Letters: Murder victims' families

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Murder victims' families must have the chance to speak in court

Sir: I read with great interest the letter from C Lehman (5 September) doubting the value of the testimony of victims' families at trials.

My middle son and his family just returned to Irvine, California after two wonderful years in Surrey. I, on the other hand, just returned from Montgomery, Alabama, where I testified at the parole hearing of the murderer of my step-father, George Hale. I will have to return to Montgomery, reliving the hell of those 17 days he clung to life after having his skull shattered by blows from this murderer, who wanted money for tickets to a rock concert. Every five years, at least, for the rest of my life, I'll have to stand the expense of airplane tickets from Boston and lodging in a city I have no love for, just to ensure this human sludge does not get out to kill others.

Why am I so aware that victims need a voice in the processes of justice? George Hale was known as "Mr Fix-it" in his neighbourhood, fixing the toys of this boy, teaching him how to use tools, the one productive figure in his life. The boy becomes 18 years old, and repays his kindness by killing this Christian-acting man, when he refused to "lend" him money because he hadn't repaid previous loans.

The justice system is often burdened by bureaucracy and tainted by lies given in testimony. When given a chance to speak we, the victims' families and friends, can put the human face on our dead loved one, who cannot defend themselves.

I don't believe in capital punishment, as my hands would be stained by the same blood as the murderer's. But I do believe that, once you kill, you for ever deprive yourself of the right to live freely, as you deprived our loved one of that right. Victims' families must be heard.



Little enthusiasm for flat tax notions

Sir: It is not the case that Liberal Democrats are rushing headlong towards the notion of a "flat tax" (report and leading article, 8 September). For a party committed to social justice and fair taxation, indeed, the sort of proposals falling under that banner fail on a number of grounds. There appears to be little enthusiasm for this inside the party, and I would suspect the same applies among your readers.

You are also wrong to state that our keynote taxation policy at the last election, a 50p tax rate for the highest earners, was "poorly received". In fact this was one of the Lib Dem policies with the highest rates not only of recognition but also approval. For the party that gained Solihull and increased its majority in seats such as Richmond Park and Cheadle, this should not come as a surprise.

However, that is not to say that we do not want to see considerable simplicity within the tax system. The Liberal Democrats' Tax Commission has already recognised the overcomplication inflicted by HM Treasury under Gordon Brown. In fact, the income tax regime is now among the simplest forms of taxation within the UK. It is certainly my hope that we can untangle considerable parts of this web and come up with improvements that will prove beneficial to all.



Sir: A big thank you to Johann Hari (Opinion, 8 September) for highlighting the true agenda of the flat taxers: a tax cut for the wealthy at the expense of the middle classes. However, there is one aspect of the article where he has been led a little way down the primrose path. There is absolutely no realistic prospect of flat tax making the tax system simpler. One only has to look at the Byzantine complexity of inheritance tax to see the fallacy of thinking that a single tax allowance and a single tax rate equates to simplicity.

Complexity comes not from the absence of a progressive scale of tax rates, but from the attempts by government to close the tax loopholes. The tax planning professionals will always be looking for tax-saving schemes for those able to afford their services, whatever the rate of tax may be. The rich will not desist from trying to mitigate tax just because their tax rates come down, for the simple reason that any percentage of a large enough sum will represent a significant tax saving.

So the game of cat-and-mouse will continue under a flat tax system, tax planners will have just as much work, and your tax return will be no easier to complete.



US black people ignored as usual

Sir: Condoleezza Rice has expressed disbelief that anyone would consciously say of the New Orleans flood victims "Oh well, those are African Americans so we won't help" (Podium, 7 September). She's probably right. As I understand it, no one thought about those people at all. It was as if they didn't exist.

Simply not looking at this issue has been a long-term social policy. Like Miss Rice, I was born in Alabama. I grew up in New York City but went south to attend university in Tennessee. The transfer to a racially segregated train coach took place in Washington DC, the nation's capital. We were made to sit in designated seats so that a curtain could be drawn to protect white passengers from having to see us. Out of sight, out of mind.

Following slavery, America found the presence of a large, mostly uneducated and unskilled black workforce an embarrassment and a nuisance. The policy of white supremacy - overt in the South and covert in the North - meant that the economic expansion of the times benefited overwhelmingly the whites.

It would have been preferred for blacks to disappear. Attempts to send some back to Africa were largely unsuccessful. For many blacks, remaining unnoticed and not troubling the white folks became one of the main strategies for survival.

I don't think that much can be gained by trying to determine whether politicians are racist. They have inherited a system so shaped by racism, they are probably no longer aware of its influence. In a crisis most people respond with generosity and kindness. But such a sporadic response is eventually superficial. Getting to the heart of the problem is another matter. Perhaps, before we try to spread democracy around the world, it might a good idea to try harder at home.



Sir: Condoleezza Rice defends President's Bush's handling of Hurricane Katrina, while she has described Cuba as an "outpost of tyranny".

This time last year Hurricane Ivan struck Cuba, and no one died because nearly 1.9 million of the nation's 11.2 million people were evacuated from its path before it struck. In Cuba during hurricane season evacuations are mandatory. Civil defence plans are highly developed, with preparedness programmes for the entire population.

