Dr Liz Gordon: Dabbling in the mainstream media

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In times gone past, I have been very involved in the mainstream media as advocate, Press columnist (I was sacked for being mean to Mayor Bob Parker!) op-ed author and occasionally newsmaker.  In recent times, I have tended to use this blog for all such purposes (I try not to be mean too often, though).

But last week I went running to MM, in the form of reporter Bevan Hurley, big time. He had published an article about a Whanganui kuia, Lorraine Smith.  After years of bringing up her children and her grandchildren, with a disabled son, significant depression and few resources, Lorraine ‘snapped’ and killed her granddaughter Kalis.

She was charged with murder.  Out of respect for Kalis, she said, she would plead guilty and take her sentence as the court gave it out.  To me, the moral question was whether a fair system of justice would imprison for life a woman who had given to others all her life, suffered from significant depression, never had any time for herself and was now filled with remorse over what she had done.

The matter was urgent as she is appearing in court for sentencing this coming Wednesday (Wellington High Court, if any of you are able to attend and support her).

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Normally, the only sentence for murder is life imprisonment.  It has become usual for the courts to order non-parole periods of anything from twelve years up, but in fact the minimum non-parole period is ten years. Lorraine is in relatively poor health and is 60 years of age.  Even if she gets the minimum, it may be a life sentence for her.

During the week we spoke to a lot of people, including her whānau. They were very supportive of us doing something, and also told us a lot of stories.  Lorraine had pleaded for help from so many agencies, and got very little. She had reached out, and got no response.

There was the possibility of her changing her plea to not guilty and getting a trial.  At trial, her life of caring for whanau, her attempts to get help, her obvious depression and other factors would have been provided as evidence in mitigation. There have been cases where caregivers, driven beyond reason, have been found guilty of the lesser charge of manslaughter and served far less time in prison.

I tried to see her. It has been a tumultuous week for me anyway, with the memorial for my dearest friend of 40 years, who died recently of a terrible dementia.  In the midst of it all, I begged Lorraine by whatever means I had (through whānau, via eprisoner) to see me. I was in Wellington all day Friday and free to meet in the afternoon.  But no meant no.

I do respect her decision to stick with the guilty plea, and understand it to a certain extent. But a long sentence for her will not heal the harm in her whanau.  And there was certainly no reason why she should see a bossy, nosey pākeha woman. But her whānau want her back in their lives, and 10 years at Arohata will cause more misery for them.

So I, a colleague from Pillars (effects of imprisonment on families), Kate Bundle from Grandparents Raising Grandchildren Trust (how hard it can be to raise grandchildren) and others importuned Bevan Hurley to write a follow-up.  He did a beautiful and respectful job. Well done, Bevan! The article is here.

I will be halfway to the UK by the time Lorraine is sentenced.  I can only hope that, in sentencing, the things we raised in the article are taken into account.  It is very strange to advocate for someone who doesn’t want advocacy. Perhaps my dear departed best friend might have advised me not to intervene on the grounds one should only give help where it is asked for (she might not have, too).

There is plenty of injustice in the world and, in my view, plenty of people in prison who should not be there for one reason or another (and I think prisons are outdated and ineffective, anyway). To me, though, this case was special.  I felt compelled to try to help, as if a personal burden to act had been placed on me. I have now done what I can, with the help of others.

 

Dr Liz Gordon is a researcher and a barrister, with interests in destroying neo-liberalism in all its forms and moving towards a socially just society.  She usually blogs on justice, social welfare and education topics.

7 COMMENTS

  1. Wow! Awesome Liz. I hope it goes a little better fo her now. Thats a lot to cope with under very difficult conditions. I think you did right to at least try

    • When I read the first story while not being in this lady’s exact position we spent many years only a step away – we got through and grandchildren through to reasonable independence but how easily it could have all gone wrong. The times were easier then especially with our own children and all of them, bar one, were helpful and supportive and still are. If ever the saying “there but for the grace of . . .” applied it is in this case and the many others out there struggling to make sense of life. All they ever would have wanted was for the “children” to be happy, that looks to be quite a hard task for many especially those working so hard to pick up the pieces.

      • Liz – you did right, good on you. No-one who hasn’t been through the huge upheavals of family trials can begin to understand the dynamics here – especially a non-maternal male who has adopted the word ‘horror’ into his nom de guerre.

        This poor lady appears to need peace, and I hope that it comes to her in a good shape.

  2. Thank you Liz for this and it was a relief to see you had the same response, and also that you attempted to take direct action – for which you have my thanks and admiration. I was not in a position to do that but did email a prominent person in the injustice space (with a history of effective direct intervention), drawing the story to their attention. For what it’s worth, excerpts of my email include:

    “As you read the circumstances and the pressure she was under, and intuitively her mental state and the life of burden and giving to others, there is surely an argument that she was mentally disturbed. And yet she is pleading guilty to charge of murder, which I can understand from her perspective, she sounds like a good person who snapped, and as a good person, she now wishes to absorb and live through every ounce of guilt available.

    By the sounds of it that’s all we need as a system, we don’t need to ensure that that is correct, cf manslaughter or not guilty by reason of insanity etc. There will be no trial and she will just be sentenced to life imprisonment, I surmise.

    The problem I have is that as a matter of public policy and morality, I feel this is both remarkable in 2019, and profoundly wrong.

    Teina Pora spent 20 years in jail for a crime he had zero to do with because he made a false confession, borne of low IQ and foetal alcohol damage. Is our justice system really satisfied that any conviction will do, that it’s irrelevant whether the real perpetrator is actually running free, or the perpetrator has been correctly charged/treated?

    Is that all we really are as a society? Please put me right here. Please tell me I’m misinformed or it’s poor reporting, and that there is no chance that this lady is being allowed to plead guilty to murder without the system having strenuously satisfied itself that that is the appropriate outcome, and only one that would occur had she pleaded not guilty and gone to trial with appropriate representation”

    Clearly Liz you felt the risk was/is as it appears. I don’t believe it suffices to leave one’s prospects to the chance of sentencing (as it now appears is the way this is managed). I hope thanks to the efforts of you, her family, the reporter and others, that compassion is applied by the system in her sentencing, hitherto denied her in her life by the system.

    Thank you again for your humanity and your efforts.

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