Megrahi vs Myra: who dies in jail?


3:28 pm - September 10th 2009

by Dave Osler    


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There are prisoners, there are political prisoners and then there are politicised prisoners. In the latter category, we must place those whose crimes, real or alleged, attain such notoriety that the quotidian standards of the law are somehow suspended.

But if what you have done gets you on the front page of The Sun, forget about it. If you’re Ian Huntley or Levi Bellfield or Ipswich serial killer Steve Wright, the cry will go up that ‘life must mean life’. No home secretary – and frighteningly, we haven’t had a liberal in the post since Kenneth Clarke – is going to take the tabloid rap for letting you go.

Two prisoners to which the ‘they should die in jail’ argument has been applied are alleged Lockerbie bomber Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed al Megrahi and indisputably guilty Moors Murderer Myra Hindley. They are both, in their separate ways, emblematic of the popular characterisation of something called wickedness.

Many on the far left – particularly those inspired by Marxist or anarchist visions of achieving a society without a repressive state apparatus – are intrinsically uneasy about the idea of incarceration in the first place.

But there are presumably few takers anywhere on the spectrum for the proposition that multiple murderers should not be banged up. The standard reasons include society’s retribution, deterrence of others, the protection of the public and ultimately the possibility of reform.

It is difficult to compare the offences of which Megrahi and Hindley were found guilty. If Megrahi did mastermind the 1988 bombing of Pan Am flight 103, he has 270 fatalities on his hand. If that does not merit ‘life must mean life’, what does?

But the more I revisit contemporary accounts of his trial – which took place without a jury before three Scottish judges in a courtroom in Holland – the more the conviction looks unsafe to me.

Ultimately he was found guilty on the word of a Maltese shop-owner, who claimed to have sold him a set of clothes. But the shopkeeper gave a false description of Megrahi in 19 separate statements, and failed to recognise him in the courtroom.

A key witness at the original trial – who claimed to have seen Megrahi loading the bomb on to the plane at Frankfurt – was a CIA informer who stood to collect $4m if the accused was convicted.

Rightly his evidence was discounted. It is small wonder that the authorities were not keen to have to go through an appeal at which fresh material was due to be presented.

No such doubt applies to Hindley, who from 1963 to 1965 was undeniably party to five murders of children aged between ten to 17, for motivations seemingly centred on sadomasochistic sexual gratification.

The tape recording Hindley made of the last 15 minutes of the life of a ten year old – in which she repeatedly tells the poor girl to shut up, while her lover Ian Brady rapes her – is conclusive enough for most of us.

For Hindley, life really did mean life. She spent the rest of her days behind bars, dying in 2002 after 36 years in prison. The irony is that the woman eventually came to regard herself as somehow the victim in this state of affairs, with a number of leading liberal figures campaigning for her release.

There are times when it must be right to show mercy, no matter how heinous the crime committed. I’m not convinced that the Hindley case was one of those times, not least because it is not clear to me that she ever showed genuine contrition for her action rather than simple remorse for her loss of liberty.

Did Megrahi? Could he have done so, if he was not guilty as charged? Ultimately, in both instances politics became more important than any other consideration. It was politics that made Megrahi’s release possible, just as surely as it made Hindley’s impossible.

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About the author
Dave Osler is a regular contributor. He is a British journalist and author, ex-punk and ex-Trot. Also at: Dave's Part
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Story Filed Under: Blog ,Civil liberties ,Crime

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Reader comments


What if instead, it was a judge that decided Hindley’s life sentence should remain a life sentence? Is it the fact that it is the Home Secretary making the decision the main problem here?

‘Many on the far left – particularly those inspired by Marxist or anarchist visions of achieving a society without a repressive state apparatus – are intrinsically uneasy about the idea of incarceration in the first place.’

I doubt you’ll find many anarchists, apart from Max Sterner, who would defend the right of free individuals to take the life of other free individuals. That’s something we’d associate with Nietche and the far right. Anarchism isn’t lawlessness, it’s leaderlessness. A community has the right to defend itself against murderers.

Actually, I think there’s a better case for releasing Hindley than al Megrahi. A case can be made that she has served her time and that her continued incarceration is a direct result of political pressure.

No doubt if there were trade deals depending on her release, or if the release could be in some way used to piss off the Americans, she’d be out by now.

#2

A “case” can be made for anything. A case can be made for hanging people like MH.

I believe that, sometimes, unfortunately, life has to mean life. The problem is far too many are given “life” and then let out earlier which the public don’t understand.

If we expect people to serve 10 years (say) then give them ten years, stop the nonsense that simply brings the law into disrepute.