After Ivan, Salvano Briceno, director of the UN International Strategy for Disaster Reduction, said: "The Cuban way could easily be applied to other countries with similar economic conditions, but especially in countries with greater resources that do not manage to protect their population as well as Cuba does".



Sir: Our food retailers - the most efficient in the world - ensure freshness via minimal stockholding and just-in-time delivery.

In the event of a major flooding disaster we can assume both that the checkout assistants will smartly head for higher ground and that delivered supplies from stock will dry up in hours. The dress-rehearsal for this was, of course, the fuel blockade crisis of four years ago.

I should be surprised if a major flooding disaster in this country did not therefore lead, within hours, to images of desperate citizenry obtaining much-needed foodstuffs by knocking down the doors of any local store they can reach. Not a great deal different from the recent and much-criticised behaviour of our US cousins.



Sir: I would like to direct your readers' attention to the statement of William Lokey, Chief Co-ordinator for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, referring to the situation in the Astrodome in New Orleans (report, 1 September). He said: "We're buying time until we can figure something out".

I found it so refreshing for an official to speak so simply and truthfully to the media. I was wondering, could he be persuaded to come here and be Prime Minister?



Trinidad learns to work in Spanish

Sir: We appreciate the publicity given to our initiative to make Spanish the first foreign language of Trinidad and Tobago ("Hola! Trinidad drops English and learns to speak Spanish", 1 September), but Trinidad and Tobago is not abandoning the English language in favour of Spanish, and at no time has the Government of Trinidad and Tobago stated that this is its objective.

In October 2004, the Spanish as the First Foreign Language Programme was launched to introduce Spanish to the nation as an additional language, to enhance the country's ability to function in the two dominant languages of the region. Given our strategic geographic location, we are positioning this country as the hub for business, commerce, trade and finance, and it makes perfect business sense to provide prospective investors with a human resource base capable of communicating effectively in both English and Spanish.



Revive forests and absorb the carbon

Sir: In your report about the alarming loss of carbon from British soils as a result of climate change (8 September), Dr Ian Bradley of Cranfield University understandably dismisses reforesting England's arable land to ameliorate the loss.

However, large areas of upland Britain are overgrazed by deer and sheep, which greatly reduces the carbon holding capacity of the land. In Scotland, sporting estates encourage high red deer populations for wealthy guests to shoot.

In areas where grazing animals have been removed, trees flourish and ground vegetation becomes luxuriant, both changes absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Substantial reductions in upland grazing pressure could significantly assist in reducing overall carbon emissions, if the political will to effect the necessary land-use changes were present.



Sir: Hamish McRae's perceptive piece on the peak of oil supply falters at its final hurdle (1 September). He is wrong about ethanol. Far more energy is expended in fertilising, planting, growing, and processing the inputs of ethanol than its end product renders. He is also wrong to be optimistic about industrial agriculture. Much of the world's fertiliser is made from natural gas (itself a finite fuel), and pesticides are made from oil. Peak oil is a very good reason why the UK should decisively shift to organic agriculture orientated around local markets.



BBC terrified of its political masters

Sir: The furore over John Humphrys' comments at a meeting of public relations executives highlights two important facts: the Hutton inquiry was both a triumph and a disaster for the Government.

A triumph because Hutton, in his final report, officially exonerated it of wrongdoing; a disaster because the evidence presented before the inquiry clearly showed that the core of Gilligan's charges, that the dossier was a document manipulated for political ends and that elements of the intelligence community were very uneasy about aspects of it, were substantially true.

The tragedy is that the real villains of the piece, the Government, its advisers, and certain senior members of the intelligence community, have got off scot free, whilst the BBC has been put back in its box and is terrified of pursuing the vital role of investigation of the powerful for fear of being slapped down again by its political masters.



Death in Iraq

Sir: Your headline "The immigrant who died for Britain" (8 September) is incorrect. The headline should have read "The immigrant who died for Blair". Sadly, Fusilier Meade was a further part of the sacrifice laid by Blair at the foot of his idol, George W Bush, in the illegal war against Iraq.



Price of ecstasy

Sir: I find David Davis's comments on ecstasy prices bemusing. ("Tory contender calls for more liberal drugs laws", 7 September). He states that "an ecstasy tablet can be bought for less than a can of Coke". My sources suggest that the average pill costs twice as much as a Coke, and that's a Coke with ice and lemon in an expensive London nightclub. Perhaps in his next interview with The Independent he could tell us more about his sources?



Spelling as you speak

Sir: Further to Graham Pointon's letter (8 September), about 30 years ago a friend developed a spelling bee in his bonnet and would write to me using "sensible" spelling. Unfortunately, since he was writing in a Maidenhead accent and I was reading with a South Walian accent, I had to respond to nearly every letter with a variation on the theme: "What the hell was all that about?"



Sir: The flaw in Gordon Peter Duff's suggestion (letter, 6 September) that some sort of American English becomes standard, is that American English is not itself standardised. For the city of Boston, we might have a range of spellings from "Bahston" to "Boweston". The new standardised spelling of English, when it emerges, will probably emerge from texting. The vowel sound in English is of very little importance. Do away with it, stick to consonants, and we can all revert to spelling how we like, vowelwise.



Cricket essentials

Sir: How can you publish a list of 10 "Cricket essentials" (6 September) which omits that item which guards against what a current TV advertisement implies would be "ball tampering"?



Sir: When will football become the new cricket?