Letters: Gun crime

Calling for the death penalty won't prevent gun crime
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The Independent Online

Sir: I have read your accounts of the attack upon PC Sharon Beshenivsky and PC Teresa Milburn with great sadness. The loss of a brave police officer's life is cause for reflection and mourning. Yet the loudest voices since Friday have focused on what to do when it is almost too late to do anything: there are guns on the streets, therefore give the police more guns; and if one of those street guns kills an officer, execute the perpetrator.

This response is, in part, a disappointing symptom of our increasing infatuation with the largely ineffectual criminal justice and penal polices of the USA. I have seen these policies first-hand working as an attorney defending juveniles and men facing the death penalty in the southern United States.

A little over three years ago I attended the execution of Tracy Alan Hansen, a man I knew as a client and a friend for over five years. Tracy spent 15 years on Death Row before he was killed by the State of Mississippi for the murder of Highway Patrolman Bruce Ladner. Tracy often expressed deep sorrow and regret for what he did as a 23-year-old and he exchanged letters with Officer Ladner's family, apologising to them a final time as he lay hooked up to the IV line that would kill him. Neither Officer Ladner's loaded pistol nor the State of Mississippi's inclination to execute its citizens saved the courageous officer's life. Hearing the calls to bring these things here to England misses the point entirely.

The Mississippi Supreme Court, writing to allow Tracy Hansen's execution, nonetheless noted that Tracy had endured a brutal existence of poverty, vicious physical and sexual abuse and neglect while he was moved between foster homes, reform schools and juvenile prison. In ordering his death, the court damned the myriad failures of the state and those assigned to care for Tracy when it remarked: "Tracy Alan Hansen was born and then began the rest of his troubles."

Lord Stevens believes that the killing of PC Beshenivsky is an act of such "pure evil" that it demands death. As long as we are drawn to these idiotically easy labels instead of attempting to understand the causes of violence and gun crime, we will continue to fail to alleviate the problem. By the time a gun is in the hands of someone willing, even if not intending, to use it, the possibility of preventative intervention is remote. At that stage fortune plays a bigger role in deciding who lives and who, if anyone, dies. Only by widening the debate to address potential causes can we hope to prevent future deaths.



More help for the earthquake victims

Sir: Your timely update on the impact of the cold weather on the earthquake victims in Pakistan and Kashmir (24 November) makes it clear that more needs to be done quickly. Here are some suggestions.

In the UK everyone over 65 including the comfortably off will receive a £100 fuel bonus from Gordon Brown. Maybe some who have not already contributed to one of the earthquake appeals would consider donating some of that money to Pakistan.

Patients in our NHS benefit daily from the care of Pakistan-trained medical staff. You report that Patricia Hewitt will not intervene to order NHS trusts to permit volunteer employees working in Pakistan to extend their stay now they have used up their holidays. Would she consider telling the trusts that the Government will find a way to reimburse the salary costs of providing extended leave on full pay during the winter months to enable those admirable volunteers to stay on? In that way she would not be breaching the trusts' autonomy.

President Chavez of Venezuela is to use some of the bonus from high oil prices to offset the cost of heating for poor families in the US. An immediate further donation to earthquake relief by the Middle East oil producers would surely cause them no pain. Your report that Saudi Arabia has only contributed $3.2m gives an impression of parsimony that one would think their government would want to erase.



Sir. While having every sympathy for Pakistan in suffering a shocking natural disaster, I cannot accept that the UK, or any other country with advanced medical care, is somehow to blame for the lack of good plastic surgeons ("Amid the chaos, doctors strive to heal the wounded", 24 November).

Pakistan must accept it has to modernise its culture, to equip itself for the modern world with its own men and women trained in top-flight medicine. There is no excuse for such a base level of medical skill. No country is any longer separate from the rest of the world and differences of this sort cannot any longer be justified. Education for all - including women - and a general acceptance of the need to modernise are the first steps.

Its time Pakistan took these steps for itself rather than facing the ignominy of being dependent on the good nature of others.



Conflict of evidence in rape cases

Sir: In commenting on the poll finding that "one in three people believe a woman is partly or completely to blame for being raped if she has been flirtatious, or if she is drunk", Joan Smith (Opinion, 22 November) in effect repeats the canard that if a woman complains of being raped, there is somehow a miscarriage of justice if the alleged rapist is acquitted.

In a minority of cases, where the victim is attacked by a stranger, there is no doubt that she has been raped and the issue for the jury may well be simply one of identity. In the majority of cases, however, as Ms Smith acknowledges, the complainant and the defendant are known to each other and, in such cases, the issue is commonly one of consent (or reasonable belief that the woman consented). If the jury acquit in such a case, it follows that they have not been persuaded that the woman was raped.

In determining whether the woman consented, the jury have to decide between the account given by the complainant and that of the defendant, with no independent corroborative evidence. Although, of course, a woman is entitled to say "no" at any time, inevitably, in such a situation, in determining whether the prosecution has proved its case, a jury will have regard to her earlier behaviour. And since a jury must be sure of guilt before convicting of a heinous crime, we should not be surprised at the high acquittal rate.

This does not mean that the conviction rate is too low and needs to be "improved" as some pressure groups assert. It may be, as Joan Smith says, that society's attitudes need changing, but equally some women who complain of rape should not be surprised if their immodest and drunken behaviour means that their evidence is not believed.



