Can The World’s Worst Criminals Ever Be Rehabilitated?

One of the features of a modern democratic society, seems to be a reluctance to accept failure, particularly when it comes to crime and punishment. Instead we cling steadfastly to the belief that goodness exists in all of us, somewhere.

No crime is too heinous for the perpetrator to be rehabilitated and given parole, so the theory goes. I’m sure many consider it to be more than just a theory. Some even describing it as one of the guiding principles of our justice system. But sometimes a crime is so inhuman and barbaric there can only be the one punishment, that shows neither mercy nor forgiveness. For countries like Australia where the death penalty is not an option, it’s life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. Fortunately, these terrible cases are rare but they inevitably polarize the community and cause angst, bitter debate not to mention a great deal of hand wringing.

There is one such case in Australia at the moment, doing all of that (I’m sure there are cases like this all over the world) in the headlines again, 26 years after it happened. Five homeless teenagers, one of them aged 14, convicted in 1988 of the thrill killing of a 20-year-old woman they abducted at random from a railway station car park. The judge, in sentencing the five teenagers, said the circumstances were so horrific that all them, even the 14-year-old, deserved to be jailed for life without the possibility of parole. In fact the judge made the point, that the accused should never be released from prison, unless they were dying from a terminal illness or so incapacitated they were physically incapable of committing a crime.

Now, all these years later, the case found its way to the United Nations’ Human Rights Committee. The committee, was tasked with examining the case specifically in relation to the youngest of the five accused, two teenagers aged 14 and 16 who were minors at the time of the offences but were sentenced as adults. The UN committee found the sentencing of life imprisonment without parole, breached a number of articles in the covenant on civil and political rights principally that “no one shall be subjected to torture, or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.” Of course the committee made no mention of the cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment the five accused inflicted on the woman they abducted, raped multiple times before tying her up and throwing her in a dam where she drowned.

The committee said the sentence,where it applied to the teenagers, contravened another article in the covenant – that juveniles be punished as minors and that penitentiary systems have rehabilitation as an “essential aim.” It noted that the sentence also breached the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. Clearly the UN takes the view that no crime is so abhorrent, that the guilty lose their right to parole or rehabilitation.

Lawyers for the two, argued that regardless of the terrible nature of the crimes, they should have been treated as juveniles. An effective and lawful response to children committing these types of crimes requires more than simply locking them up and throwing away the key.

Children are different and the justice system normally recognizes that they have less responsibility for crime and greater prospects for rehabilitation.

And as a society, we accept that children are different from adults. They can’t vote, can’t smoke or drink, or go to war.

The two teenagers, are now men aged in their forties, having served 26 years behind bars. Their lawyers argue they should be entitled to seek parole and have their case determined by a properly constituted parole board.

But let’s just step back for a minute and examine this case in my specially convened court of public opinion.

As I have already said, these two teenagers were part of a homeless gang. On the day of the crime they had spent their day riding around on suburban trains, reading pornographic magazines and showing the pictures to fellow passengers. At one point, one of the accused said, “ How about we get a Sheila and rape her?” Soon after they got off the train at a suburban station and noticed Janine Balding, a bank teller and soon to be married 20-year-old woman walking to her car. They approached her and asked for a cigarette, before producing a knife and forcing her into the back seat of her car, which they then drove away. According to testimony given at the trial, one of the teenagers in the back kept up a low, sing song chant: “Nice night for a murder. Nice night for a murder.” Janine begged them: “Just don’t stab me.” She also kept asking to be dropped at the next corner. She said: “Let me out and I won’t tell.”

Instead, they drove into a park. They pulled Janine out of the back seat, threw her on the grass, all of them taking turns to rape and sodomise her. Then the 16-year-old said we have to kill her. They took rope from the boot of Janine’s car. They tied her feet together with five turns of the cord before passing it up around her neck and down again, so she was effectively trussed up like a ball.

They heaved her over a barbed wire fence and then pushed, dragged and rolled the terrified woman more than 100 meters, across the paddock, and threw her in the dam where she drowned.

At the trial, the judge heard horrific stories about the background of the two youngest of the five accused. Sexually abused at a young age, coming from broken homes, with serious psychological and substance abuse problems. But he determined that while these might have been mitigating factors they were not enough to outweigh the horrific nature of this crime. But his sentence of life imprisonment without parole did not have the necessary legislative backing until the Government passed a special retrospective law, allowing courts to impose that sentence in special heinous cases. The two teenagers became the youngest convicted murderers in Australian criminal history to receive such a sentence.

But now the United Nations’ Human Rights committee wants the Australian Government to review the case and remedy what it describes as a breach of their human rights.

The decision has been met with horror and outrage from Janine Balding’s family, who believe none of the accused should ever be free from prison.

“They knew what they were doing,” Janine’s brother David Balding, said. “They should stay where they are. They have nothing to offer society.

