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Statements, sentences, and the stories that hold up in court

The author of this piece wrote this as a reflection on her own experience of the court system as a victim of violence several years ago. As is frequently the case, the perpetrator entered a guilty plea, which meant the only court appearance for the victim was a sentencing hearing at the Circuit Court for the offence of assault causing harm.

The judge sentenced her abuser to 2 1/2 years but suspended the entire sentence, in part because of his “character”. She wishes to remain anonymous.

I’ve felt sick about the Tom Humphries case all day.

Character references in court are common, and they’re bizarre, but the totality of courtroom storytelling is even weirder, and I can’t stop thinking about it. And I can’t imagine what it’s like for the victim to see the rush to humanize him so much you’d think he’d just won a prize.

You really start to grasp the narrative injustice of a sentencing hearing when you look at the character reference in relation to its counterpart: the Victim Impact Statement. The Victim Impact Statement is still a relatively new introduction and is the only time the victim has a voice in a sentencing process.

The convicted person gets a whole production team to write his character. They write him a hero’s journey, from childhood, with the help of experts who even cast supporting characters to help narrate his story along the way. In contrast, the Victim Impact Statement can only reference the individual event the conviction is for, and can cite the effect of only this particular incident on life afterward, and nothing more.

I got a call to turn up at the garda station at midnight on a Saturday a few days before the sentencing. I got no brief, I just dictated some shit to a couple of prompts, and the garda wrote it all down. She asked me to read it over for accuracy, but she’d paraphrased badly, and it read like a school essay. I told her that in court, when I read this out, it wouldn’t sound anything like me.

You just read it from the page, she said, it’s just about the facts.

I said, there’s no way this is a believable version of me. I don’t even give facts this way.

But I didn’t get to have character, I just got to be one.

I learned when I arrived at court that anything outside of a single night of my life was inadmissible. I had added too much detail because how can you reduce a long and consistently injurious experience to one decontextualized moment? They took my statement and edited again, until it was essentially reduced to: it was bad and now I’m sad all the time. And they weren’t even my words.

So then you sit and listen to the twisted and carefully written hagiography of the convicted person: the good family he comes from that loves him very much and are here in the courtroom with him (as opposed to mine, whose absence didn’t go unnoticed), that that he was ‘student of the year’ in 1998, that he is a loving friend to all around him, and a talented designer (but honestly, even in 2012 he still thought Flash had a future, and what fucking good designer still thought that).

You just read lines that even you don’t believe are yours.

While the accused gets eulogized, you’re reduced only to your statement, which presents you, by design, as a thinly written cipher, who existed, briefly, as a device in someone else’s redemption narrative. This is his life, and this is your life.

Not only that, because the perpetrator’s side has done their opposition research, and the prosecution is mainly focused on making the case for the State, they barely mention you, lest they provoke a right of reply. Even if they care about justice enough to include you in their concerns, mentioning you again would just give the main character a chance to offer a reason you deserved it.

In the end, the judge makes a decision based on his or her interpretation of the sentencing guidelines. Which means that the severity of the punishment is determined by who has told the best story.

So then you walk out with the inverted trauma narrative running in your head, the one that is your worst fear: what if it was me? what if I just made it all up? what if I exaggerated everything because I can’t accept what a loser I am? It is, in fact, the story you’ve just heard: He’s a good person (so you must be the bad guy), you’re without worth (because your character got written out) and your merit is worse than irrelevant (because how dare you overestimate your importance to the story).

He’s a protagonist, you’re the background player who got killed off too early to need a backstory. Everyone knows who you’re supposed to root for.

I imagine that sentencing procedures were even worse before the Victim Impact Statement was introduced. In theory, it’s a great idea. In practice, instead of giving the victim a voice, at best, it provides texture for the main character, but mostly it amounts to replacing a deleted scene.

That’s its own form of narrative injustice.

3 responses »

  1. I’m not really sure what the writer is asking for (or complaining about) here. Surely no-one who reads a feminist blog is under the illusion the criminal justice system has the slightest interest in ‘narrative justice’. Just ask a rape victim who has been through a case contested on the question of consent (as most are since the introduction of DNA rape test kits) or the family of a death in custody victim who have not only had to deal with a whitewash of the killer(s) but with the post-mortem vilification of their loved one. Victims impact statements are a recent innovation that serve as little more than a sop to the tabloid media. Adversarial court cases are not ‘victim vs perpetrator’ but rather ‘state vs accused’ (and all too often ‘vs victim’ as well). ‘Justice’ is not for you. It’s for the state.

    Is ‘narrative justice’ really achieved by sending someone to prison. It’s not as if he’s going to emerge in 2 or 3 years time a better person who is less of a threat to you and others. Rather, if your VIS can be interpreted as contributing to his punishment you’ll probably be feeling steadily increased anxiety as his parole date approaches. Which is part of the purpose of prisons. Not to protect you but to make you more desperate and dependent on the myth of protection by police and the state.

    Of course if you can be portrayed as receiving ‘narrative justice’ via a harsh prison sentence the next victim who sees his own suffering as more real than yours will be demanding a yet harsher penalty to publicly vindicate his own pain and you’ll end up in the spiral of increasing sentences, increasing prison expenditure and decreasing social capital that you see in the US. Is narrative justice for individuals really worth that kind of social cost?

    If you really care about narrative justice you should forget about courts and prisons and campaign instead for restorative justice programs that bring together victims, offenders, community representatives and other stakeholders in an attempt to heal and reintegrate both the victim and the offender with their communities; not hand the process over to a stylised medieval costume drama that seeks to drive communities apart and increase the power of the state.

    As the Thatcher government white paper on the prison system put it; “Prisons are an expensive way to make bad people worse”. That is when they’re not dehumanising good people who found themselves in a bad situation.

    • Cabrogal, as someone who basically agrees with you on principle … that is an incredibly patronising and insensitive comment. Lecturing abuse survivors on what they’d do if they “really” cared about narrative justice is not the way to win the argument on prison abolition.


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