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Wisdom and judgment?

The Edinburgh Evening News on Saturday splashed the story of Chen Wright, the Jamaican rapist who should have been deported after serving a pitifully inadequate time for his first rape, or at least the first he was caught for.

The Mail on Sunday followed suit the next day, but with the highly appropriate heading: A Pitiful Day for Justice. The trouble is, almost every day is a pitiful day for justice in Scotland, at least for the victims of serious crime, their families, and the police officers who, in the main, bust a gut to get the right person in the dock.

To recap, the point of the new stories about Wright were that three appeal judges effectively enabled him to rape and sexually assault three other women rather than support moves to deport him, saying it was ‘irrational’ to conclude that he posed a high risk of re-offending. A jury also found Chen not proven on a fourth rape charge, another charge of indecent assault and two charges of assaulting children, but I’d bet my life he was guilty of the lot.

Wright was jailed for a pitiful four years in 1997 for raping a 19-year-old after trapping her in his home in Livingston in 1995 and refusing to let her go. Imagine the terror that young woman must have endured, wondering if he would kill her after she’d been raped, wondering how badly he’d hurt her, wondering about the possibility of pregnancy, STDs, HIV. We can’t know how she felt unless we’ve endured something similar, but we can imagine terror, pain, unbearable distress, and I know from interviewing many rape victims in recent years that those feelings don’t stop when the rape ends.

Wright was freed in 2000, convicted in 2002 of failing to notify police of a move to Edinburgh and then jailed again for drugs offences in 2003, with a wise sheriff recommending his deportation and the Home Office supporting the decision. But Wright had children in Scotland and argued he would lose touch with them. Aside from the fact that no child can benefit from having a monster as a father and that they would have been better served not to have him nearby, no consideration was given to the fact that the situation was entirely of his own making. Don’t rape women and don’t commit further crimes and you don’t have a problem.

By 2007, he took his case to the Court of Appeal and three judges, Lords Johnston, Eassie and Wheatley, decided that as he had committed ‘only one’ rape and had only one drug conviction, claims of a high risk of re-offending were not justified. Lord Johnston has since died, but we can only hope the two surviving judges feel the shame and guilt they ought to for getting it so badly wrong. By the time they pronounced foolishly, as they did, he had already raped two of the other women and possibly the third as well. How he must have been laughing to himself inside as he walked from the court that day to have found three such gullible fools on the bench.

Of course, it’s easy to be critical of those who have great responsibility that most of us don’t carry daily, but it’s equally hard not to condemn them utterly. Judges tend to believe they see all of life before them and are somehow blessed with greater insight than the rest of us. Did the three take advice from any expert in sexual offending? Did they seek guidance from police forces or the prison service about recidivism among sex offenders? I don’t know for sure, but again I’d bet my life they didn’t. A combination of arrogance and sheer stupidity would have convinced them they knew best.

What training do the judges have for such tasks? What learned tomes do they have to devour and learn from? None. They get a red jersey, they become masters of all before them, and most of them just love it.

There is another very serious point to make here, and none of the newspapers would dare make it. Lord Johnston was for his last years on the bench unwell, and known to be unwell by colleagues on the bench and at the Bar because of his heavy use of alcohol. Had he been in the upper reaches of a powerful business, colleagues would have had words with the necessary powers that be to have him removed from the decision-making process. The late Lord Dawson, in fairly recent times, had similar problems, and again short of a few well-placed whispers, no one actually made the effort to remove him from an office he was not, by his end, fit to hold.

I have no idea what possessed Lords Eassie and Wheatley to go along with him, but I note from media reports that Lord Johnston was the first-named judge and therefore the senior of the three. Benches of three and five judges do disagree at times, but the senior judge will normally have his way. So our justice system allows unqualified men to make decisions about dangerous criminals that can lead to women and children being raped, and it does not step in when one of those unqualified judges has a further, deeper problem that renders him unfit for the job.

The justice system, and the powerful defence lobby in particular, is very resistant to claims that sexual crime is different and should be treated differently, but it is wrong. If we could measure such things on a reliable scale, we would find the trauma and violation experienced by women and children who are raped exceeds the suffering of other crime victims, and, crucially, the effects are always life-long. That is not to suggest to survivors that they should throw in the towel. Most of them cope with the rest of their life admirably, but all of them are scarred for life more surely than anyone is ever scarred by a knife or a bottle.

At the heart of the failure of the three judges in dealing with Wright was a common, even wilful, misunderstanding: Just because he’s done it once doesn’t mean he’ll do it again. Well I beg to differ. Most of us, thankfully, are incapable of rape. Those who are not do not just suddenly wake up one day and become rapists. Sex offenders generally start offending as adolescents and their offending tends to become progressively worse. Any man who has committed the heinous act of rape will almost certainly have carried out earlier and possibly less severe sexual assaults, and will definitely be capable of doing it again.

Why we don’t lock them up for life is beyond me. Instead, the sentences are getting shorter and shorter. It can only be a matter of time before we tire of this unacceptable situation, and society might feel it necessary to dole out its own justice rather than relying on the fools in wigs and robes in our courts, and the empty suits in our £440m parliament.