Whenever I see a convicted criminal on the telly protesting his innocence, the levels of scepticism rise within me to the point of misery. It’s a risky thing to admit, but when you see a mother mourning her ‘lovely son who wouldn’t hurt a fly ‘, only to see the photos from Facebook a couple of days later in which the son is posing with guns or knives, it is hard not to be sceptical. I don’t defend my response – I simply admit it.

Shawshank Redemption - posterIn cases like this I am always reminded of two things: (a) Andy’s line in (utterly and incontrovertibly brilliant) The Shawshank Redemption – when asked what certain prisoners were ‘in’ for – that ‘everyone in here is innocent’; and (b) when doing some prison chaplaincy many years ago I sat in on a Lifers’ Board – when life sentences were reviewed – and was quite moved by one or two of the men whose pleas sounded reasonable and rational … until I was then appraised of some of the facts and my head overruled my fickle heart.

Only those in full possession of the facts can make an informed judgement about guilt and, therefore, whether a sentence is justified or not.

But the flip-side of this is the frustration felt when justice is clearly the casualty of wrong judgement. This is part of the problem with the Megrahi/Lockerbie case – it is (a) wrong to imprison someone on the grounds that it is better to have someone to blame rather than no one (simply satisfying the need for a scapegoat) and (b) injustice leaves the real culprits free to do more damage … and that should be really worrying. Justice matters – and injustice matters as much if not more.

Free Michael Shields KopSo, today there will be great celebration at the pardon granted to Michael Shields in Liverpool. Michael was convicted of the attempted murder of a barman in Bulgaria after Liverpool had won the 2005 European Champions League final. He claimed to be innocent, but was convicted and sentenced to 15 years in prison. He was eventually moved from Bulgaria to a Warrington (UK) young offenders institution to continue his sentence. Despite someone else admitting the offence and Michael demonstrating convincingly that he could not have done the damage, his plea met with scepticism and denial. The facts could not be allowed to intrude on a good closure and a ‘job well done’ – i.e. someone nicked.

I did not know whether or not Michael Shields was guilty of the offence. Like every other ordinary observer I didn’t see all the evidence and couldn’t make a judgement. His initial protestations evoked in me a sceptical response: ‘they all say that, don’t they?’ But, as the evidence began to be presented, it was evident to anyone with a pulse that he was innocent of the charge laid against him. My initial response was wrong and his family and friends deserve credit for not slackening their four-year campaign to get him released – with the full and vocal support of the Bishop of Liverpool.

The celebrations will go wider than the Shields family and, knowing the city and its character, there will be great celebrations that Michael is free at last. But the greatest celebration should be that justice has been done and an injustice undone. The man has lost four years of freedom, but not four years of unique though involuntary experience. It remains now for the Bulgarians to examine the reasons for having allowed this injustice in the first place.

Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. (Amos 5:24)

The debate about the release of the (only) man convicted of the Lockerbie bombing in 1988, Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi, is gathering pace this morning. The Scottish Parliament has been recalled and there has been a serious appeal for a public inquiry into the decision to release the terminally-ill prisoner. All this will now take its course and, hopefully – this being a democracy, of course – we will find out what were the criteria for making the legal judgement to release him on compassionate grounds. In other words, we should discover if any deals were done (all denied) or any pressure applied.

MegrahiHowever, to pick up on the theme of my last post and a good deal of Twitter traffic in the UK, there is a certain degree of what might be called ‘incredulity’ at the American political response (exploitation?) of this matter. Following the FBI Director’s bizarre letter to the Scottish Justice Minister, one correspondent wrote:

I don’t think I really get past the feeling of outrage that the director of the FBI presumes to talk about justice … I assume that Mueller well knows that Leonard Peltier, just denied parole after 33 years inside, was framed by the FBI … Also just in the news: a first apology for the My Lai massacre from the one man convicted for it – pardoned after 4.5 months! … What justice or compassion did the US show when the Vincennes shot down that Iranian airliner? … why do we still allow the US to define not only who are terrorists but also what is justice?

Not everyone will want to agree with this explosion of outrage, but the US needs to grasp that it isn’t always seen as the ‘Land of the Free’ outside of the USA itself. Continuing questions about Afghanistan, Iraq, the ‘War on Terror’, Guantanamo and the US practice of denying justice to ‘inconvenient’ people (only now giving details to the Red Cross of men held in secret captivity in Iraq and Afghanistan) cause many of us to listen with a certain degree of cynicism to proclamations from Washington. And that is not a healthy state of affairs.

Two reports in this morning’s media deserve comment:

1. The BBC website quotes ABC’s Radio Corrspondent in the UK, Tom Rivers, saying:

 …it was “highly unusual” for the director of the FBI to talk about political issues … Mueller was an assistant Attorney General in the early 90s, looking at specifically the Lockerbie case, so it was very close and personal from his point of view … And that is being felt across the board in America. You’ve got American websites saying unless Britain does something there’s talk of a boycott of British and Scottish goods, and also urging people not to come to Britain on tourist trips.”

