I have just read Joe Cinque’s Consolation by Helen Garner. It is a very interesting insight into a criminal trial, and how a layperson perceives the process of a trial. The book focuses on the impact of the trial on the victim’s parents, with whom the author gradually builds a friendship.
Garner gets drawn into watching a criminal trial in relation to the death of a young man called Joe Cinque, at the hands of his girlfriend, Anu Singh. Singh drugged Cinque with Rohypnol, and later injected him with an overdose of heroin. At the time, she was a law student in her final year at ANU. Bizarre aspects of the case come out during evidence:
- Singh held a number of “farewell” dinner parties where she made it known that she intended to kill herself and drug or kill her boyfriend, but no one did anything to help Cinque;
- Singh was assisted by her best friend, Madhavi Rao, who helped her procure Rohypnol and heroin and knew of her plans to kill Cinque and/or herself;
- Singh’s defence in the trial is diminished responsibility as a result of psychiatric illness.
Singh herself is apparently thinking of making a film on the subject, and regrets refusing to talk to Garner.
I found this book compelling. It deals with some of the issues raised in a previous post on this blog, “The Mad, the Bad and the Sad”.
- Does the interest of the victim and the victim’s family get forgotten in the morass of a criminal trial?
- Is the adversarial system suitable for criminal trials?
- How should people be held responsible for their actions?
- What is the role of mental health and psychiatry in assessing responsibility?
- How can lawyers keep on doing their job, even when it involves defending actions which seem to go against every moral precept?
- How does law match up against morality, and the judgment of a layperson?
- How can the immense pain suffered by the victim’s family be healed (if at all)?
There are no easy answers. In the end, someone has to come to a “judgment” as to what happened and who (if anybody) should be held responsible.
I met a Judge once who told me that he used to lie awake the night before he handed down a criminal sentence and agonise: did he get it right? was it fair? He said that he knew that there was no way everyone would be satisfied or that he could make things right again. Whichever way he decided, he said, he was used to getting hate mail. I realised then that it would be such a difficult job. I didn’t envy him.
I think it is important for all lawyers to think about these issues (and not just criminal lawyers, either). Sometimes one can forget the way a situation looks from a non-legal perspective, and the very great impact that the law can have on people’s lives. Anyway, I recommend this book if you have a moment – it is very readable.