Stop flirting with school selection

Sir: Your leading article (19 November) argues for a return to selective education as a means of dealing with underperformance. There is, however, absolutely no evidence that underperformance in the education system exists among "more academic students". On the contrary, the more academic are very well catered for in our schools, as rising levels of GCSE and A-level success indicate. The key, perennial problem for English education is how to motivate and support lower-attaining youngsters.

Academic selection, still regrettably practised in some local authority areas, not only produces the two-tier system you acknowledge, but tends to create for average and lower-attaining students a sense of incapability - of "not being clever" - which is a further disadvantage. David Jesson's work showed some years ago that selective systems tend to produce poorer overall outcomes than non-selective ones. To those of us who worked within selective contexts, this was no surprise.

While the injection of privileged levels of resourcing into the academies programme may provide a welcome upward movement in educational outcomes in inner-city areas, any further flirtation with selection would simply produce polarisation. We can do without that.



Role for coal in cutting emissions

Sir: Contrary to what your leading article says (15 November), far from "rejecting binding reduction targets for carbon emissions", the UK has introduced them through the European Union Emissions Trading Scheme far more rigorously than virtually any other European nation. Despite this, coal burn and carbon emissions have continued to rise in 2005. The reason for this is that coal is cheaper than gas, and the price differential is likely to become ever wider in future.

In other words, binding emission targets don't work. This will become starkly apparent in the next few years as many EU states fail to achieve these "binding targets", unlike the UK, which probably will.

China is indeed opening a new coal-fired power station each week. Many of these stations are being built to much higher efficiency standards than apply in the UK, thus reducing CO 2 emissions. If similar investment took place in the UK's coal-fired power stations, we would get the benefit of both reduced CO 2 emissions and cheap coal.

The Prime Minister is not heading off in the wrong direction, but in the only direction that has any chance of working.



World reports on 24-hour drinking

Sir: I'm afraid Britain is making the same mistake New Zealand made by liberalising liquor licensing laws. Extending availability of alcohol through 24-hour trading made a bad situation worse. Binge drinking, including among young people, has increased. Those who drink are drinking more, and drinking more often.

Licensing was liberalised in 1989. The number of outlets more than doubled during the 1990s. Police report more intoxicated people on the street and more alcohol-related violence.

Despite promises from the industry, we have major ongoing problems with sale and supply to minors, including from pubs and supermarkets. I was shocked to hear a British minister quote New Zealand as an example where liquor law liberalisation has had a positive effect.



Sir: Here in the Vegas Valley, alcoholic beverages are available 24/7, all year around. People can buy their favourite beverage at 24-hour casinos, gas stations, supermarkets and pubs. There is no special drive to get a beer, because it's always available when you want one.

Alcoholism aside, adults should be able to indulge when they want refreshment. There are laws in place to punish drunkards here, but the number arrested is reasonable.

I retired here in 1986, play at the casinos regularly and can't recall a fistfight between drinkers in all that time. Try 24-hour drinking; you'll like it.



'Eccentrics' who clear up rubbish

Sir: Well done Rob the Rubbish ("Junk Male", 22 November).

A few years ago, while living in Southwark, south London, I used to jog regularly in Burgess Park. Appalled at the rubbish frequently strewn all over the grass, I invented a game to incorporate into my fitness regime.

Upon coming across a bottle, can or some paper, I would pick it up and jog back to the recycling facility at the edge of the park. I only allowed myself to carry one piece at a time in my (gloved) hand. I never ran out of items, and became very fit, though the stares of incredulity from other park-goers took some getting used to.

Why should caring for your local environment, even if it is a scruffy inner-city park, be deemed eccentric?



Orphaned joke

Sir: I wouldn't like your readers to think that Bernard Manning was the creator of that lovely joke about burning orphanages (letter, 23 November), when it was Mark Twain who said something like "I haven't laughed so much since the orphanage burned down".



Women in politics

Sir: The representation of women in UK politics is indeed shameful but it need not always be like this (Janet Street-Porter, 24 November). I am leader of the only British parliamentary party in which the men are in a minority; 7 of the 12 Liberal Democrat MEPs are women. A gender balance "fix" was adopted prior to the 1999 European Parliament elections. However, party members had a free choice as to who to select for the 2004 elections, there being no reserved places or special priority given to any candidate.



TV wildernesses

Sir: The Rev Dan Richards (letter, 23 November) might be interested to hear that it is not only vicars in the valleys of Somerset or the plains of Norfolk that are unable to receive Freeview services. My housebound mother would be pleased to be able to receive them on the outskirts of Coventry, and so would I in north London, about five miles from Broadcasting House.



Sir: In the densely populated village of West Kirby on Wirral, less than ten miles from Liverpool, we struggle to get analogue signals (no Channel 5, for example), let alone the wonders of digital. When we ask the BBC when we might expect to receive what we pay for, the response is a helpful "Don't know."



Police priorities

Sir: To be fair to our constabulary, perhaps you could allow space for its law-abiding readers criticising the lack of police presence on our streets alongside others complaining about the cars, vans and helicopters transporting suspects from London to Bradford (letter, 24 November). It might even encourage comment from the criminal fraternity. They also read newspapers.