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Philip Lawrence murder: The case for redemption?

2007 August 22
by Paul Vallely

The solicitor of Learco Chindamo yesterday insisted that his client – who next year will have served the minimum term in the 12-year “life” sentence he was given for the murder of the headmaster Philip Lawrence in 1995 – is now a “reformed” character. Criminologists spoke of “rehabilitation”. One commentator even referred to “the road to redemption”.

On the other side of this equation, the dead man’s widow, Frances Lawrence, gave a disquieting interview in which she spoke of forgiveness. She had, she said, intellectually forgiven Chindamo pretty much from the outset. But coming to terms with that forgiveness viscerally was a very different matter.

With such talk of reform, rehabilitation, redemption and forgiveness we are entering into an ethical and emotional minefield. The legal dispute – over whether it is the Human Rights Act or European law which will prevent Chindamo being deported if the Parole Board decides next year that it is safe to release him from jail – look comparatively straightforward alongside it. For it takes us to the heart of the problem with the British response to the subject of crime and punishment.

There are, of course, far too many people in British jails who shouldn’t be there – drug addicts, the mentally ill and low-risk offenders jailed for comparatively trivial offences such as shoplifting. But, that said, there are some who should be behind bars and Chindamo is one of them. He may have been only 15 at the time of the crime but the murder of a public-spirited headmaster coming to the aid of one of his 13-year-old pupils is the kind of symbolic violation for which society rightly demands an exemplary punishment.

Criminologists generally offer four justifications for prison. It is to punish. It is to remove criminals from society and prevent them from committing further offences. It is to deter others from committing the same crime. And it is to reform and rehabilitate offenders. Whether all four of these aims are simultaneously possible is a question over which society generally glides without proper examination. But what is clear from the re-offending rate – 58 per cent of all prisoners are reconvicted of a further offence within two years of leaving prison – is that British jails are not very good at rehabilitation.

There are some exceptions to that rule. The child killers of the toddler James Bulger were placed inside two of the 28 local authority secure units which provide just 300 places throughout the UK. Robert Thompson and Jon Venables served their eight-year sentences inside separate units which offer the most intensive and expensive rehabilitation programmes available. Their aim is to take the most dangerous and damaged children and remake them as human beings.

Their success may be explained by the fact that they bear no relation to adult or youth jails. There are no bars or shared cells. They have excellent therapy and high standards of education – with up to six hours of lessons a day – and substantial extended periods of what the prison world calls “useful activity”.

At the end of eight years there, Robert Thompson was said to have been transformed, finally accepting responsibility for what he had done and, despite having entered with learning disabilities, earning five GCSEs and A-levels in design and technology. Jon Venables, though he made far less educational progress than his more intelligent co-killer, was said by psychologists to have made the appropriate progression from denial through grief to confession and a remorse “that would remain forever”.

Such was their progress that the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Woolf, ruled that they should be released before they reached their 19th birthdays when they would have to be transferred to what he called the “corrosive atmosphere” of a Young Offenders’ Institute – youth prisons essentially structured along the same lines as adult jails.

It was in such a place that Chindamo served his sentence before being moved to Ford open prison and then to a category B prison near Redditch, in Worcestershire.

But there is another problem. There is a tendency to use terms like reform, rehabilitation and redemption interchangeably and yet the words suggest significantly different phenomena. A reformed criminal may be one whose behaviour has changed.

A rehabilitated ex-con might be one who has acquired coping strategies to help him or her engage with society outside prison in a way which lessens the danger of recidivism. A key example of that is the self-awareness strategies taught to drug-addicts or sex-offenders to help them spot the early warning signs of situations of temptation. Through cognitive therapy, they identify and change distorted ways of thinking to influence emotion and modify behaviour.

Redemption is about something altogether deeper. It is about a change inside the human heart. It is far more than, in the old phrase, “paying a debt to society”. It is about paying a debt to the ex-offender’s own sense of integrity. It may well be contingent on repentance, which is why the classic theological image of redemption is that of the returning prodigal son. It means the criminal must recognise the humanity of the victim, accept their own guilt, and acknowledge the need for remorse and penitence. Such a transformation may not take place in prison, but long after, outside. Or it may never happen at all, which is partly why the general public was never prepared to countenance the release of iconic figures such as Myra Hindley and Ian Brady.

It is why Chindamo’s solicitor, Nigel Leskin, was greeted with such scepticism yesterday when he outlined the changes that he claims have occurred in the killer. “He was involved in a gang when he was young. He was a kid trying to act up big. He was out of control and he thought he knew everything. He now realises how wrong he was.”

The change in attitude was manifest in actions, he insisted. “He has spent time in prison speaking to other people who have come in – younger people, quite often, who he sees have committed offences of violence, trying to tell them how stupid they are, they shouldn’t throw their lives away like he has thrown his away.”

It is clearly difficult for many people to accept such assertions. Even when prison psychiatrists and the members of the Parole Board decide that individual prisoners are no longer a danger to society and may be released their verdicts are greeted with widespread suspicion.

In part that is because such tribunals insists that they need give no public explanation of their decisions, so it is impossible for the public to form a view on the validity of their decisions. In part it is because right-wing newspapers delight in highlighting when the experts get such things wrong – and since Chindamo is only 26 the chances that he still has high levels of testosterone coursing round his body are judged by popular psychology to be fairly high. But in the main it is because of the public’s sense of outrage at certain crimes which are seen as symbolic of a wider social problem.

All this has come together to fuel the current sense of public indignation in the Chindamo case. The question of whether he should be deported, when the decision is finally made to release him, looks fairly open-and-shut in legal terms. He can only get parole when he is no longer a danger to the public, and yet the only grounds for deportation would be that he constituted such a danger. Even the forlorn Mrs Lawrence has conceded that.

Had Chindamo been English rather than technically an Italian – he came to this country aged six and is now unable to speak any language but English – the idea that deportation would be an apt additional punishment would not even arise. But that being the case, some other lightning conductor for public outrage would have surfaced.

For the real issue which lies behind the furore about deportation is the sense that 12 years’ imprisonment is not a sufficient punishment for the murder of a man who saw his vocation as a teacher as the discharge of a sacred trust. And on that the public may, on this occasion, be quite right.

Had life in this case been 20 years rather than 12, Chindamo would be leaving prison at the age of 35, at an age when he would have had the maturity to engage in the introspection that might persuade us that he understood the enormity of what he had done in depriving a wife of a loving husband, four young children of their doting father, a school of a gifted head-teacher and society of a dedicated public servant.

It might also convince us that a change of heart could have occurred, making redemption a real possibility.

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