Soppy Sop

Our justice system suffers from a sentimental preoccupation with legally irrelevant testimony to victims’ personalities

Counterpoints Justice Modern Life Social Affairs
The Kray twins: True to their roots

Honesty has many enemies, and sentimentality is one of them. It has invaded our courts.

In the trial of the Liverpool and England footballer Steven Gerrard, the Scottish ex-footballer and ex-manager Kenny Dalglish testified that the accused was a humble man who had remained true to his roots. Well, Uriah Heep was humble, and the Kray twins were true to their roots, so even as a character reference this was of doubtful value. But the question in any case was not what kind of man Gerrard was, but whether he had attacked someone without lawful excuse. We can only hope that his humility and truth to his roots had nothing to do with his acquittal.

Judges at murder trials are now required to sit through victim impact statements by a close relative or friend of the murdered man or woman, and then, as they are specifically enjoined to do, ignore it altogether in their sentencing. It must be an exquisite torture to them, for two reasons: first, it is precisely the purpose of the law to remove highly emotional considerations from the administration of justice, and second, the inevitable emotional kitschiness of the statements themselves.

They invariably involve eulogies of the deceased: his lovely smile, his infectious laugh, his long eyelashes etc. They are very similar in this respect to the self-descriptions of people in the personal columns of newspapers or on internet dating sites. No doubt this is inevitable: the genre itself, which should not exist, calls it forth.

This official promotion of sentimentality — a sop to a public so ill-served by the criminal justice system — serves to obscure an important elementary truth about murder: that it is not heinous because it extinguishes a lovely smile or a playful sense of humour etc, but because it is the unlawful killing of someone. It is not permissible to kill the humourless and unsmiling ugly whom no one will miss.

Our policemen now go in for this sentimentality too, at least in their public pronouncements (in private, they are more robust). They pay nauseating, unctuous tribute to the victim of murder, as if he fell in devotion to a cause, or they say that such and such was a senseless murder, as if there were sensible ones of people who deserved it. Sometimes, they say that a murder took place in the course of a robbery that went tragically wrong — instead, presumably, of going happily right.

They seem like the mother of a youth who had just been convicted for the 250th time (meaning, if he were averagely competent at evading the police, his 5,000th offence). Interviewed on the radio, she said, “He’s a good boy, really.”