Does sentencing trust cross a line?

16:00, Nov 10 2012
Sensible Sentencing Trust's Garth McVicar
Sensible Sentencing Trust's Garth McVicar.

The Sensible Sentencing Trust claims to fight for a safer New Zealand. But in thrusting the victims of violent crime into the spotlight are they helping them overcome their pain - or simply causing more grief? Kirsty Johnston reports.

On the day of the march it was there in spades. Grief. Raw and angry, vocal, new. You could see it in the placards and hear it in the catch of a mother's voice as she spoke of her child, taken too soon.

On the day of the select committee hearing it was there in the mother's shaking hands clutching an urn of her daughter Christie's ashes, and in the plea of a young friend of the teenage victim, asking, between sobs, for a country where "life means life".

The grief was there all right. In newspaper articles, on television. Plastered on leaflets and banners and even on the supporters' matching turquoise T-shirts they posed for a group photo taken outside the High Court and later posted to Facebook.

Behind it? A devastated family and friends rightfully angry at the justice system. But also a slick campaign by the Sensible Sentencing Trust, the powerful victims' lobby group headed by Hawke's Bay farmer Garth McVicar, who helped take the tragedy of a young woman's death and turn it into a campaign named "Christie's Law" aimed at judges and the bail act.

It was the first time in its 11-year history that the group had used a victim's face to make their point. The face belonged to 18-year-old Christie Marceau, killed by Akshay Chand while he was on bail for her kidnapping and assault and later found to be criminally insane.


For critics, the campaign summed up everything wrong with the Sensible Sentencing Trust, particularly they say, the way it "preys" on the families of high-profile murder victims, then uses their stories to create a fear of crime and influence the public and politicians to create tougher penalties for offenders.

"Garth has always been looking for something that looks like Christie's Law - to match the success of Sarah's Law, in Britain," says the Trust's long-time opponent, Kim Workman, a cop turned justice reformer.

"But when they produced the T-shirts and the hats and were selling them . . . it was just so tawdry. It was like they were marketing the whole incident."

Workman says the family's emotional response is understandable. His overriding concern is that victims like the Marceaus become trapped in their grief by the Trust and are left unable to ever reach peace.

"These victims are being fed with this retributive agenda from McVicar and from politicians trying to oust one and another to be tough on crime," Workman says. "It's just alienating and full of hate. It's not helpful at all."

There are times, Workman says, where seeking social change can contribute to healing. However, the way the Trust works is not one of those times.

"Evidence shows that if you lose sight of social change and you do it for punitive purposes and do it out of vengeance and retribution it actually impedes people's healing."

Roger Brooking, a drug and alcohol counsellor who's also a member of the Howard League for penal reform called the Trust's actions "disgusting".

"It's emotional blackmail that McVicar uses to attract media and public attention to push his ‘get tough' agenda," Brooking says.

"I don't believe it helps victims much at all. It makes it worse for them."

Cynical, and weary of the influence the Trust has had on the justice sector, Brooking believes Christie's Law is not aimed at reducing crime or helping victims, instead focussing only on keeping more people locked up longer.

Tracey Marceau decided on the day of Christie's funeral that she wanted to fix the issues she believed had led to her daughter's death. "I contacted Garth myself because I was so incensed with what had happened." Tracey says.

"I felt it was really wrong."

While Tracey and her husband Brian had "personal and emotional" things they wanted in Christie's Law, others contributed too, she says.

"Although we run it under that banner it's not just solely about Christie; it's about so many people who have gone before," Tracey says. "People who haven't had the resources or [for whom it's] too early for other people to pay attention."

She says McVicar would never push them to do anything they didn't want - including using Christie's face on banners and websites.

"He gives us guidance. I don't think we've been exploited," Tracey says.

"I think the Trust helped us deal with the situation and give us strength to do what we've done. I'm quite sure the people that criticise him are only in it for their own agendas."

The final draft of the law included measures not just to tighten bail - including for those aged between 17 and 20 and those accused of kidnapping - but also called for judges to come under better scrutiny.

McVicar and his deputy Ruth Money have nicknamed crimes committed while offenders are on remand in the community "bail fail" and throw the term around liberally.

"Bail fail had been an issue for us for quite some time," McVicar says. "But we were meeting deaf ears. When Christie's tragedy happened we basically changed tack, to running the campaign under her name. We had the family support and all of a sudden the ducks lined up."

For the first time, they also had the benefit of Money's marketing expertise, evident in the huge social media campaign which the pair say has helped gain new members.

"I think the New Zealand public are fed up with reading about light sentences. They're fed up with reading about how victims are suffering in the system," Money said.

"No matter how you cut up the figures, crime is growing and is swelling, so more people are aware of victimisation."

Data from Statistics New Zealand show the crime rate has been dropping since the mid 1990s. This year, the annual police crime figures showed the total number of offences was the lowest since 1989. Homicide was down by 21.5 per cent on last year, a 25-year low. In comparison, McVicar says there are still too many victims.

"All we're saying is let's redefine the boundaries, redefine some consequences in society," he says.

McVicar strongly denies the trust preys on victims. They never proactively approach family first, he says, "they always come to us".

The Sunday Star-Times is aware of at least two instances when high-profile victims' families have been contacted without solicitation. McVicar clarifies to say that sometimes a wider family member will ring and ask to give parents or partners a call.

What about an email sent to a victim five minutes after sentencing, as happened earlier this year?

Money clarifies further. "I have once emailed a family saying "I'm thinking of you". But to me that's no different to messages people send through other forums. It's not like I was saying this is what the Trust is about, come and join us," she says.

