Verity is a physics with teaching BSc (Hons) graduate. In her spare time, she likes to cook, read and play video games.
About the Podcast
I recently got an Audible subscription and was delighted to find that there were many free podcasts that I could gain access to. "Real Crime: Locked Up for Life" caught my interest, as it is not simply a description of crimes that were committed. Instead, it is an in-depth analysis of the criminal justice system in England and Wales, using real famous cases to explore the social and moral implications of whole-life sentences. The 8-part podcast features real voicemails, 999 calls, court evidence, news footage, and interviews with various professionals, all with commentary from Julian Druker throughout.
The episodes are so titled:
- Arthur Hutchinson - What Is a Whole Life Sentence?
- Stephen Griffiths - Are Murderers Evil?
- Stephen Port - Defending the Guilty
- Jeremy Bamber - The Element of Hope
- Myra Hindley - How Do Politics Affect Sentencing?
- Michael Adebolajo - The Shadow of Terror
- Anthony Hardy - For Public Protection
- Joanne Dennehy - Sorry Or Not Sorry?
Each episode, between 25–30 minutes in length, poses important questions to the listener and encourages you to engage with the evidence provided to come to your own conclusion. Throughout this review, I will mention the questions that I found I was asking myself and some of the conclusions that I came to while listening.
Episode 1: Arthur Hutchinson - What Is a Whole Life Sentence?
This first episode allows the reader to understand sentencing in England and Wales. I was shocked to learn that it was commonplace just a few decades ago, for prisoners to not be told that their sentence was whole-life. I found myself thinking that even if a person has committed a crime, they should be able to understand their sentence and what it means.
I also found myself asking the question: can someone change? If a person, over time, proves that they are now a reduced risk to the public, then should sentence be reduced to reflect this fact? Giving someone a 30-year sentence assumes that the person will not change in 30 years. By giving someone a whole life sentence are you saying to that person that they are incapable of rehabilitation for the rest of their life, regardless of their age? Is prison purely about punishment e.g. remove their freedom since they removed someone else's, or is it about justice and the chance for rehabilitation? I found myself erring on the side of rehabilitation. Prison needs to serve a purpose other than putting someone out of sight and out of mind since it is clearly not a deterrent. If it was a deterrent there wouldn't be any crimes.
Episode 2: Stephen Griffiths - Are Murderers Evil?
This episode begins with a chilling voicemail from a murderer, you can hear him laugh maniacally. It first asks the question: do people who work with murderers ever get frightened? A very interesting interview with such a person, reveals that it is all about boundaries and being secure within the system. I found this particularly interesting as it shows that fear can be removed no matter what the crime was.
This episode reinforced to me something that I have always believed, that evil is an abstract concept and that what makes a murderer is more to do with nature and nurture. Evil is a label that society uses to try and understand the inexplicable. When a murder happens we crave more details, we watch the documentaries and read the psychoanalyses to try and explain it.
Julian Druker accurately points out that serial killers have become boogeymen of the modern era. If we look at modern media we can see this. The rise in horror slasher movies seems to coincide with the time that the phrase "mass murderer" was replaced with the term "serial killer".
It makes me ask the question that, if serial killers have been around since the time of man, and operating at about the same rate as today, does incarceration really prevent anything?
Episode 3: Stephen Port - Defending the Guilty
Why do we defend murderers? This episode explored some of the history behind a fair trial and why it is important. A very interesting interview with a lawyer attempts to answer this question. As a lawyer, you're there to make sure everything is done properly and that the letter of the law has been followed. She summed it up quite succinctly with the statement, "I don't know the truth, I wasn't there, I'm not a witness."
When you assume the guilt of someone it means that there will not be a fair trial or sentencing process, it must always be innocent until proven guilty.
The word "evil" dehumanises someone, makes them a monster that's easy to hate and it's up to us to decide how useful that is.
— From episode 2 - Stephen Griffiths - Are Murderers Evil?
Episode 4: Jeremy Bamber - The Element of Hope
This episode focussed on human rights. Everyone in the system has the right to an appeal, if a conviction is unsafe or excessive, e.g, new DNA evidence is found. Whole life sentences carry with them a "lock them up and throw away the key" attitude, which was found to be in violation of human rights, by the court of human rights.
It was found that prisoners sentenced to whole-life terms have a right to a review, taking into account progress and rehabilitation. The conservative government at the time did not agree, David Cameron (who was Prime Minister at the time) refused to take this ruling, so this right to a review still isn't in practice.
Do human rights have no place in prison? As part of my work and my studies, I learned that no one is supposed to be able to take away your fundamental rights. So surely, human rights do have a place in prison. The court of human rights ended up having to make an 'exception' for the UK and had to back down. Is this acceptable? I err on the side of no. You cannot have exceptions to fundamental human rights. This episode also made me ask the question: if you remove all hope from a prisoner, do you remove the motivation for them to reform?
