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Teaching Criminology….Cui Bono?

Following several conversations with students and reflecting on another year of studying it got me thinking, what is or can be the quintessentially criminological issue that we can impart onto them?  It is always interesting to hear from others how your ideas are transferred into their notes, phrases and general understanding.  I think that there are a few things that are becoming clear early on, like the usual amazement of those outside the discipline who hear one studying criminology; a reverence as if the person reading the subject is on a par with those committing the deed.  There is a natural curiosity to crime in all walks of life and those seen closer to the topic, attract part of that curiosity.      

There are however some more profound issues relating to criminology that are neither clear nor so straightforward.  The discipline is an amalgamation of thoughts and theories making it incredibly difficult to pinpoint a generic appreciation for the discipline.  Some of us like the social discourses relating to social injustice, a matter traditionally closer to sociology or social work, while others ponder the conceptual dynamics of human behaviour, mostly addressed in philosophical debates, then there are those who find the individual characteristics and personality socio-dynamic dimensions intriguing.  These distinct impressions will not only inform our understanding but will also provide each of us with a perspective, a way of understanding criminology at a granular level.    

In criminological discourses, informed by law, I used to pose the old Latin question: Cui bono (who benefits)?  A question posed by the old legal experts to trace liability and responsibility of the act committed.  Obviously in their view crime is a choice committed freely by a deviant mind.  But then I was never a legal expert, so my take on the old question was rather subversive.  The question of who benefits can potentially lay the question of responsibility wide open, if it is to be looked from a social harm perspective.  The original question was incredibly precise to identify a person for the benefit of a trial.  That’s the old criminal evidence track.    

Taking this question outside the forensic setting and suddenly this becomes quite a loaded query that can unpack different responses.  Cui bono? Why are we talking about drug abuse as a crime and not about tax avoidance?  Why is the first regarded a crime, whilst the second is simply frowned upon?  Cui bono? When we criminalise the movement of people whose undocumented by we have very little information for those who have procured numerous properties in the country?  If our objection is on transparency of movement then there is clearly a difference of how this is addressed.  Cui bono?  When we identify violence at interpersonal level and we have the mechanisms to suppress it, but we can engage in state violence against another state without applying the same mechanisms?  If our objection is the use of violence, this is something that needs to be addressed regardless of the situation, but it is not.  Ironically some of the state violence, may contribute to the movement of people, may contribute to the exploitation of population and to the use of substances of those who returned home broken from a violence they embraced.      

Our criminology is merely informed from our perspective and it is my perspective that led me to those thoughts.  I am very sure that another colleague would have been making a series of different connections when asked “Cui Bono?”

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Majority Verdicts and Reasonable Doubt

Gavel, scales of justice and law books

Recently I attended an Inside Justice Live Crime event hosted by Anglia Law School at Anglia Ruskin University. The last speaker for the evening was Kevin Lane who is trying to have his wrongful conviction overturned, during his discussion he mentioned that he was found guilty of murder by a 10-2 majority verdict. It came as quite a shock to me to hear that majority verdicts are used for murder charges in England.

In 1994 Robert Magill was shot dead by a hitman while walking his dog in Hertfordshire, two men fled the scene in a BMW car. In 1995 Lane and a co-accused were charged with the murder of Magill. The prosecution alleged that Lane had received payment for this murder and submitted that fingerprints were found in bin liners in the car. Police were unable to link Lane to the scene of the crime, were unable to prove he had received payment, and he has always maintained his innocence.

There were a number of limitations and concerns in this case – the murder weapon was never recovered, two prime suspects who were brought to the police’s attention soon after the murder were not properly investigated and were later found to have an inappropriate relationship with the investigating police officer, and there were on going disclosure problems. Further, in 2002 the investigating officer was sent to prison for four years of conspiracy to steal ‎£160,000 from the Hertfordshire Police and misconduct in a public office. (This is a very brief summary of a complicated case).

A majority verdict is used when the jury cannot reach a unanimous verdict and where the jury consists of usually 12 jurors and at least 10 or 11 agree (depending on the jurisdiction) – under certain conditions the judge is able to accept the jury’s verdict. The provision of a majority verdict is generally used when a prescribed period of time has elapsed, and the judge is satisfied that the jury are unlikely to reach a unanimous verdict after further deliberation. Majority verdicts have been used in England since 1974 and were originally introduced to prevent the intimidation or bribing of jurors.

