In the Media

A murder trial is such good education

PUBLISHED April 3, 2006

AS THE jury in the Damilola Taylor murder trial went out this week, I caught the end of another case at the Old Bailey. Three young men, whose car window had been smashed, collected a knife and some friends and set off to seek revenge. 
In the ensuing ruckus a man was stabbed by mistake before the attackers managed to stab the one they were after. The first man died. In a victim impact statement, his mother told the court: ?My whole life has come to a complete standstill from the devastating loss of my only son and youngest child . . . . a dark cloud has descended upon my life.?

All three men, aged 19, 20 and 22, were convicted of murder and attempted murder and sent down for a minimum of 15 or 16 years apiece.

Serves them right, you might think. David Blunkett certainly did. It was he, as Home Secretary, who changed the law so that judges must set a minimum jail term of 15 years before licence can even be considered for those convicted of murder, regardless of whether death or ?only? serious harm was intended.

Yet, watching the sentencing process and seeing the shameful glances from the young men in the dock to their families in the public gallery, I could not help thinking that this was wrong.

Their behaviour that day had been out of character. Only one of the three had a previous conviction, for being present at a mugging, although not participating in it. They had good school records. The parents of one of them were a deputy head teacher and a research scientist. Another came from a religious family.

I am not suggesting, of course, that any of this excuses what they did. Possibly it makes it worse. But the faces of the jury as the judge sentenced the three told their own story. They were aghast.

Three of the jurors began to cry. One shook her head at the judge, as if trying to send him a message ? one actually did send a message up to him, although we do not know what it said. It seemed clear that they had not realised, in convicting the young men, that they were sentencing them to so long in prison.

Watching their expressions, I felt sure that Mr Blunkett had been wrong. Yes, somebody died. Yes, the young men did a terrible thing and one that has destroyed many more lives than just that one. No, I did not see the victim?s mother. But the jury had sat through all six weeks of the trial and their feelings seemed plain.

The men will walk out of jail in their mid-thirties ? after costing, incidentally, ?2 million of taxpayers? money, at today?s prices, to incarcerate ? older and tougher than the young men led down to the cells this week and finding the world all but impossible to negotiate.

Read what Erwin James, a previous ?lifer? who describes life in prison as ?one long relationship with rejection and vilification?, has written in The Guardian about being released: ?Years ago I knew a lifer in a Category B jail who had been inside since he was 16. When I met him he?d done 20 years and had just been brought back from a pre-release hostel for the second time ? on both occasions he had been caught shoplifting.

?Each time he had taken goods, set off the alarm and then stood and waited to be apprehended by the store?s security staff. When I asked him why, when he was so close to release, he couldn?t explain. ?It?s just panic about being out there on my own again,? he said.

?I didn?t understand at the time. Now I think I do. Prison for long-term prisoners becomes a way of life. When suddenly it?s over, it?s like you?ve been transported overnight from a long-familiar domicile and placed among strangers in a strange land.? Were I a politician, instead of taking away judges? discretion over sentencing, I would force every school in the country to take every teenager to court to watch a trial like the one whose end I saw, or the Damilola Taylor case, as part of their formal education.

Yes, even though it would take them out of school for weeks. I cannot imagine a more important lesson than the wreckage and misery that a moment?s testosterone or drug or alcohol-fuelled aggression can inflict; and how easily a stupid assault like that can land you in jail for what will feel, at the age of 20, like the rest of your life.

That is surely a more useful lesson than a vague notion of ?citizenship? or a pass in long division.

Talking of trials (and politicians), how would you choose a jury to try the Prime Minister for corruption? Is there an adult in the country who could honestly say they had formed no opinion about Tony Blair?