Peter Pringle's America: Do we pity the poor criminal?

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The Independent Online
VICTIMOLOGY, or what has become known in the courtroom as the 'abuse excuse', is a legal fad these days. In California, the Menendez brothers used their father's abuse of them as the reason for killing him. In Virginia, Lorena Bobbitt used it as an excuse to cut off her husband's penis. If Tonya Harding is ever put on trial for the attack on Nancy Kerrigan, there is already speculation that her defence would be based on the random awfulness of her husband, with her deprived childhood used to draw added sympathy from the jury.

Defence lawyers, who used to create doubts about the accusations made against their clients, now seek to paint the accused as the victim. To help this exercise, hundreds of small firms of psychologists, social workers, family therapists and other arcane experts are busily, and expensively, advising lawyers across the country. One such practitioner is Allan Campo, who lives in Louisiana. He predicts 'a lot of murderers will get off over the next 10 years' because of the abuse excuse. He describes his job as 'not trying to shape the testimony, only its presentation'. He makes sure the lawyers he advises - for about dollars 30,000 a trial - 'tell the story as well as possible'.

His most successful cases tend to be longer trials because those juries are composed of people who are more easily manipulated. Professionals and managers are routinely excused jury duty on long trials, and those who serve tend to be from lower-income, less well- educated groups who more readily identify with the suspect as victim. They are more likely to have suffered abuse themselves in childhood, marriage or at work.

But the use of the abuse excuse may be less long-lived than its advocates believe. The number of people willing to show sympathy for the perpetrator of a criminal act is dwindling. Tolerance for deviant behaviour is reduced with each violent crime.

The latest polls on crime suggest that most Americans now want to lock up criminals no matter what their childhood traumas. Victimology - itself an extension of the more liberal courts and anti-police attitudes that came out of the Sixties - may have hit its high point and be on the wane.

Consider last month's polls that show how attitudes are changing to intrusive police actions such as random searches for weapons. Americans rejected the idea by only a 3 per cent margin. They also want life imprisonment for anyone convicted of three serious crimes, and 65 per cent would like to see a 10pm curfew on children under 18.

These attitudes are no longer confined to the stereotypes of southern rednecks and puritanical Midwesterners. Liberal New Yorkers replaced their first black liberal mayor with a white ex- prosecutor. Despite evidence that the death penalty does not deter criminals, it is as popular as ever.

True, the country has been awash in a culture of excuse, which has conquered not only courtrooms but also classrooms, offices and homes. I mean the kind of excuse which begins: 'I can't do my homework/come to work today/do the dishes or put the garbage out' because 'I'm too stressed out and I'm uncomfortable with the idea.'

The concept was made famous at a high level when President Clinton offered a respected, ageing spymaster, Bobby Inman, the job of secretary of defence. In what has become a national joke, Inman accepted the offer only after he had reached what he said was a 'comfort level' with Mr Clinton. A month later he changed his mind because he was 'uncomfortable' with the press.

The lawyers picked up on this trend, of course. How you feel or 'relate' to this, instead of what you know or think, became a technique for dodging the fast-ball under interrogation. During the Reagan years, when so many high- profile people were in trouble, businessmen and public officials took to using the phrase 'I have a sense' instead of 'I think'. In the ear of the listener, it is moral evasion. It tends to absolve the user of direct blame, or rigorous intellectual involvement, by invoking a 'feeling' rather than a solid opinion, a mere sentiment instead of a fact or rational analysis, which could later be challenged.

Jurors are supposed to set aside their biases and analyse the evidence, but in the era of 'feelings' and abuse excuses they are instead invited to erase inconvenient evidence in their lawyer-imposed struggle to feel sympathy for a cold-blooded killer.

Again, one cannot help wondering how long this legal charade can last: much of the evidence offered in support of the abuse excuse is transparently absurd. New York's top judge, distraught over a failed affair, was recently charged with extortion and threatening to kidnap the 14- year-old daughter of his ex-lover. His lawyer found a therapist who diagnosed the judge as suffering from Clerambault-Kandinsky Syndrome, which, put simply, means he was irresistibly lovesick. When prosecutors were still prepared to drag him through the court system, the judge finally bargained a short but humiliating jail sentence. The lesson, the US Attorney said, was that even the rich and powerful could not let their emotions allow them to break the law.

In the ghettos, the attitude to the abuse excuse is fading despite such cases. Black leaders, for example, are even suggesting that blacks should turn in fellow blacks who they know have committed violent crime. I have a 'sense' that juries will become less, not more, susceptible to legal trickery, and the practitioners of victimology may find themselves out of a job. And 'I think' that would be fairer for everyone.