“There has been a ridiculous amount of appeals already. Each one has been rejected and each one has caused this family a huge amount of pain.

“Just when you think it’s over, it’s on again.”

So having heard all of the evidence, the court of public opinion can now retire to consider its verdict on whether the United Nations has a case on behalf of the accused. No problem for me. I know which way I’d cast my vote.

American Justice On Trial

The American justice system has taken a hammering in the past 24 hours. And so it should.

First we had the case of a man freed from jail after 39 years who was wrongly convicted of murder.

What’s worse his original sentence was to receive the death penalty. But lucky for him, Ohio, the state, where it happened, abolished the death penalty three years after he was convicted.

So even though he spent all of that time in prison, he was able to walk free and breathe fresh air in the outside world again. If the State had not changed the law he would be dead right now. And the system would have killed an innocent man.

And now we have the case of a woman in California freed from prison after 17 years because she was wrongly convicted of murder. This is yet another example, of the justice system getting it terribly, terribly wrong.

Fifty-nine-year-old Susan Mellen was convicted of beating a homeless man to death. Now a court has found she was innocent.

An appeal judge ruled that Mellen received what he called poor legal representation from her trial lawyer.

Apparently her conviction rested on the testimony of a witness who claimed she heard Mellen confess to the crime. But that witness has now been described as an habitual liar.

WTF?

The appeal judge told Mellen that he “felt really bad about what had happened to her.”

So he should.

So should the entire Californian justice system. They should hang their heads in shame. They are entirely to blame for what happened.

Luckily for Susan Mellen, her case was taken up by an organisation called Innocence Matters, which seeks to exonerate the wrongly convicted.

Innocence Matters said in a statement that the detective, who arrested Mellen, was also responsible for a case in 1994 that resulted in two people later being exonerated.

Three gang members were linked to the crime that Mellen was convicted for. One of them took a lie-detector test and said Mellen wasn’t there when it happened.

There is probably not a lot to make of this revelation other than to say it is yet another point in Mellen’s favour.

The court made an interesting legal ruling when it freed Susan Mellen.

It decided that she was factually innocent in this case.

Factually innocent is a ruling made only in rare circumstances but it means Susan Mellen can claim US$100 a day, from the State of California, for every day that she spent in prison.

After 17 years it adds up to a tidy sum, more than $600,000 which, I am sure, will be a huge help to Susan Mellen as she faces life on the outside.

Mellen said she cried every night in prison but never lost faith that she would be reunited with her three now-grown up children.

Her youngest were aged seven and nine when she was arrested. They have a lot of catching up to do.

Mellen scrawled the word “freedom” on the bottom of her shoes because she never gave up hope she would be free one day.

Try as I might, I can find nothing redeeming about the fact that it took 17 years for justice to finally be done for Suan Mellen.

Unfortunately, the system can’t give her back the very thing that she is most entitled to.

The life she lost.

Justice For Ricky

I came across something the other day that could best be described as anyone’s worst nightmare.

Guaranteed to be if your skin is of a certain hue.

A man in Ohio has just been released from prison, after 39 years, because the justice system got it terribly, terribly wrong.

The backstory goes something like this.

Ricky Jackson is now 57 but at the time of the alleged offence he was 18 years old.

He was convicted, along with two other men, of a brutal crime. The callous, cold- blooded murder of a money order collector at a grocery store in Cleveland.

Police claim the three men beat the money order collector, threw acid in his face before shooting him twice.

Now you can understand law enforcement authorities wanting to solve this crime. It was unspeakable and grotesque.

The only problem was they accused and convicted the wrong men. All of them were innocent. Unfortunately for them it has taken a generation to establish that fact.

So the question might be asked: How did the system get it so wrong?

Try racism for a start. The accused men are black. Being born black in the United States is almost a crime in itself as trite as that may sound.

In other words, the police and the system are less likely to believe in your innocence if you are black.

The opposite is the norm.

Being black is equated with guilt even if you aren’t guilty as in this case.

But again, how did they get it so wrong?

Here’s the main reason.

Ricky Jackson was convicted on the supposed eyewitness testimony of a 12-year-old boy, who now, as a grown man all these years later, says he made up a story about what he saw.

Made up a story? WTF?

The 12-year-old boy is now a 53 year-old-man called Eddie Vernon who now says everything he said way back in 1975 was a lie. All lies.

Vernon’s web of lies came unstuck after he confessed to his church pastor.

Vernon was on the school bus at the time of the crime and didn’t see a thing. However, he claimed to have heard two pops that sounded like firecrackers exploding. He lied to police because he thought he was “doing the right thing.”

Doing the right thing?

Give me a break.

How anyone, even if they were 12 at the time, could think that putting an innocent man in prison for a crime he didn’t do can somehow be the right thing is hard to comprehend.

