Oblique intent

Why the name? Well criminal law afficionados will recognise the phrase 'oblique intent' as referring to a problem of mens rea:can a person who intends to do x (such as setting fire to a building to scare the occupants) also be said to have an intention to kill if one of the occupants dies? This is a problem that has consumed an inordinate amount of time in the appeal courts and in the legal journals, and can be taken to represent a certain kind of approach to legal theory. My approach is intended to be more oblique to this mainstream approach, and thus to raise different kinds of questions and issues. Hence the name.

Friday, 25 November 2016

On terrorist crimes

I suspect that I am not alone in being confused at the message coming from the prosecution on the conviction of Thomas Mair for the murder of Jo Cox. It was, they insist, a terrorist murder and he had been tried as a terrorist (which is why the trial was in London). But they go on to say that it was not prosecuted under the Terrorism Acts and the jury had not been told that he was regarded as a terrorist because he had been prosecuted for the common law crime of murder, and they had not raised the question of his political motivation. But he may have been sentenced as a terrorist - whatever that means as the judge could have given a 'whole life' sentence in a particularly serious case of murder, which this undoubtedly was. So is he a terrorist, or was it a terrorist offence? It is hard to say.

Thomas Mair, the killer of Jo Cox MP
The case for arguing that it was a terrorist act seems to rest on the argument that it was motivated by political ends. As he attacked his victim he yelled political slogans, and the police subsequently discovered that he had collected nazi memorabilia and that he had far-right sympathies - though he was not associated with any group and did not seem to be acting with (or for) anyone else. This, in a literal sense, then falls within the definition of terrorism in the Terrorism Act 2000 s.1: it was an act involving serious violence against a person and was done for the purpose of advancing a political cause.

The case against would be to say that there are many politically motivated crimes which do not necessarily amount to terrorism. That is to say that while much terrorism is politically motivated the question of political motivation cannot be determinative of the question on its own. Our history is full of political assassinations and bombings, but it is only recently that we have begun to refer to them in terms of terrorism. And the idea of terrorism seems to imply that the violence (or its threat) would create some sense of terror or insecurity. Of course, this can itself be problematic as certain serial killers have created precisely this sense of terror among the community of the victimised, though we would not normally regard serial killers as terrorists.

This points to the well known difficulties of trying to produce a satisfactory definition of terrorism, which I something that I cannot resolve here. However, it is worth asking what is stake in labelling Thomas Mair a terrorist. Leaving aside the question (which I have been unable to resolve) of whether there are special sentencing powers here, labelling the killing as a terrorist act makes terrorism seem more widespread and arguably contributes to a climate of fear and insecurity - and this may be in the interests of the police or security forces as it can justify the use of, of call for, special measures or the suspension of normal rules of law. A random killing, however tragic, by a loner with a history of mental illness may be unduly dignified, or treated with an unwarranted degree of seriousness, if we call it an act of terrorism - and we should resist these moves.

Thursday, 24 November 2016

On Kitty Genovese

Kitty Genovese
As a teacher of criminal law, I have on numerous occasions defaulted to the story of Kitty Genovese to explain the issue of omissions. The story familiar from textbooks goes like this: on the night of Friday March 13th 1964 a young woman called Kitty Genovese was attacked and murdered in the New York suburb of Kew Gardens in the borough of Queens. The attack took place in a densely populated residential area, and though it was established that her cries of desperation were heard by 38 people living nearby, not one of them came to her assistance.

Her death might have been prevented, but the fact that it was not is taken evidence of the anonymity of life in modern cities and the decline in our sense of obligation to come to the aid of strangers. The point in law is to ask questions about the extent of bystander guilt, or whether there should be an offence of 'failure to rescue'.

It should, perhaps, come as no surprise that the 'real' story of Kitty Genovese is nothing like the textbook version. Why, after all, would we let truth get in the way of a good example? But the real surprise is that the story of Kitty Genovese is much more interesting and tells us a great deal more about modern urban life.

This story is told in a new book called "No One Helped". Kitty Genovese, New York City and the Myth of Urban Apathy by Marcia Gallo. There are two dimensions to Gallo's story. The first is to uncover Kitty's life, to restore something that was erased by the myth, and to show how it was connected to the story of the development of New York at the time. The second is to trace the origins and development of the legend - how the Kitty Genovese story was created and sustained over the period of over 50 years since her killing.

The first thing that undermines our assumptions is that Gallo shows that the murder was witnessed by at most one person in the neighbourhood, rather than the 38 of myth, and that Kitty was well known to, and mourned by, her neighbours as a lively and friendly woman. Not only was Kitty not an isolated and lonely individual, but she was an independent young woman with many connections in both the city and her neighbourhood. She was a lesbian and lived with another woman in her apartment in Kew Gardens, and enjoyed the growing city precisely because of the opportunities it offered her to be herself - limited as they were at the time.

So why did the myth develop in the way that it did? Here Gallo shows that this was a deliberate strategy employed the new editor at the New York Times to attract readers and try to reconnect with New Yorkers. He sent a special reporter out to interview police and neighbours, and this led to the infamous headline. But what was important here was that it connected with growing fears about crime and the city. The story articulated a new focus on the victim, or at least the idea of victimhood if not the actual victim (and it is interesting to note that the NYT new about her sexuality but did not consider it to be of interest). There was also the fear of apathy and the indifference of bystanders drawing on underlying fears of modern life, and these were ruthlessly exploited by the press, and in a series of books and movies. The real moral of the story is less bystander apathy than media exploitation of a crime story for their own ends.

