Smart Looking Rapist – I find myself for once agreeing with Garth McVicar
Posted by BE on January 16th, 2012
I rarely find myself in agreement with Garth McVicar or his ‘Sensible Sentencing’ Trust. I’m a liberal in the area of law and order and not a great believer in the value of lengthy prison sentences. But on the issue of Judge Jocelyn Munro’s remark to the 16-year-old who attacked and raped a 5-year-old girl, that he ‘looked smart’ when he appeared before her in the Youth Court, I find myself in near-agreement with Mr McVicar. I wasn’t, as he declared himself, ‘disgusted’ by the judge’s remark, but I thought it displayed extraordinary lack of understanding or empathy towards the feelings of the little girl’s parents.
I hadn’t intended to deal with the issue on this site. The nation’s ‘outrage’ about the crime and the judge’s remark have been well canvassed in other forums. But the defences of the judge’s remarks by her colleagues in the law, published in the press this morning, struck me as so inadequate that I need to respond.
Manukau barrister Kate Leys informed us that, ‘There’s a statutory requirement upon the court to make sure the young person understands and participates in the proceedings’. I really can’t see the relevance of that to complimenting the rapist of a five-year-old girl on being neatly dressed.
Auckland barrister Maria Pecotic agreed with her Manukau colleague: ‘It is to encourage the young person to continue to take that care.’ That argument seems to me to suggest, ‘Well, he may have raped a 5-year-old girl, but at least he takes pride in his appearance.’ I come close to being ‘disgusted’ by that suggestion.
Youth advocate Megan Jenkins told us that a judge ‘might have seen the person three weeks earlier, and if there’s a difference, the judges will make comments on that.’ If I were the parent of a five-year-old girl, brutally assaulted and raped, would I find it appropriate for a judge to compliment the defendant on looking smarter at his second appearance than at his first? The question is rhetorical.
Professor Warren Brookbanks of the University of Auckland law-school said ‘what the judge was trying to do was to accept the mandate that young people appearing in court are to be treated as benevolently as possible.’ If Judge Munro had said, ‘It’s to your credit that you have given yourself up and that you have expressed the wish to plead guilty,’ I would have found that acceptable. But it’s the very triviality of her compliment that goes to the heart of the insult which her remark offered the girl’s parents – the distance between the bad thing which the boy did (raping a five-year-old girl) and the good thing on which he was complimented (dressing nicely to come to court). That distance is a chasm so wide that to attempt to bridge it defies reason and human sympathy.
All of the arguments in defence of Judge Munro were advanced within the context of the hearing having been in the Youth Court. In a sense the defendant’s age is therefore presented in mitigation of his crime. The media report that ‘the boy’s mother read in court a prayer written by him in which he asked God to forgive him’. Leaving aside Her Honour’s (to me) extraordinary decision to allow this self-interested mumbo-jumbo to be delivered in her court at all, it’s difficult to reconcile this sympathetic emphasis on the youthfulness of the defendant with the nature of the crime which requires male sexual maturity and brutish force.
I don’t blame the defendant’s parents for doing everything in their power on behalf of their son. If he were my son, I would have done exactly the same thing, though without the prayer. That is what unconditional love for one’s children is all about. And they are to be applauded. They have behaved responsibly and well.
But the plain fact is that any lawyer will be at pains to persuade their client of the importance of looking both respectable and respectful when they appear in court, of making ‘a good impression’. And the more heinous the crime, the more important that impression is. Criminal defence lawyer, the late Mike Bungay QC, with whom I co-authored a book on murder in New Zealand, not only instructed his clients (primarily murderers and rapists) on the importance of dressing well in court, but often drew a chalk mark on the dock for his clients to look down at while listening to the evidence against them. Their bowed heads were intended to convey shame and remorse.
I very much doubt that ‘looking smart’ was this defendant’s own idea. It will have been on his lawyer’s and his parents’ advice and they were right to give it. But it is a strategy to suggest that something has changed. It was intended, as the prayer was, to say, ‘I am not the same young man who raped a five-year-old girl a matter of weeks ago. Just look at me. You can see that I am someone else.’ No doubt without intending to, Judge Munro validated that impression by complimenting the 16-year-old defiler on his appearance.
Here, finally, is what the little girl’s parents said:
‘We urge the court to consider the impact this has had and will continue to have for years on our daughter and our family.
‘We find it difficult to believe that that this boy who did this to our daughter three weeks ago can write beautiful prayers to God now.
‘Our daughter was fast asleep when this boy violated her and stole something from her that can never be returned.
‘We felt the judge’s comment about the offender’s smart looking [appearance] was out of place.’
That was the impact of Judge Munro’ remark on them. That is what they felt. End of story.
Judges, Rape, The Courts, Youth Court