Needless to say Vernon is now claiming that he was not solely to blame for this travesty. He says the police put him up to it. He accused them of threatening to put his parents in prison for perjury if he didn’t stick to his story.

It might explain what happened but it certainly doesn’t excuse it. Not as far I am concerned.

Now if you think you might have heard the worst of this story. Wait. There’s more.

Apart from Eddie Vernon’s testimony there was NO other evidence against any of the three men including Rickey Jackson. It didn’t matter. They were convicted anyway and sentenced.

Wait for it.

To death.

Yep. They all got the death penalty. But before they could be put to death, Ohio abolished the death penalty, three years after their convictions, in 1978.

Instead the three men had their sentences commuted to life imprisonment.

So Ricky Jackson can count himself lucky he can actually walk out of prison a free man and breathe air like the rest of us. If the authorities in the state of Ohio,hadn’t changed the law, he would not be alive today.

Ricky Jackson now becomes the longest serving prisoner in the United States to be exonerated of his crime. But there is nothing in any way redeeming by having that notoriety.

He served most of his life in jail for something he didn’t do. That is just as brutal and grotesque as the murder of the money order collector in my view.

Ricky Jackson sobbed when he heard news of his release. I’m coming home, he said.

Now authorities must find a way, somehow, to make amends to Ricky Jackson for all those lost years. Of course they can’t. But millions of dollars in compensation sounds to me like a good place to start.

Of his co-accused, one of them was released from jail after 25 years and the other is still in prison but expected to be free very soon.

But before we all get carried away with how justice has finally won in the end. Think about how many more Ricky Jackson’s there might be.

Either languishing in prison for a crime they didn’t do or worse still buried in their local cemetery.

Rupert’s Eldest Is Now My Favourite Murdoch

I have a new found respect for press baron, Rupert Murdoch’s eldest son, Lachlan.

I am kind of surprised at myself that I’d be defending a Murdoch when a lot of what his father and brother did, with the News of the World and the phone hacking scandal, was utterly indefensible and brought great discredit to the profession called journalism. In fact Rupert can count himself lucky he didn’t end up sharing a prison cell with one of his senior editors who wasn’t quite so lucky.

Today, Lachlan Murdoch took aim at the Australian Government’s new security laws and how they plan to apply them in relation to journalists.

In what is clearly an attack on press freedom, the new laws are aimed at whistleblowers or people who might be contemplating such an action and journalists who might be the recipients of that information. The penalty is Draconian. Up to 10 years imprisonment.

Lachlan picked a most opportune moment to let fly with what he thought about the Government’s laws. The occasion was an oration in honor of his Grandfather, the late, great, Sir Keith Murdoch, a legendary and fearless Australian newspaperman in his day.

His opening salvo was to remind everyone present that Australia ranks 33rd, just behind Belize on the Freedom House index, which is literally an index of freedom in the world. Twenty years ago the country was 9th.

Lachlan Murdoch told his audience that the Australian Government was always invoking the phrase: trust us we’re the Government while at the same time attempting to censor the media. But trust, should not be a consideration when it comes to restricting any kind of fundamental freedom. Hard won rights like Freedom of speech and freedom of the press should never be blindly entrusted to anyone.

He said the Government’s terminology when invoking these new laws against journalists, who might receive information considered to be revealing “special intelligence operations,” was both misleading and ambiguous. In any case, the Government had given itself the power to arbitrarily decide what does or does not constitute a “ special intelligence operation.”

Lachlan Murdoch then rhetorically and very cheekily asked if the Gallipoli campaign would have been classified as a “ special intelligence operation.”

He then went on to tell the story of how his Grandfather, Sir Keith Murdoch came into possession of leaked information, which he published, revealing the Gallipoli military disaster where 8000 Australians had been killed. It was the contents of a private communication between Sir Keith and the then Prime Minister of the day.

Lachlan Murdoch then suggested if this had been 2014, instead of 1914, his Grandfather would, in all likelihood, be facing the prospect of 10 years imprisonment for telling the Australian people information they had a right to know about. His Grandfather was praised rather than condemned for the brave stand he took in publishing what he had been told. And knowing his Grandfather to be the man that he was, Sir Keith would have happily gone to jail, if necessary, for revealing it.

Lachlan Murdoch told his audience that censorship should be resisted in “all its insidious forms.” He urged all Australians to be vigilant and spirited in their resistance to the gradual erosion of hard won freedoms such as the right to know, the right to be informed and the ability to make reasoned decisions in our society and in our democracy.

He ended with a flourish. Urging everyone in general, and journalists in particular, to be like his Grandfather and have the courage to act when those freedoms are threatened.

My sources tell me he was given a standing ovation. So I say, well done young Murdoch. You’re a chip off the old block after all. And Grandad would be very proud.