Now, that really is worrying. Since when was the Director of the FBI supposed to be motivated by ‘personal’ stuff? Isn’t ‘justice’ supposed to be impartial and exercised on the basis of more than emotion? (‘Compassion’ is actually more than ‘mere emotion’, is it not?) This may work in Hollywood, but it is disturbing in the context of politics or law. A boycott will expose more than the Americans might expect.

2. James Rubin, a policy adviser to Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton said on the BBC this morning:

I think the cause of those who have seen criminal courts and the criminal process as a way to deal with terrorism has been greatly set back. There have been many who have emphasised how the court system and international law is the best tool to deal with the threat of international terrorism – often in criticising the US for its approach – I think that cause has been greatly set back.

Well, he is entitled to his opinion, but there is a worrying assumption here that is not shared by a huge number of people on this side of the Atlantic. Has not one of the problems in the last fifty years been that the US has tried to enforce on some countries of the world (by undemocratic and unlawful means?) a model of democracy that only creates cynicism on those being ‘helped’? Is Rubin really suggesting that we can encourage a world to take seriously the fundamental importance of the rule of law by threatening to abandon it when ‘convenient’ to the powerful?

These reactions need to be further unpacked – and, no doubt, they will be as the day goes on and the weeks roll by. But, I think I will just continue to think it through and see what happens in Scotland today as MSPs convene to debate the matter.

This is one of those days when you have to be glad you aren’t a government minister being asked to make lonely and hard decisions which, by definition, will elate some and enrage others. The release of Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi, the convicted Lockerbie bomber, from Scottish custody ‘on compassionate grounds’ has appalled many people in Britain and the United States and divided opinion worldwide.

MegrahiThe Scottish Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill is adamant that he reached his conclusions on the basis of Scotland’s due process, clear evidence, and the recommendations from the parole board and prison governor. But, in an unprecedented move, Robert Mueller, chief of the US Federal Bureau of Investigation, has written to Mr MacAskill and condemned his decision in extremely strong terms: “Your action in releasing Megrahi is as inexplicable as it is detrimental to the cause of justice…”, making a “mockery of the rule of law” that “gave comfort to terrorists”. (Mr Mueller is a former prosecutor who played a key role in investigating the 1988 Lockerbie bombing which killed 270 people.)

The anger and outrage are entirely understandable. The bombers did not show compassion to those who fell out of the sky in 1988 and their families cannot welcome home their long-lost loved ones. So, what does it mean to show compassion to a convicted mass-murderer while thereby showing a total lack of compassion to those who were so violently bereaved?

LockerbieIn this context it is important to read also the statement issued by Megrahi on his release and hear the anger of those who, because of the dropping of his second appeal, will now not be able (a) to challenge his conviction or (b) identify those who did organise, authorise and perpetrate this appalling crime. I guess that had he been tried and convicted in a US court, Megrahi would by now have been executed – regardless of doubts about his guilt.

But, put the fully-justified righteous anger to one side for a moment and pick away at the assumptions underlying the argument and the language. Mueller uses the word ‘compassion’ almost as a term of contempt.

I am outraged at your decision, blithely defended on the grounds of “compassion.” Your action in releasing Megrahi is as inexplicable as it is detrimental to the cause of justice. Indeed your action makes a mockery of the rule of law.Your action gives comfort to terrorists around the world who now believe that regardless of the quality of the investigation, the conviction by jury after the defendant is given all due process, and sentence appropriate to the crime, the terrorist will be freed by one man’s exercise of “compassion.”

Your action rewards a terrorist even though he never admitted to his role in this act of mass murder and even though neither he nor the government of Libya ever disclosed the names and roles of others who were responsible…

Although the FBI and Scottish police, and prosecutors in both countries, worked exceptionally closely to hold those responsible accountable, you never once sought our opinion, preferring to keep your own counsel and hiding behind opaque references to “the need for compassion.”

You have given the family members of those who died continued grief and frustration. You have given those who sought to assure that the persons responsible would be held accountable the back of your hand.

Strong stuff, indeed – and, I imagine, hard even for tough Scottish ministers to hear. But it also begs serious questions.

1. Why does Mueller see compassion as weak? Why does he see compassion as a concession – something that is only offered to ‘reward terrorists’?

2. Does Mueller see justice as always or inevitably devoid of compassion – being merely the imposition of a legal/penal response to a legal decision?

3. How does Mueller know that this ruling ‘gives comfort to terrorists’? And are we to continue to allow the USA to determine who is and who is not a terrorist? If we are to extrapolate from this particular event to others in recent history, then there will be a fair number of US politicians and military personnel who might also require dispassionate ‘justice’. Or do those who were shown no ‘compassion’ in Central America in the 1980s not deserve justice because US-backed aggression is somehow justifiable? That is, ‘terrorists’ are always and inevitably those who attack the US, but never the Americans who attack others?

Jim Swire4. There are bereaved family members who back the Scottish decision and who have not been caused ‘continued grief and frustration’. Jim Swire is one among a number who believe that Megrahi is a scapegoat and that the loss of this latest appeal prevents the real culprits from being identified and brought to justice.

