It isn’t a judge’s business to reflect public outrage, but to act with judicial balance

I wonder how many of my readers have followed the very nasty story of Liam Stacey, the drunken student who, as the footballer Fabrice Muamba lay unconscious on the pitch as medical staff fought for his life, tweeted to the very few people who followed his tweets the astonishing words “LOL [laugh out loud]. F*** Muamba. He’s dead!!!”

How drunk one has to be before one actually thinks of doing something so revolting, I don’t know; but he was at that point: he had, it seems, been drinking all day. This seems to me one of the worst features of the so-called “social media”: they operate utterly unreflectively. There is absolutely no pause for thought. Stacey was alone. Before the era of tweeting and texting he would have probably passed out and woken with a hangover: nobody would ever have known what had passed through his reeling consciousness; he would probably even have forgotten it himself.

As it was, he tweeted his drunken ramblings virtually as they passed through his sodden brain. His tweet was then multiply retweeted, and spread exponentially : the whole thing then became almost like an online riot, with people tweeting sentiments just as revolting to him, to which he then replied. The Times writer David Aaronovitch, whose very sensible piece in that newspaper gave me the nerve to vouchsafe my views here (one needs nerve these days to write in a balanced way on a topic involving racism) tracked down some of the tweets to which Stacey had responded with his most offensive tweets:

“One, a psychiatric nurse from Leeds, had tweeted Stacey calling him a ‘f****** pr***’. Another, to whom Stacey sent his most violent tweet, had already typed “you must be f****** barmy if you think a greasy little welsh sheep shagger could take on a f****** cockney you silly fat w*****”. This amiable person subsequently offered to come and burn Stacey and his family to death.” To these and similar sentiments Stacey replied with such gems as (to a twitterer somehow racially identifiable) “I ain’t your friend you wog c***. Go and pick some cotton.” There were others, apparently considerably more offensive, but since all the online accounts of the affair say they are too vile to quote, I don’t know what they were and can’t quote them myself.

As the day wore on, Stacey sobered up, and realised what he had done. He became aware that he was in trouble. He started saying it was all a joke, then that he hadn’t meant it, then he claimed that his account had been hi-jacked by someone else, then he moved on to abject apology. But it was all too late: there had been complaints to the police. He was arrested, tried and found guilty. And he was then sentenced, not only to 56 days in prison, but as a consequence to expulsion from his University (Swansea) and the end of the ambition of his life. He was due to take his final exams, which would in the normal course of events have led to a degree in biology. He would then have begun whatever training one needs to do to become a forensic scientist. All that, now, has come to an end. His life is wrecked.

One’s first reaction to this story was that this young man needed swatting, hard; he needed to be taught a lesson. But to effectively ruin his whole life for what he had done? There was surely something way over the top going on here. As the Independent’s columnist Musa Okwonga put it:

56 days. Liam Stacey got drunk, trolled people on Twitter who were fearing the death of Bolton Wanderer’s Fabrice Muamba, and has been sent to jail for 56 days. Something feels excessive about this.

Let’s make no mistake: Stacey’s conduct was about as reprehensible as you’re likely to find online. He publicly mocked a man whom he believed to be dying. He then attacked those who opposed him with racist epithets. He caused untold distress to hundreds, possibly thousands of people, and District Judge John Charles considered that he had encouraged others to do the same.

But, but, but. 56 days in jail still seems like too much of the wrong sentence. My gut reaction, when I first read of the judgment, was that a very stiff community penalty would suffice. Perhaps Stacey could have been made to work the type of hours in the type of places that refugees work. Then he might have understood better their daily burdens, which hatred like his only serves to increase. That, combined with the adverse publicity that accompanied his trial, would probably have sufficed.

Liam Stacey has not, it goes without saying, come out of this affair well. But one or two other people haven’t, either, including the Leeds psychiatric nurse who helped wind him up by calling him a “f****** pr***”. But someone who comes out of this worse even than this angel of mercy (the saints protect me from ever falling into his/her tender psychiatric care: O Lord, keep me sane) was the judge in this case. This is what district judge John Charles actually said in sentencing Stacey: “Not just the footballer’s family, not just the footballing world, but the whole world were literally praying for Muamba’s life. Your comments aggravated this situation. I have no choice but to impose an immediate custodial sentence to reflect the public outrage at what you have done.”

The whole world was literally praying for Muamba’s life? Is there not something excessive about these judicial obiter dicta? As David Aaronovitch commented,

I read those words and at first thought they were a bit over the top …. I reread them and felt they were slightly worrying. The third time I read them, I decided that they were both wrong and ridiculous. In what possible way could Stacey’s stupid and nasty comments be said to aggravate the situation of Fabrice Muamba’s health — which was surely the situation referred to? Would they stop Muamba’s heart beating? Prevent him from waking up from a coma? And how can a judge have “no choice” over sentencing simply because of “public outrage”? Of course he had a choice. He chose to propitiate the fashionable gods of outrage.

That’s what worries me the most: the notion of a judge handing down a severe sentence “to reflect the public outrage”. It is precisely NOT the duty of a judge to pander to public opinion in this way. It is his job to hand down a sentence which reflects ONLY the objectively assessed seriousness of the alleged offence. Suppose Patrice Muamba had not been a well-known footballer, but a little-known local politician, say a black Lib-Dem councillor against whom Stacey had issued offensive racist tweets because of his views on, say, global warming. There would have been no public outrage. So presumably his sentence would have been lighter? Of course it would. Indeed, he probably wouldn’t have been charged in the first place. What this sentence shows, apart from a worryingly inhumane lack of any sense of proportion, is a populist corruption of the judicial system itself.

Now that really SHOULD worry us.