And while we’re on the subject; I don’t know the details but why has ben gun served 30 years (and counting) for a murder he committed when he was 14

#3 – It can hardly be the fault of the justice system that some people are too stupid to look up what a life sentence actually means, what tarriffs are, and what being released on license means.

Similarly we shouldn’t be giving sympathy to those who don’t understand that working out the time somebody spends in prison is a matter of simply looking up the current parole laws and using basic maths to calculate the period of incarceration before somebody can apply for parole (which is not the same thing as being released a free man).

Surely the real reason Myra Hindley was not released is that it would have been extremely diffiicult to guarantee her safety if it was known that she had been released? Every tabloid in the country would have been after her, seeking to expose where she was.

With Megrahi that was not an issue, as he was packed off to Libya as soon as he was released.

Regarding the argument that ‘life must mean life’. Evidently that is not possible when someone is dying. It’s a bizarre argument. If you are sentenced to ten years and become terminally ill before you have served those ten years that is just the way it is. Letting someone out for the last few months of their life is not a form of early release. Prisoners released early can get on with their lives. Prisoners released on compassionate grounds are going to die.

Unless there are pressing reasons why someone cannot be released I can see no point at all in forcing a terminally ill patient to die in prison, rather than at home.

‘Surely the real reason Myra Hindley was not released is that it would have been extremely diffiicult to guarantee her safety if it was known that she had been released? Every tabloid in the country would have been after her, seeking to expose where she was.’

The idea someone should be incarcerated against their will ‘for their own protection’ is bullshit. Why not ask her? The courts can protect her identity the same way they have with other notorious killers.

Hindley has spent almost her entire adult life in prison. Other less notorious killers have been freed. Her continued detention is a direct consequence of cowardice on behalf of tabloid fearing Home Secretaries. That’s clearly unjust.

6
I think Hindley has had the ultimate release; she died a few years ago, that’s why her face hasn’t appeared on the front page of ‘The Sun’ recently.
Whatever anyone thought about Hindley being released, this rotton rag continued to use her photo at every opportunity in order to sell the paper, the families of the victims were never allowed to get over it through the sheer greed of that rag.

6
I think Hindley has had the ultimate release; she died a few years ago, that’s why her face hasn’t appeared on the front page of ‘The Sun’ recently.
Whatever your view about Hindley, that rotton rag continued to put her face on its’ front page ceaslessly. The families of her victims were never allowed to get-over their loss because of that paper’s greed.

#4
It shouldn’t be too difficult for the lawmakers to look up what “life” and “sentence ”
actually mean and frame the law appropriately.

I’m not looking for longer (or, necessarily, shorter) sentences, just transperency.

Sentenced to 15 – serve 8
Sentenced to 10 – serve 30

Seems weird to me, even allowing for a humane parrole system.

It is pretty transparent though – all you need is basic maths and an understanding of what a tarriff is.

Good article. But there does seem to be some sort of implication in what you say that all prisoners, or almost all, should be entitled to expect release at some point. Why? I don’t understand that.

Also, I don’t think we should mix up the question of innocence with that of parole. If al-Megrahi’s conviction was unsafe he should have continued his (second) appeal. We shouldn’t go around discounting people’s sentences based on the degree of certainty we have of their guilt.

As far as his trial is concerned, I understand your concerns, but not why you draw attention to the fact there was no jury, the judges were Scottish and that it was in Holland. I prefer jury trials too, but many liberal-minded people actually think jury trial is unfair precisely because jurors are subject to populist influences like those you worry about.

Finally, you’re right that these decisions can be political – I don’t think ministers do decide any more when life prisoners are released though, do they? I’ve not researched the law on it recently, I admit. But while it’s easy to criticise the politicisation of such decisions, it is necessary to realise the alternative is to judicialise them – in other words to put all decision-making power into the hands of judges who cannot be influenced and who are unaccountable.

I’m not saying that’s wrong; but you do have to admit that’s what you want if you’re against politicians having any role.

As I understand it, Myra Hindley was progressing through the lifer system and it was intended by the authorities to release her. Then it all went pear shaped. The rest as they say is history.

Nick (#1) –

Absolutely true, but only if the judge were also given bullet-proof anonymity in the case concerned.

Unfortunately it’s been repeatedly proven there are now plenty of people out there who have delusions of being warriors for the nation (see the English Defence League for the most recent and large-scale example) willing to take tabloid rhetoric to its logical conclusion, at least on unprotected targets.

That kind of thing might not materialise every time, but there would surely be a high risk that it would bias a judge’s decision – they are human.


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  1. Liberal Conspiracy

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