While I am aware of majority verdicts, as they are used in Queensland, Australia (where I completed my legal education). Majority verdicts cannot be used for murder trials, for an offence which has mandatory life imprisonment as a penalty, and Commonwealth offences. The overall concern with majority verdicts is that if the jury is unable to reach a unanimous decision then they cannot be said to have reached a decision ‘beyond a reasonable doubt’ which is the standard of proof for criminal matters, and as a consequence have demonstrated reasonable doubt.

Unanimous jury verdicts have been part of the common law since the 14thcentury. Prior to 1866, if a jury could not reach an agreement they could be ‘carried around in a wagon with the court without meat or drink, fire or candle until they were starved or frozen into agreement.’ We have obviously come a long way since the days of locking jurors up and separating them from their family and friends until they reached a decision.

Using unanimous verdicts is argued to reduce the risk of convicting an innocent person, that unanimity is a fundamental feature of a jury trial, it leads to better deliberation, and that disagreement in a jury is not unreasonable. When considering the issue from the perspective of the accused, majority verdicts place them at a great disadvantage when one considers that the prosecution has much more resources. There are already a number of contributors to wrongful convictions which the accused needs to contest with, and the fact that appeals are very difficult.

It can be argued there are benefits for majority verdicts – they reduce the instance of a hung jury (where the accused is neither acquitted or convicted) and the potential for a retrial (and the economic cost associated for a criminal justice system which is already overloaded). Majority verdicts are said to overcome problems with ‘rogue’ jurors, bribery and intimidation. The use of majority verdicts allows there to be finality in the case for the victim/s, the accused, the family and friend of the victim/s and accused, and the community.

Personally, I believe that in the interest of justice majority verdicts should not be used in serious criminal cases – such as murder and offences which carry mandatory life imprisonment penalty. These cases are much too serious and if reasonable doubt is present then this should be recognised. In Kevin Lane’s case he would not have been convicted, served 18 years in prison, and still be trying to overturn his conviction.

Further reading

Cowdery, N. (2007). Majority jury verdicts. Reform Issue. 90, 18-19.

Garrett, B.L. & Neufeld, P.J. (2009). Invalid forensic science testimony and wrongful convictions. Virginia Law Review. 95(1), 1-97.

Gray, A. (2009). A guarantee right to trial by jury at state level? Australian Journal of Human Rights. 15(1), 97-125.

Roberts, S. & Weathered, L. (2009). Assisting the factually innocent: The contradictions and compatibility of Innocence Projects and the Criminal Cases Review Commission. Oxford Journal of Legal Studies. 29(1), 43-70.

Sankoff, P. (2006). Majority jury verdicts and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. UBC Law Review. 39(2), 333-369.

The roots of criminology; the past in the service of the future;

SessionsHouse

In a number of blog posts colleagues and myself (New Beginnings, Modern University or New University? Waterside: What an exciting time to be a student, Park Life, The ever rolling stream rolls on), we talked about the move to a new campus and the pedagogies it will develop for staff and students.  Despite being in one of the newest campuses in the country, we also deliver some of our course content in the Sessions House.  This is one of the oldest and most historic buildings in town.  Sometimes with students we leave the modern to take a plunge in history in a matter of hours.  Traditionally the court has been used in education primarily for mooting in the study of law or for reenactment for humanities.  On this occasion, criminology occupies the space for learning enhancement that shall go beyond these roles.

The Sessions House is the old court in the centre of Northampton, built 1676 following the great fire of Northampton in 1675.  The building was the seat of justice for the town, where the public heard unspeakable crimes from matricide to witchcraft.  Justice in the 17th century appear as a drama to be played in public, where all could hear the details of those wicked people, to be judged.  Once condemned, their execution at the gallows at the back of the court completed the spectacle of justice.  In criminology discourse, at the time this building was founded, Locke was writing about toleration and the constrains of earthy judges.  The building for the town became the embodiment of justice and the representation of fairness.  How can criminology not be part of this legacy?

