We would do well to remember that morals are not absolute, and that morality is not a measure of competence.
A good killer
News emerged today of a driver who was sentenced for causing death by careless driving. Deborah Lumley-Holmes struck Julian Evans from behind while he “was cycling on a straight stretch of road on a dry, sunny day with clear visibility”, fatally injuring him. She was given a suspended sentence, was ordered to do 200 hours of unpaid work, and was disqualified from driving for one year.
Some quite startling remarks emerge in the report.
The court heard that Lumley-Holmes, a practising Christian, had for many years made a important contribution to society through charity work, volunteering for the St Nicholas Hospice.
Judge John Holt said the death of Mr Evans had been a tragedy for all involved, including Lumley-Holmes who had made a ‘remarkable contribution’ to the community through charity work.
Lumley-Holmes’s charity work was, as far as I can tell from the above, admissible in court as part of her defence and was specifically mentioned in the judge’s comments.
It is unclear from that report whether the fact that she was “a practising Christian” was similarly admitted, or even presented in court, but at the very least it is considered by the reporter to be pertinent within a statement of another, apparently mitigating, factor.
Too good to kill?
Both of these aspects are reminders of the many reports of the recent trial of Helen Measures, who was cleared of causing the death of Denisa Perinova. For instance, The Telegraph wrote:
Measures, who has a doctorate in oncology and has worked as a scientist for leading pharmaceutical companies for the past 30 years …
Measures, a former parish church bell ringer, sobbed in court …
Spot the pattern here? Someone who works for charity and goes to church; someone who works to fight cancer and goes to church…
There is a very clearly implied message: These acts are Good Acts. These people are Good People.
A Good Person
I’m sure we’re all just as aware of the abuse scandals in the church as we are of our own recent embarrassment at having spent the 80s thinking what a lot of lovely work for children’s charities Jimmy Savile was doing. Let’s not pretend that either doing some charity work or being religious are accurate litmus tests for a Good Person.
But, even if they were, there is a huge problem here, a more fundamental problem.
Good morals are not good skills
Death on the roads is, except in incredibly rare cases, not an intentional result of an act.
That act can be born of negligence, selfishness, incompetence, distraction, impairment, irresponsibility, basic human fallibility or any number of other things, but in most cases even the most incredibly stupid and safety-ignorant driver who kills or injures does not do so because they specifically intend to kill or injure.
Killing or injuring someone with a car on the road is not like doing so with a knife in the street, or a bottle in a bar, or a gun in a bank. The result is broadly the same, but the process is worlds apart.
Being a Good Person—whatever you consider to be the Good Acts that define them as such—does not make you a Competent Person. It does not make you a safe driver. It has absolutely nothing to do with it.
The problem here is that the media and—far worse—the courts are allowing character statements to alleviate the burden of responsibility in cases where the defendant’s character is of absolutely no relevance to the offence.
And, you know what? That’s not even the most fundamental problem, either.
A blurred boundary
The truly fundamental problem is that the law does not really seem to separate negligence and incompetence from malice and intent.
“Causing death by dangerous driving”, for instance, is a crime just as robbery or murder are crimes. And we all think Good People don’t commit crime. Good People don’t kill. So can we really punish this Good Person for this crime of killing? Is it a proper crime?
Can we, as jurors, judge a Good Person as having done a Bad Thing? Can we, as judges, condemn them for it?
The legal apparatus doesn’t really care which crime you committed. The court in which you are tried for one offence is the same at the one for which you are tried for any other. The prison to which you may go for one offence is the same as the one to which you would go for any other. The unpaid work you do is the same. The tools at the judge’s disposal are all the same.
A good sentence
There is one available sentence that is both pertinent and differentiates incompetence from intent.
And that is a driving ban; even the revocation of a driving licence.
In cases where someone’s incompetence is demonstrated to be so great that it has resulted in death, should they be allowed to continue driving at all?
Lumley-Holmes will be allowed to drive again in a year. Someone who has demonstrated that they cannot reliably navigate a straight, clear, dry stretch of road without causing the death of someone else is simply told to take a year off.
This difference between intent and incompetence is why I’ve always felt that most drivers should not be imprisoned, but drivers who kill should be disqualified permanently.
The law, the courts and the media need to understand the difference.
The first reaction to fatal incompetence should be to simply prevent that incompetence being an issue: take killers off the roads. There is no moral judgment in this; it is purely a matter of a driver’s qualification and other road users’ safety.
Do that first. Then, if there’s a need to make a moral judgment on other aspects of a case, such as fleeing the scene or becoming enraged or exhibiting flagrant disregard for safety, then that becomes something that can be judged in a “normal” criminal context.
But the revocation of a licence is simply pragmatic and reasonable. A churchgoer who does not drive is no morally poorer than one who does.
A good thing to remember
Good People, whomever they may be, can and do kill.
Going to church does not make you a better driver, because death on the roads is not an Act of God. It may, if your world view is so black-and-white, be the act of a Good Person or a Bad Person, but the only true fact is that it is the act of an Incompetent Person.
It’s high time we recognised that an Incompetent Person is, purely and simply, not competent.