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Anatomy of a public dialogue



MARC MY WORDS 29 July 2005

Anatomy of a public dialogue

Most people have their passions. For some it's fishing, rugby, or curling up with a good book. For others, it may be a cause. Our charitable organisations are brimming with individuals who are zealous, in a very good way, about poverty, social injustice and a myriad of things we should be concerned about. Our social conscience finds particular expressions.

And sometimes these get up other peoples' noses.

I came to Parliament somewhat reluctantly. Never one to have more than a deep and abiding scepticism of politics, politicians and the bureaucrats who control both, I must report that my last three years have done nothing to diminish that scepticism. Truth be told, it's fair to say my experience over the last three years has made me more cynical than before.

Although I care about many things, the task I set myself was simple, though difficult: to do whatever I could to lower the number of victims of crime. Sometimes that has meant brushing aside some other considerations that I take as a given. Case in point:: the call to free Henry Matefeo.

Matefeo was given a five year sentence for his part in an aggravated robbery. Violence was a hallmark of the crime for which he was found guilty. He also has terminal cancer and at most he has nine months to live. The calls for compassion have been endorsed by the victim of the robbery who has been extraordinarily charitable and forgiving by giving his blessing to an early release.

Here's where I part company with those I consider to have a misplaced sympathy: I don't believe anyone convicted of a violent offence should be given leniency. Period.

Since I expressed that view there has been a steady flow of comment, some supportive some less so. One woman claimed, amongst other things, that I am a bully, inarticulate, heartless, and apparently wrong for even having an opinion! Funny thing about her comments was that she suggested that she was being constructive.

Nevertheless there are a number of issues that deserve serious consideration. One person suggested that because of his medical condition, Matefeo is effectively incapable of putting society at continued risk, and that is sufficient reason to return him to his family. This is a good point. But equally, his medical condition means he can't, under different circumstances, do what he might do. In other words has he rehabilitated or is he simply physically incapable of committing further crimes? The difference is important because motive is where all criminal offences begin.

The fact that the victim has shown mercy cannot be discounted either. What the victim thinks is extremely important when it comes to deciding what sanctions our society considers appropriate. But every judgement must also be a call on behalf of all victims. Few victims have the strength to relinquish a rightful recompense for the evil done to them. And so.justice demands that their voice also is heard.

The strongest argument I encountered appealed on grounds of compassion; that continued incarceration would serve no public good and that his family should be with Matafeo to comfort him in his final months. From my point of view playing devil's advocate, why does his likely lifespan have any bearing on his punishment? The only bearing it has is how he is cared for medically. It might mean keeping him in a hospital bed in prison, or perhaps a hospice with a guard. His terminal disease has everything to do with how we treat him clinically but absolutely nothing to do with his violent life choices that put him behind bars in the first place.

A sentence is imposed, in accordance with law, as a penalty proportionate to the crime. That's it.

It is the circumstances of the crime that matter, nothing else. To mitigate a sentence on grounds unrelated to the circumstances of the crime is to open a Pandora's Box of exceptions - all amenable to a million rationalisations. Extraneous details such as finding religion, learning to paint or suffering a medical condition after the fact have nothing to do with guilt or culpability.

I do have sympathy for Matafeo and his family. Who would not? But I also have sympathy for our justice system which is in a parlous state. This morning I have been with an exceptionally courageous young woman at the High Court. She had been repeatedly raped as a 12 year old in 1989 and 1990 by Paul Bailey. We heard the sentence handed down to him. The tragedy is that the charges should have gone to Court in 1991. In November of that year, Bailey raped and murdered 15 year old Kylie Smith in Otago. He was on bail at the time. I have since supported Kylies' parents during Bailey's attempts to get parole in 2001 and 2002. Fortunately both times we have managed to keep him in.

Perhaps the calls for him to take advantage of his terrible illness are a sign of a caring community. I don't know.

What I do know is that Matafeo returned home yesterday to a grateful family trying to do what they can for a dying son. But now they are pushing for even more advantage by asking for his brother Albert - also in prison for a five year sentence - to come home to be with Henry!

And while we're swimming in this sea of compassion we should not forget that this all came about because a man was beaten unconscious with a pipe.

So.excuse me if I'm somewhat over-zealous in pushing for justice to mean what it should. As far as Matafeo is concerned perhaps I have been perceived as harsh.

But maybe the real mistake I made was in underestimating just how angry and intolerant a few individuals have been about my point of view, while tolerant of a criminal who chose to create a victim.


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