What is interesting is that a different understanding emerges from Gallo's account, restoring our sense not only of the actual victim and her relationships but also of place and time. This is a valuable and important corrective to the easy assumptions that we often make when confronted with such stories - and it is safe to say that I won't be using the example of Kitty Genovese in this way again.

Friday, 18 November 2016

On markets and crime

I have been thinking a lot recently about the relationship between criminal law and financial markets, and want to write more about this in the future. One of the things that has struck me is the links that have been drawn between between the financial crisis of 2008/09 and criminal misconduct by bankers and financial traders - and the claim that criminal behaviour was at least partially responsible for the crisis.

This is not just rhetoric. There have been a number of high profile prosecutions. Traders have been prosecuted for LIBOR rigging or the exploitation of high frequency trading algorithms to exploit minute differences in prices between different markets. Banks have been fined for the mis-selling of financial products. And the Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards which reviewed the conduct of the major banks in the wake of the crisis concluded that it was necessary to create a new criminal offence of "reckless misconduct in the management of a bank". And think about the slew of recent movies from The Wolf of Wall Street to Margin Call or The Big Short, which dramatise the crash in terms of criminal conduct and depict financial institutions and markets as a new kind of 'wild west' where there are few, if any restraints on conduct, and criminal conduct is positively encouraged.

These changes in the use of the criminal law reflect a more fundamental change in understandings of markets themselves. For a long time markets have been seen as essentially 'orderly'. The free market, in the conception of Adam Smith, had its own logic: it was naturally stabilising and self-regulating. If, on occasion, the criminal law needed to step in it was to deal with fraud or deception - policing the outer limits of acceptable conduct. However, in the vision of the markets that appears in these recent reports it is no longer just the ‘rogue trader’ or the ‘bad apple’ that is the problem. Increasingly, financial institutions and market relations are themselves seen as criminogenic, corrosive of social relations and incentivising opportunistic criminal conduct. The market, that is to say, is not orderly but disorderly, and criminal law should not only police the margins but shore up the core values and structures. And this is not simply the view of anti-capitalist scholars and activists, but of market advocates and conventional economists, who now talk about the need to regulate markets more tightly - and advocate the more systematic use of the criminal law.

If I am right about this, then criminal lawyers need to start thinking beyond the immediate question of, say, bank regulation, and begin to engage with the broader questions about how we think about the relation between markets and social order.

Wednesday, 9 November 2016

On Zombie Legislation

Last week saw the Scottish Parliament vote in favour of repealing the much-criticised Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications (S) Act 2012. While the vote is merely advisory, and for now the Scottish Government have undertaken to review the legislation, it creates an interesting new category of 'zombie' legislation. It has not yet been repealed, but neither does it have the support of parliament. It is not yet dead, but not quite alive - the living dead.

But this raises a significant issue. Will it be legitimate for the police to continue to enforce the legislation or for the Crown Office to continue bring prosecutions? Is it legitimate for legislation that has been formally condemned in this way to be used after Parliament has clearly indicated that it is no longer has the support of its members? So far, I can see no indication on the websites of either Police Scotland or the Crown Office that there will be any change in policy.

The vote has been seen as an example of political point scoring, but the underlying criticism is that the offences in the Act are poorly drafted and that the legislation is illiberal - and I have written before about these shortcomings. Until reassurances have been offered on these underlying issues it must be inappropriate to use the Act. This is not to approve sectarianism, but to recognise that there are real concerns about the scope of the offences which were not properly addressed when the Act was passed.

While it may formally remain the law, there is no question that it now completely lacks any legitimacy, whatever its supporters in government might say. It is truly zombie legislation.

Wednesday, 2 November 2016

On Houdini's 'The Right Way to do Wrong'

Monday was the 90th anniversary of the death of Harry Houdini, an event apparently marked every year by the holding of a seance - though whether this was Houdini's effort to communicate from beyond the grave or just his final joke at the expense of fake mediums remains unclear. Houdini is obviously celebrated as a famous escapologist, so I was intrigued when I came across a reference to a book that he had written called The Right Way to Do Wrong - promising perhaps a new kind of legal moralism... (thanks to the wonder of the internet you can download it for free here).

The book is fascinating - even if, sadly, it is less of a guide to legal moralism or to how to be successful criminal, than an account of the various frauds and charlatans that Houdini claims to have encountered over the course of his career. Indeed, he is at pains to make it clear that his aim is not to encourage crime but to allow the ordinary member of the public to safeguard themselves by pointing out the way that thieves and fraudsters work. It is thus an early example of crime prevention literature, advising the householder on the kind of locks to use or the best way to protect their house when they are away, or providing reminders that schemes which promise something for nothing are not always what they seem.

For me, most entertaining was the guide to the types of scams and criminal enterprises operated at the turn of the century. Many are traditional - pickpockets, burglars and fraudsters - that would have been familiar in many cities and countries. But some reflect changing technologies - the railroad or the telegraph and the mail - that opened up new opportunities for the enterprising criminal.

In all of this Houdini presents himself as the honest broker, guiding the naive or innocent around the underworld that surrounds them in this newly urbanised and mobile society where strangers were not always what they seemed. Most of the criminals he exposes had been caught, though a few lucky individuals escaped with their ill-gotten gains. The right way to do wrong, as ever, is perhaps not to be detected.