year one in five murder suspects in the UK was alleged to have killed while on bail. In some cases the charge for which bail had been granted was - you guessed it - murder.

These are snapshots of a system that is failing the community on whose behalf it operates.

They also rekindle the old suspicion that the legal system is a bit of a game whose participants would be less concerned with legal technicalities and courtroom manoeuvres and less blasé about the system's failings if they had to live with the consequences in, say, South Auckland or Porirua.

It's no accident that polls in Britain consistently show working class respondents are far more likely to support capital punishment than middle class respondents.

A first step towards allaying this suspicion and reducing the divide between the system and the community would be to adopt the provisions in the proposed Bail Amendment Act, which would reverse the burden of proof in bail applications: defendants would have to show they aren't a threat to public safety, rather than the police having to show they are.

It would also help if some in the legal profession changed their default setting of responding to public concern and criticism with lofty condescension.

- NZ Herald

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