Forgiving killers revs up danger
You are the parent of two small children and out walking with them on a clear Christchurch day.
An illegally modified car, with its teen driver, accelerates from the lights in an apparent attempt to "drift". He starts to lose control and then hurtles into your group, scattering you from your children. When you pick yourself up, the shattered bodies of your children surround you. One is dead, one injured. Hell has found you.
The dead child – Nayan Woods – was just four. At his funeral, Nayan's dad told the grieving congregation that he would willingly change places with his deceased son. It is the lament of almost every parent who loses their child.
Incredibly, Nayan's killer – 18-year-old Ashley Austin – walked free from the Christchurch courts last week. His car and his driving were an accident waiting to happen. His hoonery killed an innocent child.
But Austin is a lucky, lucky man. The parents of his victim are a curious combination of fatalist and forgiver. Their support, at his sentencing, was the key factor in his release. Community service was all they sought – that would be atonement enough.
It may be that Austin has the conscience that was professed on the steps of the court after the sentencing. It is my cynical experience that all wrongdoers are remorseful once caught. And that their personal plight makes them the saddest, rather than the harm they might have done. Self pity produces more tears than selflessness.
Of course, Austin never intended to kill Nayan. We are not talking murder – we are talking irresponsible madness. But the consequences of his illegal modification, his immature driving, and his hoon outlook, were always likely to produce such an outcome.
Had the victim been any other four-year-old – had the parents been any other than the cheek-turning Woods – then the consequences would have been different. From the first instant, the family stated that they were not looking to blame anyone.
I would not have been so "compassionate" if Nayan had been my child. I doubt many Kiwi parents would be. There is a clear correlation between action and consequence, and my insistence would have been that the message be sent to any other Ashley Austin out there.
There will be those who argue that no good can come of such retribution. And yet to tolerate a justice system in which the victims have such sway over the sentencing of a criminal is inherently wrong.
It inevitably leads to different sentences, dependent upon the attitude of the aggrieved. And that if you strike the foolishly compassionate, then you have just drawn the good fortune card. Just don't strike the vengeful bastard.
Which is doubly ironic, because victim impact reports are so regularly disregarded by sentencing judges when their intent is revenge and punishment. Indeed, such sentiments are regularly dissuaded and edited – even though their visceral lament is as honest as it gets.
It may well be that the Woods find it easier to forgive because this is their best way of coping with the hole that Nayan's absence leaves in their lives. But that must always be a personal relationship between them and Austin. It should not affect the teen's sentencing, nor allow him to evade the proper consequences of his action.
Would sending Austin to jail have been a better outcome? Of course, regardless of the explicit remorse. The killing of a child – by accident or design – must always invoke the strongest sanction.
But the real problem is that New Zealand has a laissez faire attitude to killed kids. There seems an implicit assumption that those who have lost them have suffered enough – especially if they have contributed to the death. New Zealand has a scandalous proportion of accidental deaths involving children. From driving over toddlers in driveways, to loading the young ones into a leaky boat without life jackets, or another dad taking a short cut into a moving train. And few of the defacto killers ever find their way into a cell. Apparently, they have suffered enough.
Apparently, Ashley Austin has too. He will have Nayan's death on his conscience for the rest of his life. Well, gee, I should hope so. But that does not preclude proper punishment – his illegal actions were always likely to produce such an outcome. So was his intentional driving on suburban streets.
But he walks free – suffering the sanction only of a short curfew and a three-year driving ban.
Next week, next month, next year another teen hoon – possibly in Christchurch – will commit a similar act. And he will know that if he apes Ashley Austin – both on the road and in the court – he will be able to walk away as well. It is the worst message to send to such a fringe criminal community.
Sunday Star Times