Revenge is not Justice

Following the imprisonment of Roy Whiting for the murder of Sarah Payne, a friend and I had something of a disagreement over what was already being labelled “Sarah’s Law”; that is, the right for parents to know if a pedophile was living in their area. Subsequently, trails of this law have been reported as being successful, but I still feel rather uneasy. There will always be the potential for ill-informed or plain wrong information being used to seek ‘justice’ on people who may be nothing more than elderly men living on their own, or indeed something far more tragically comedic.

I am reminded of the disagreement with the current coverage of the re-arrest of Jon Venebles, and the inevitable media coverage.

Earlier this month, 27 year old Jon Venebles was returned to prison following an undisclosed breach of his control order. Seventeen years ago, Venebles and Robert Thompson – aged just 10 – abducted and killed three-years old James Bulger, in a case etched on the collective mind of the nation.

In a statement to the House of Commons I agree with Justice Secretary Jack Straw has said it would not be in “the interests of justice” to release information about Venebles’ return to detention. Quite rightly, Straw has reminded the country about the importance of putting the rule of law above both the mob rule of tabloid hysteria, and the often all-too heavy hand of simple assumption. Make no mistake; I remember the case as vividly as anyone did at the time, and understand why Bulger’s mother feels so emotional about “doors slamming in her face”, as she told television reporters today. Venebles must receive a suitable punishment for his latest reported crime.

Ultimately, the contentious nature of ‘justice’ runs up against the scrum of ‘revenge’ in cases like this. I despair at the reactionary tabloid press, running rumours and ‘exclusives’ about possible reasons for Venebles’ re-imprisonment as though they were simply dealing with the latest reason for Pete Doherty being arrested or John Terry being seen without his wife. No killer, however notorious, can be regarded with any taste as ‘celebrities’. Inevitably the logic of tabloid newspapers appears to bend and curve when dealing with such ‘easier targets’.

If the tabloids get their approach to this story wrong, by splashing rumour and incomplete truth all over the front pages for days on end, all a good lawyer needs to do is prove the impossibility of a fair trail for Venebles to walk free.

“Revenge” is not justice. The death penalty, so often called upon in these circumstances, is simply a form of “revenge”, barely more civilised than blood lust. Maybe this sounds like “tabloid logic”, but I cannot see that killing criminals has made the United States of America any less dangerous for its citizens. The decent rule of justice has already been proven this month; Venebles committed an act against his control order, and is now back in prison. Should be hang for his first crime, or this reported second?

I am not naive enough to believe that tomorrow’s newspapers will U-turn on the exhaustive, breathless crusade for ‘the truth’, as though the full details of Venebles’ latest crime will satisfy readers as the conclusion of a soap story line. I trust that Jack Straw will maintain this measured and mature handling of the situation.

Sometimes “man is the measure of all things”. How we, as a nation, handle this story in the coming weeks could well be the measure of us all.

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