The criticism gets the usually mild-mannered McVicar worked up. He says those criticising the Trust are envious of its growing presence and lack compassion for victims.

"We can bring so many positives to them just because we care. We put them in touch with other victims, we make sure they get what they're entitled to. No-one else is doing that for victims."

No-one is forced to speak publicly if they don't want to.

"We don't drag them down to the platform to speak or to select committee - they're ringing us up trying to be part of the process."

Priest John Howell knows first hand what the Sensible Sentencing Trust looks like in full flight when trying to create momentum following a high-profile crime - and wants nothing to do with it.

He believes the Trust operates by exploiting vulnerable people, by getting them on board too early in the grief experience and "revictimising" them.

Five years ago, Howell supported the family of Scottish backpacker Karen Aim when she was killed by 14-year-old Jahche Broughton in Taupo in 2008.

Following Karen's death the Trust held huge rallies and meetings in the town, focused on harsher punishment for violent crime, including using a "tent city" prison.

Karen's aunt Violet Perfect spoke at one of the gatherings about how she would never forgive her niece's killer. Aim's parents did not speak out, saying they wanted to meet the boy. That approach was widely criticised by the Trust, with Perfect also saying she didn't want to be pressured to forgive. She has since stopped speaking at Trust events.

Howell said it's wrong to get victims' families to lay themselves on the line publicly so early, when they're grieving badly.

"Then they get people to testify about the terrible things that happened to them, and keeped getting them to repeat it year after year. It locks them into being angry and doesn't allow them to move on," he says.

"I'm not saying the justice system gets it right every time, and I'm not saying that bad things don't happen to good people, but what I'm saying is that if you go down the policy of revenge and harshness you're not going to make the problem better."

Perhaps the real problem in the justice debate is that, in disagreeing with McVicar, it can look like you're attacking a victim's right to be angry or to get better help.

"No-one wants to say to victims who are hurt, ‘sorry, but the justice system doesn't work the way you want it to'," says penal policy expert Professor John Pratt.

For media, there's also the risk of alienating the Trust, which most are reluctant to do because McVicar has become the "go-to" guy for a quick and shocking soundbite, Pratt says.

A search of the Fairfax database - which hold newspaper articles from more than half of the country's papers - comes up with 1100 hits for McVicar's name since 2000. In comparison, John Key's name gives up 1500 hits.

Pratt says that, worldwide, he has never seen a pressure group like the Trust make such an impact.

"I think they picked up on a particular sense of anxiety and insecurity in New Zealand that the issues like crime and punishment seem to symbolise," he said.

"But while they say they speak for their members, I don't think the general NZ public are anything like as punitive as the Sensible Sentencing Trust makes them out to be."

Since the Sensible Sentencing Trust formed in 2001 victim's rights have improved hugely. Victims can now address parole hearings, make victim impact statements to a court, have support and counselling from Victim Support and ACC and get funeral grants. There is also a national victim centre that received further funding this year.

While the improvements are widely recognised as being long overdue, there are those who believe they've gone far enough, such as defence lawyer Marie Dhyrberg.

"I think there is enough for victims as it is," she said.

"Victims do have a voice but they are but one voice. There are other rights we must protect. The rights of the accused. Of the judiciary. We have a separation of powers for a reason."

The head of Victim Support, Tony Paine, said it was a complicated balance that was not helped by the public's idea of what grief should look like. There was often unnecessary pressure for victims to pull themselves together, to reach "closure" after a certain point.

"I don't think closure is a helpful word. There's no rule book or instruction manual, apart from that it's a process you need to go through," he says.

Although widely talked about, grief wasn't a cycle, he said, more like waves that gradually receded over time.

Lobbying was a natural response that could help deal with grief, although there was a downside.

"It's very important to be aware that if you are forever in the public domain telling that story again and again and again, there's a risk it starts to define who you are and keep you in a particular place instead of allowing you to heal."

A media focus on families who stayed vengeful could give a false impression that there was no hope for victims of crime.

"There needs to be a message of hope and the idea that victims can reach a place of sunshine."

Lesley Elliot, who as the bereaved mother of murder victim Sophie Elliot has become a prominent campaigner, says she will continue to tell her story until she's done right by her daughter.

Elliot and her husband Gil joined the Sensible Sentencing Trust in the wake of Sophie's death at the hands of her ex-boyfriend Clayton Weatherston in 2008.

Since the trial, Lesley's focus has been on preventing abusive relationships by retelling what happened to Sophie, while Gil has focussed on creating a more central place for victim's families in the courts. "I guess it seems like we want to be vengeful. But we've got a right to be, quite honestly. The justice system doesn't do victims much good," says Lesley.

Does her constant retelling of the horrific day where she opened the door and let her daughter's killer in mean she is prevented from moving on?

"I've thought about it and thought about it. But I don't think it makes a difference. It's like being on remote control. I am on a mission to get the message out. My counsellor says "look after yourself" and people say ‘you'll fall apart' and sometimes I think, maybe I will. But the thing is, it's not about me, it's about Sophie."

Lesley admits being in a group like the Trust does "incite you a little bit more", but said it wasn't morbid when the group got together and told their stories each year at the group's annual conference. She says for the first two or three years she didn't feel vengeful, but feels more as time goes on.

"I start to think more about what we've lost. Sophie would have been 27 this year - that sort of makes me feel vengeful. He's got his life and Sophie doesn't have hers. So I guess the critics [of the Trust] are right but in another way, who's going to make the changes if you're not getting people who have been there, done that?"

Sunday Star Times