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written 2011 following Levi Bellfield's

conviction for the murder of Milly Dowler



commentary • 24.06.11

Milly Dowler's killer was convicted yesterday. He’s already doing life for the murders of two other young women. A further sentence will make no difference to him. I think that guy would be better gone. His termination would be the best thing for everyone, including him. But instead society has to support his existence for a few more decades probably to the tune of millions.

Of course I understand there are big problems with the state executing people. Like all human systems they get it wrong and end up killing innocents. For me, that is the main reason capital punishment isn’t viable. Otherwise it would solve many problems. Actually if it were possible to separate out the good folk from the bad and dump the bad then we’d be justified in doing so. Alas things are never that simple. Good and bad are not measurable quantities. And that apart, a state that lawfully kills people becomes draconian in more ways than how it deals with capital offences. It likely degenerates until it is doing away with people simply because it doesn’t like them. So we stick with a botch, one where a man like Levi Bellfield murders teenagers and society has to cover the substantial cost of providing for him.

No, Bellfield won’t care much about yet another conviction. Here was a man who was happy to ensure Milly’s already traumatised family were exposed to the most trying of court proceedings. Not only did they endure the unimaginable horror of losing their daughter but they were also subjected to all the absurdity that is law enforcement.

It is seriously questionable whether society’s attempts at redress following an atrocity help the victims much. I think they may often only add further injury. And as a barrister defending the system said last night: the justice system is not about catharsis. It is there to serve society and its best ends. That these ends often don’t work in the interests of individuals is nothing unusual. Dumb but not unusual. That being so, people should understand that the way to come to terms with a damaging event is probably not through society’s processes.

I read a piece in The Observer a while back that nailed this. Carol Sarler was sexually assaulted by a stranger as a child but her parents chose not to report it and instead looked to their own pastoral resources for recovery. They saw their first duty to their daughter and not to criminal justice. Carol did recover and was saved the fall-out that comes from making such an ordeal a public matter. She was saved from a life condemned by media as “ruined forever”. Her family was spared the further indignity of being dragged through the court system where an adversarial defence counsel tries to maximise its client’s position. In the case of the Dowlers, issues were made of (shock!) the father having porn in his possession and (shock!) Milly having emotional problems typical of many a teenager.

I think it was wise for the Sarler family to avoid all that. From a spiritual perspective it is wise to separate an atrocity from society’s recourse. People should be encouraged to marshall their own resource in such a crisis because ultimately the healing has to come from within. Or more to the point, it should not be assumed, as that barrister argued on TV, that the justice system is there to provide emotional support for victims. Above all, people should not be railroaded through all these procedures, paraded in front of a news media mainly interested in voyeurism and the pornographic value of a family’s trauma.

We want a system of values that encourages alternative methods of redress for victims. It is what happens in their inner world that determines healing along with nurturing relationships. That is where the real work is done. I recognise that some might get satisfaction from seeing a perpetrator convicted. I suspect just as many won’t or at least not for long. They may find the momentary lift a rather hollow one.

Society has to do what it has to do in trying for justice. Individuals have to make far more valiant attempts at repairing the spiritual damage that can come from a crushing episode such as what happened to the Dowler family. It rather looks like the healing process for these people has barely started. Society and its processes may only have added to their tragedy.