The mind-set of many politicians relating to Law crime and punishment is a continuous source of disenchantment; far too often the agenda is set by red top newspapers like the Sun. The newspapers and other media journalists whip up fury and goad a gullible public into backward-looking positions which bear very little similarity to any kind of justice. Very few politicians have the courage to face down the Murdoch Empire when it comes to crime and punishment; a great many of them are scared stiff of being branded ‘soft on crime’ Depending on how high up the political ladder you go the more of this you will see and it also reveals the lengths that some will go to; to protect/advance their political careers.
Some time ago the SNP Justice Minister Kenny McAskill took the correct decision to release the Libyan prisoner Megrahi on compassionate grounds; I said at the time that this had more to do with McAskill’s inability to resist being in the world spotlight and today we see that he is ingratiating himself with the reactionary right by agreeing to consider allowing Juries to be made aware of an accused’s past record; a move which will make him very popular with the right wing populist media. This is far nearer to the real Kenny McAskill; apolitical and ambitious; determined to claw back some of his damaged reputation as an appeaser and ‘soft on crime’.
Voices have already been raised in protest but not; surprise; surprise political voices. The most obvious example of this craven behaviour is to be found in successive home secretaries in relation to the case of the Moors Murderer Myra Hindley; the case was one of the most infamous in British legal history. Based on the system of early release which is used in Britain she should have been released long before she died in jail; she was not released because no Home Secretary had the courage to do the right thing; whatever you think of Hindley she ticked every box for release; the nature of her crimes and the constant campaign against her by the gutter press meant that it would have been a massively unpopular decision and Home Secretaries took it in turn to run away from it. Whether you or I think she should have been released or whether we think she deserved to die in confinement or whether there should have been a private members bill to allow her to be executed is neither here nor there; none of the experts in the criminal justice system; none of the criminal psychiatrist etc. were prepared to say she should be kept in jail but she was; because of political cowardice.
MaCaskill is so ambitious that he; as a zealous nationalist is prepared to consider overthrowing one of the major legal differences between Scotland and the rest of the UK like the others mentioned he knows it will sell to “the man on the Clapham Omnibus” When we hear of someone known to us; some local thug for instance being put on trial for an alleged crime there is a strong tendency in all of us to say “I’m not surprised he’s got previous” and this is exactly the danger; if juries are privy to that kind of information; it destroys the “innocent until proven guilty” legal custom which protects everyone. Innocent; though unsavoury characters would be jailed because the jury were influenced by their previous bad records and the guilty would not even get to court.
Donald Finlay QC; not an easy man to like is nevertheless correct when he says that under this change accused people would be judged by what the jury think of them rather than the evidence; likewise the equally difficult to like political contortionist Paul McBride QC is spot on when he says that it’s corroboration which counts not past records. Another nameless QC stated that “there had not been a single case in Scotland in recent years where a person had gone to trial charged with a particularly serious offence that he had also committed beforehand, and been acquitted” The Police rather as expected are right behind McAskill the result for some means everything; this would take us a step toward saying “well he looked like a right evil b*****d, guilty m'lord”. Police already respond as they did in Casablanca when Major Strasser got shot and Captain Renault said “Round up the usual suspects” so those with ‘form’ and who are known to the Police are already a goal down when something with their MO on it happens. The classic case being Paddy Mehan who was such a well known criminal that he got life for murder and; notwithstanding his criminal past was in fact innocent.
Cases must stand alone; nothing but what is evidence pertaining to the case should be introduced; any change to that principle would mean that people are not innocent until proved guilty and that people are not equal before the law. McAskill’s stunt should be seen as just that; a cheap attempt to curry favour with the yellow press and their repellent owners. The law has to remain above people like him.