The real lessons of the Tony Martin case

Fearon experienced rough justice at the hands of Martin, and it didn't do him any more good than prison
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The Independent Online

Poor Tony Martin. Like the man in the Chinese proverb, he has got what he wished for. The Norfolk farmer found a dubious sort of fame when he shot dead 16-year-old Fred Barras, a burglar he had disturbed in his ramshackle home in 1999. He was controversially convicted of murder and sentenced to life imprisonment.

Mr Martin argued that he had been forced to take the law into his own hands because, after repeated burglaries, he had had to conclude that the police were not interested in helping. They're certainly interested now. Mr Martin, who has served two-thirds of a five-year sentence handed own after an appeal transmuted the charge to manslaughter on grounds of diminished responsibility, has been released from prison. And what a palaver awaits him.

Security lights have been fitted around his home, his land has been swept for booby traps, and a portable police station has been parked at the end of his garden. Such measures, the police say, are likely to be in place for days or weeks, but not months. Which is surely good news for Mr Martin, who says he only ever wanted a quiet, if eccentric, life.

The security measures, estimated to have cost £200,000, are in place because various death threats have been bandied around, no one quite knows from or to whom. It is rumoured that a Romany court - Fred Barras was a traveller - has put a £60,000 bounty on Mr Martin's head. It is also rumoured, on the contrary, that a more modest bounty has instead been put on the head of Brendon Fearon, the older accomplice who took Mr Barras on the burglary in the first place.

Mr Fearon, however, is just as much under the watchful eye of the law as Mr Martin. By nasty coincidence, Mr Fearon was released from prison at almost the same time as Mr Martin, having served a third of a sentence for drug-dealing. Mr Fearon is not free, however. Instead, he is under the home detention curfew scheme, wears an electronic tag and has to be at a designated address each night between the hours of 7pm and 7am.

Many critics, despite its 97 per cent success rate, believe that electronic tagging is just another way of bending over backwards to molly-coddle criminals. They point to the fact that Mr Martin did not get parole as early as he might because he made a principled refusal to accept that what he had done was wrong, while Mr Fearon did, because he was prepared cynically to play the system.

Certainly Mr Fearon does appear cynical. He is described as a "career criminal", although the word "career" seems to overdignify his life of piecemeal depravity. First arrested at 14, Mr Fearon had 34 convictions at the time of the landmark burglary, while his child accomplice had 29, and the man who drove them from Newark, Nottingham, to Mr Martin's home had 52.

Nevertheless, Mr Fearon has adjusted with gusto to his narrow experience as the victim, not the perpetrator, of crime. Particular outrage has been heaped upon a judge's decision to give him legal aid to appeal for compensation of £15,000 against Mr Martin, for various trumped up miseries such as fear of the loud bangs from fireworks and purported difficulty in getting his injured leg over. Oh yes, and "loss of earnings", rich from a man who has never had a job.

Further, his status as a victim of crime has earned Mr Fearon the right to be consulted about the terms of Mr Martin's parole, and the right to be informed about the whereabouts of Mr Martin after his release. All those - and there are many - who sympathise with the anger Mr Martin feels about all this, believe it adds to their general argument that a burglar should "leave his rights at the gate of the property he is breaking into".

Mr Martin has promised that now he is free he will campaign for just such a view. He really seems to feel that procuring an unlicensed shotgun, firing it into an unknown person's back as he fled and then leaving the body lying for 15 hours in his yard before it was discovered is something that he should be within his rights to do.

What Mr Martin, and quite a few of his admirers, doesn't seem to realise, is that his case has highlighted some rather less contentious causes for concern. By adopting the extreme view that he does, Mr Martin is likely to make it more rather than less difficult to change the law. Already, by selling his story to a paper for a six-figure sum, Mr Martin is alienating many people who might otherwise be sympathetic to some of the issues thrown up.

First, people do recognise that policing, especially in rural areas, is no longer sufficient to make people feel secure. This is unsurprising when it is remembered that between 1981 and 1997 crime rose by 49 per cent, although, unlike the previous administration, the Labour Government is at least attempting to address this.

Second, people were appalled that Mr Martin was initially facing a life sentence. Among those appalled was the Solicitor General Harriet Harman, who supports the Law Commission in its investigation into "partial sentences" against murder, presently only for diminished responsibility (as Mr Martin eventually pleaded successfully) and provocation. The commission is looking into the idea that the law should reflect the fact that "in the heat of the moment" it may be hard to gauge how much force is reasonable. Third, the ridiculous situation whereby a criminal injured in the course of his crime can receive legal aid to claim against his victim is also being altered, as is the anomaly whereby such a person becomes eligible to comment on parole or be informed of his intended victim's whereabouts.

Finally, there is the matter of Fearon's previous - and subsequent - convictions. Despite first being convicted in 1984, Fearon did not receive a custodial sentence until 1992, after he had been convicted 15 times. Barras, on the other hand, had at a much more tender age than Fearon already been in Young Offenders Institutions. Importantly, these two men a generation apart were persuaded to drop the criminal life neither by soft treatment (in Fearon's early career) or harsher treatment (in Barras's early teens).

At last, though, new approaches are being tried, which are neither soft nor hard, and while it is early days, they appear to be working. From restorative justice to humane and educational secure units for child offenders (how much might Fearon and Barras have benefited from early intervention), there are hopeful schemes being tested. The people who insist that only "rough justice" works would be better off taking a look at them. After all, Mr Fearon experienced rough justice at the hands of Mr Martin himself, and it didn't do him any more good than the prison sentences he'd undergone.

Electronic tagging is one such new idea, which appears to work. Rather than having the criminal in prison, segregated from society, then cast out to make his own way, this at least gives the criminal an opportunity to remain under close supervision while trying, hopefully, to change his ways. Whether Fearon is capable of such a change, or is even too well-known to get even the limited breaks that ex-cons get, remains to be seen. But this technique, among others, is worth trying. Mr Martin's technique, of shooting first and then not even bothering to ask questions, can only damage these bold attempts at new thinking.