Isn’t it conceivable that a mark of civilisation and moral maturity is the ability or willingness to transcend even justice (narrowly defined) and show those virtues we claim to espouse? Or, when the ‘nice stuff’ is stripped away, do we really believe that a tooth should always be extracted for a tooth and an eye blinded in recompense for an eye – which, as someone once pointed out, always leaves us all blind and toothless?

These are not easy questions and I don’t assume easy or obvious answers. Life is more complicated than that. But there are as many questions to be asked of the American response to Megrahi’s release as there are about the grounds for his release itself. And we might want to ask if there would now be peace in Northern Ireland if some people had not had the courage to go beyond the cry for mere justice towards an outrageously generous compassion for all who suffer and not just ‘our own’. The South African transition from apartheid might raise similar comparisons.

Passion PlayIn the end, I do want to recover ‘compassion’ as something strong and costly, deserving of respect and honour – not to be spat out as a term of derision, implying weakness or cowardice.

Was Jesus being pathetic when from the gallows – he cried for forgiveness for those who had put him there?

Despite appearing to be quite different, two stories in today’s media raise important and connected questions.

First, the (reported) imminent release ‘on compassionate grounds’ of the jailed Lockerbie bomber who is now dying of prostate cancer. Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi is serving life for murdering 270 people when Pan Am flight 103 exploded in 1988. I remember it well because I was watching telly while babysitting my young children in Kendal when the screen went blank and appeals to emergency services started to come across the screen. The plane had flown over Kendal just a few minutes before it exploded. yet, despite the conviction and the loss of his subsequent appeals, there are widely acknowledged doubts about the justice of his conviction – most articulately from Jim Swire, father of one of the victims and for many years leader of the group campaigning for justice for the victims and their families.

The BBC’s Daniel Sandford in Washington said “broadly” families in the UK were concerned about the conviction, whereas US relatives were convinced of his guilt.

The second related story is the report issued today by Barnardo’s in which it maintains that too many British young people are being locked up (rather than given community sentences) and that the sentencing of many of these young people (some as young as 12) does nothing other than increase the potential for further criminalisation. The BBC report says:

The law specifically states that children aged 14 and under should not be locked up unless they have committed a grave offence or have committed a serious offence and are deemed to be a persistent offender. But the Barnardo’s report found more than a third of 12 to 14-year-olds locked up did not meet the conditions. Barnardo’s chief executive Martin Narey: “I’ve been shocked at the number of very young children we lock up.”

Barnardo’s surveyed around half of all children who were put in young offender institutions in 2007. More than a fifth were locked up for breaching an Anti-social Behaviour Order or similar punishment, half were victims of abuse and more than a third were living with an adult criminal.

Barnardo’s chief executive Martin Narey said that until 1998 it would have been illegal to imprison these young people unless they had committed one of the so-called “grave offences”. “Now we do this, every year, to more than 400 children aged 12, 13 and 14. “This is a tragedy for the young people themselves, it’s a shocking waste of money and, in terms of reducing their offending and doing anything to protect victims, it is almost invariably ineffective.”

And there’s the rub – precisely where these two stories collide. What is the purpose of custodial sentences? If the penal system exists simply to punish offenders and make everybody else feel safer, then it is clearly not very effective. It might reassure those who see punishment as ‘justice done and seen to be done’. But the offenders will come out and, if criminalised by their experience, be a further or worse problem than they were before. ‘deterrence’ does not seem to work – especially when young people return to the communities and dysfunctional families/friendships that allowed or encouraged them to get into trouble in the first place.

In other words, justice is not served simply by inflicting deserved punishment; there must be some serious work at both rehabilitation and restitution if offenders are to change their ways and, therefore, come out of their criminal sentence better able to live without offending. That way society benefits and it is less expensive. The problem is that pouring resources into stuff that is hard to measure (slow/gradual attitude or behavioural change) is not attractive to the great avenging public.

So, what place does or should compassion have in a penal system? To what extent is justice served by keeping the Lockerbie bomber in prison while he dies – especially given the doubts about his conviction and the lack of prosecution of anybody else? Is justice served – or just vengeance? And isn’t the mark of a democratic, civilised society that it can go beyond justice to show compassion – rather than mimic the societies that thirst for blood-vengeance at the slightest provocation?

I guess I want to explore the value of a pragmatic approach to compassion that will not be welcomed by the Daily Mail brigade. Keeping people locked up might make some of us feel better, but it might be ineffective, expensive and self-defeating. Yes, of course, some people need to be locked up for a very long time, if not for the whole of their life. I have done prison chaplaincy and worked with offenders and am not naive. But, there must be room for an intelligent debate in this country about what we think ‘justice’ is, how it is to be achieved and how it should be mediated effectively.

I might want to see young offenders locked up and kept out of the way and suffering for their crimes. But if we do nothing to help them to change, then we are burying our heads in the sand of self-righteousness and simply sowing the seeds of further crime in the future. This is a problem for the whole of our society – not just for the criminal justice system. I can’t complain if a young offender comes out hardened and commits further crimes against me or my community if I have done nothing to understand them and help provide an alternative way of life in their future.

And I bet this will be called ‘wet liberalism’.