What is the point of victim impact statements?
A parole judge has apologised to bereaved parents for saying that victim impact statements make no difference. So what are they really for? Paul Gallagher finds out
Paul Gallagher is a reporter for the Independent and Independent on Sunday having joined the group in 2012. He has previously worked for the European Voice, Daily Mirror and the Observer and been based in Brussels, Belfast, Tokyo and London.
Wednesday 06 August 2014
Allan Bentley was jailed for life in 2000 for orchestrating the torture and killing of 15-year-old Michael Moss on playing fields in Sefton, Merseyside, in what became known as the "Reservoir Dogs" murder.
Bentley and two friends, Mark McKeefrey and Graham Neary, stripped Moss naked, then beat him and stabbed him 49 times over two hours. Mimicking a scene in the Quentin Tarantino heist movie, the three teens tried to cut off one of his ears with a broken vodka bottle while singing "Stuck in the Middle with You".
At their separate parole hearings over the years, Michael's mum, Liz, has read out her victim impact statement in the hope that the trio would remain behind bars for longer than the minimum tariffs they received. "I will never forget that day I was told of Michael's murder," she in her statement. "It was such a traumatic murder that my mind will not and cannot to this day accept the torture that Michael suffered. Every day of my life, I have flashbacks of what happened to Michael. I cannot go past a park or playing fields, as I see the images of my beautiful son being tortured. What I see is Michael lying naked on a very cold November night with every part of his body bleeding and mutilated.
"I go into a trance and cannot hear people talking, but I can hear Michael shouting 'Mum, mum, mum'. Sometimes I feel I am losing my mind because I want to feel the torture he went through. Bentley has served a relatively short time in prison compared to my life sentence of grief and pain."
Mrs Moss, 59, said she had suffered a mental breakdown, been hospitalised and diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and depression, but her words have been to no avail. One by one her son's killers have been released.
Judge Graham White may well have had Mrs Moss in mind when he was caught on camera this week saying that impact statements made by bereaved families made "no difference" to parole judgements. His conversation was overheard by Geraldine and Peter McGinty whose son Colin, 21, was stabbed to death 13 years ago, also in Merseyside. Two men – Michael Brown and Gary Hampton – were jailed for his murder. After both killers applied to be moved to open prison, the McGintys were invited to give an impact statement – allowed when an offender has been sentenced to custody for 12 months or more for a serious sexual or violent offence – via video link. At Brown's hearing, the couple explained that they were still "serving a life sentence of heartache and grief and pain".
Judge White, who mistakenly thought the link had been disconnected, turned to one side and said: "I feel so sorry for these families. They make these statements thinking they are going to make a difference, but they make no difference at all. Someone should tell them."
The McGintys said the comments were "sickening". "The heartache that we go through to do these statements, to be told they don't make any difference," Mrs McGinty said.
Judge White has apologised, saying: "I am sorry if what they overheard upset them and if it made them feel that what they had said had no impact because it certainly did, but what it can't do is affect our judgement of his [Brown's] risk."
The Parole Board is investigating the judge's comments. A spokesman said the board values victim statements and recognises the importance of giving victims the opportunity to make their voices heard. "Where release is being considered," he said, "Victim Personal Statements can assist in setting appropriate licence conditions such as exclusion zones and conditions for the offender not to contact the victim."
However, according to the Board's own guidelines, decisions are "ultimately based on the offender's current risk". The guidance states: "In most cases, the victim is unlikely to have information [on] this."
Other victims of serious crime reacted with anger to Judge White's comments. Victims' Commissioner Baroness Newlove, whose husband Garry was kicked to death in Warrington in 2007 by a gang vandalising his car, said that it saddened her to hear of another family not treated with basic humanity and respect. "Victims pour their hearts into these statements to make sure they do their loved ones the best possible justice," she said. "They should never be dismissed like this. It's the only way for a victim to express the terrible impact of a crime, and how a decision such as a move to open conditions could affect their lives. That's why it should be respected and given proper consideration before making a decision."
Laws on data protection and confidentiality prevent victims and relatives from seeing a copy of the Parole Board's "written reasons" for their decisions. Rose Dixon, the CEO of charity Support After Murder and Manslaughter, last night called for clarification from the Ministry of Justice regarding the purpose of victim impact statements. "It used to be clear what the role of impact statements was but following Judge White's comments regarding the McGinty family, we need some very clear guidelines [if their role has changed]."
Weather bomb in pictures: Storms cuts power for tens of thousands – and snow is on the way
Jessica Chambers: 19-year-old woman 'doused with lighter fluid and burned alive' in the US
Russell Brand calls Nigel Farage 'poundshop Enoch Powell' in BBC Question Time debate
Russell Brand was rendered speechless on Question Time by this man
Fury at Airbus after it hints the super-jumbo may be mothballed
Disgruntled RBS worker writes hilarious open letter to Russell Brand after anti-capitalist publicity stunt leaves him hungry
Nigel Farage's approval rating hits 'record low' as popularity suffers in wake of Ukip sex scandal
Nigel Farage defends Kerry Smith 'ch***y' comment: 'If you are going for a Chinese, what do you say you’re going for?'
Pakistan school attack live: Taliban kill at least 132 children in 'horrifying' massacre
Sony hack: Angelina Jolie branded 'seriously out of her mind' in further embarrassing leaked email saga
Panic Saturday: 13 million Britons spend £1.2bn – while 13 million others across the country live in poverty unable to afford food
- 2 Harry Potter fans can apply to the Hogwarts-inspired College of Wizardry
- 3 Jessica Chambers: 19-year-old woman 'doused with lighter fluid and burned alive' in the US
- 4 Russell Brand calls Nigel Farage 'poundshop Enoch Powell' in BBC Question Time debate
- 5 Orange Wednesdays are no more