There were some of the reasons why we have made this connection with the past but sometimes these connections may not be so apparent or clear.  It was in one of those sessions that I began to think of the importance of what we do.  This is not just a space; it is a connection to the past that contains part of the history of what we now recognise as criminology.  The witch trials of Northampton, among other lessons they can demonstrate, show a society suspicious of those women who are visible.  Something that four centuries after we still struggle with, if we were to observe for example the #metoo movement.  Furthermore, from the historic trials on those who murdered their partners we can now gain a new understanding, in a room full of students, instead of judges debating the merits of punishment and the boundaries of sentencing.

These are some of the reasons that will take this historic building forward and project it forward reclaiming it for what it was intended to be.  A courthouse is a place of arbitration and debate.  In the world of pedagogy knowledge is constant and ever evolving but knowing one’s roots  allows the exploration of the subject to be anchored in a way that one can identify how debates and issues evolve in the discipline.  Academic work can be solitary work, long hours of reading and assignment preparation, but it can also be demonstrative.  In this case we a group (or maybe a gang) of criminologists explore how justice and penal policy changes so sitting at the green leather seats of courtroom, whilst tapping notes on a tablet.  We are delighted to reclaim this space so that the criminologists of the future to figure out many ethical dilemmas some of whom  once may have occupied the mind of the bench and formed legal precedent.  History has a lot to teach us and we can project this into the future as new theoretical conventions are to emerge.

Locke J, (1689), A letter Concerning Toleration, assessed 01/11/18 https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/A_Letter_Concerning_Toleration

Student support

JR blog

I recently read Melanie Reynolds’s article in The Guardian ‘Working-class lecturers should come out of the closet,’ and it resonated with me. I was the first generation in my family to go to university and it was difficult. I grew up in a poor socio-economic position, received government allowances, there was a stigma to this, and unspoken expectation that you kept this hidden. When I turned 18 I moved out of home and went to university, from the start I was supporting myself. I worked in a pizza shop, a convenience store, a sandwich shop, and a call centre. I lived pay day to pay day. Starting university felt like learning a new language to me, it was a shock.

I remember one of my first assignments I handed in. I had to print it on lined foolscap paper because I didn’t have any printer paper and I couldn’t afford to buy any. It is all well and good to tell a student to be prepared – trust me I would’ve been if I had the money. This meant I couldn’t afford to print at university either (before the days of online submission!). But I also didn’t know how to print at the university at that stage and I didn’t want to let on to anyone that I didn’t know how, I already felt like I stood out. It seemed that everyone around me had this innate understanding of how everything worked. It seemed like a simple thing, but it was hard to ask for help.

Another time I lost my student card on the train and when I got on the bus to go to university the bus driver asked for it. He stayed at the stop while I literally went through every compartment in my bag looking for it, with everyone watching it just brought feelings of shame. I had to pay an adult fare in addition to the three-zone student fare I had already paid, and those couple of dollars extra made a big difference to me, considering I knew I would also need to replace my student card.

I didn’t feel like I belonged, I didn’t know anyone at university, I didn’t know what services were available, even if I did I would have felt like I was wasting their time – taking away time for ‘real’ students. It was difficult to watch other students be involved in activities and wonder how they found the time and the money. Being in law school made me feel like I didn’t dress right, didn’t talk properly, that I was not connected to the legal profession because no one in my family was a lawyer or judge, I was an impostor. It was very isolating.

What can I say to help – it will get better? That you’ll get over the feelings of impostor syndrome? It does get a little better, for me it took time, realising that I was not alone in these feelings, that many students had the same questions, and to build the confidence to speak up. There was a lot of pressure to succeed and this is something you need to manage.

I try to be open about my experiences with my students so that they may feel more comfortable approaching me with their issues. To me there are no stupid questions. One of my most disliked words is ‘just’ – ‘well you just do this’ the expectation that you’ll ‘just’ know. I don’t expect my students to ‘just’ know. When I ask students to tell me when they are having difficulties I truly mean it. This is my job and it is the university’s job to support you. Starting university can be overwhelming. So, remember students ALWAYS ask me for help, email, phone or in-person.

What can we do as educators? Universities and their staff need to be pro-active in connecting with students and providing assistance – not ‘do you need help?’ but ‘what can I do to help?’ We need to seek to bridge the gap and bring equity to our students, not just equality.

For all students there are support services available to you at the University of Northampton, please take advantage of them.

Jessica Ritchie

(Very soon to be) Lecturer in Criminology

 

 

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