Episode 5: Myra Hindley - How Do Politics Affect Sentencing?
There is no question that the general public made Myra a celebrity, and she became very aware of it. A self-involved person, she released a book about her life and sent regular letters to the press. It appeared to be an attempt to change public persona to get parole, which backfired.
I was unaware, that at the time, politicians elected by the public could decide the length of the term, rather than someone impartial. Which meant that politicians could make certain decisions to get support from the public. In my opinion, this is corrupt and not a system of justice.
This was, later, found to be another violation of human rights, and so it was changed to make it that a judge needs to decide the tariff rather than the home secretary. This very much reminded me of the scene in Quentin Tarantino's "The Hateful Eight", where the hangman discusses vigilante justice and comes to the conclusions that any justice without impartiality, is not justice. I would be tempted to agree and say that what was happening here certainly was not justice at all.
There was evidence that Myra Hindley had reached the criteria for rehabilitation and parole, if it had been down to a judge, she would have been released before she died. Did politics prevent a changed woman from being treated justly?
I don't know the truth, I wasn't there, I'm not a witness.
— From Episode 3 - Stephen Port - Defending the Guilty - On why lawyers choose to defend murderers
Episode 6: Michael Adebolajo - The Shadow of Terror
Terrorism can be hard to define. The episode brings up the case of Nelson Mandela, who was considered to be a terrorist, but whom we now look upon extremely favourably.
Terrorism is not a neutral or objective term and reflects the ideology of the person using the label rather than the person being labelled. This episode sited a study which I had not heard of before, in which the public were given identical descriptions of a terrorist act but one had the name of a white Christian man and the other had the name of a Muslim man. The public judged the acts to be worse when carried out by a Muslim than a Christian white man, despite the crimes being the same. This really did not surprise me at all, especially when it has been exposed on a regular basis that judicial systems in America are ridiculously racist. In the UK in particular racial bias can occur at multiple entry points in the justice system.
Extremism and the creation of terror offences brings politics and politicians into the courtroom. It is the only offence that is based on how it makes people feel. In other offences, the trauma and terror caused is considered in sentencing but it is not wholly based on just how it makes the victim feel. The ideology behind the motive, is it relevant? If you kill someone, you have killed them regardless of why. So why is it deemed worse if there is a terror aspect to it? Does this open a whole pandora's box of "are some murders worse than others"?
Episode 7: Anthony Hardy - For Public Protection
What is the role of mental health in the system? Are you unfit to plead or be tried? Insanity is a very narrow definition, with this episode revealing that only 10 people a year might fit into that category. So how far should ill mental health play a role in sentencing?.
Some people say there's no excuse at all, and that if you have killed someone that is the end of the story and you should be punished. Some people say if you have mental health difficulties you should not be in a standard prison set up as it is not fit for such a purpose. We are entirely dictated by the way our brains function, so if a person is being made unable to make an informed decision, should that affect the sentencing? If you have been the victim of a crime are you less liable?
I found myself asking the question: if prison is not better at reforming people, isn't it better to attempt to treat and reduce the impact of mental health on the offender, which will allow them to become rehabilitated? Understanding why a crime has been committed is important in playing a part in how they can be rehabilitated and if they can be paroled and released. As a result, it is surely incumbent on us to determine how much a person's mental health affected their decision-making processes.
The man who pulls the lever that breaks your neck will be a dispassionate man. And that dispassion is the very essence of justice. For justice delivered without dispassion, is always in danger, of not being justice.
— The Hateful Eight, Quentin Tarantino. I was reminded of this quote often while listening.
Episode 8: Joanne Dennehy - Sorry Or Not Sorry?
This episode investigated the complicated issue of remorse. If an offender is truly sorry, can that change things? If you have been judged by the public and your every twitch is under a microscope, you can be damned if you do and damned if you don't.
An interviewee summed it up best for me with the statement, "The general public are not qualified to assess remorse". It seems that a majority of the time that even when an offender apologises, it is not believed. Does the fact that the person is behind bars permanently mean that their words cannot hold truth?
This episode also brought up the sexist issue that women are seen as "doubly deviant" when they commit a crime. They have disappointed the rest of society by not adhering to the typical stereotype, which is reinforced by the media, especially when the crimes involve children. Is this reflected in the sentencing?
The upshot appears to be that rehabilitation requires a lot of time and a lot of money which is why this ideal model is seemingly not possible. Can this be changed? Until it is changed and attitude around the justice system changes, whole life sentences cannot be changed either. In a society that cannot accept rehabilitation, we create a self-fulfilling prophecy where rehabilitation becomes impossible.
If we externalise our anxieties, we don't have to look at the monsters in ourselves.
— From Episode 8 - Joanne Dennehy - Sorry Or Not Sorry?
My Rating and Conclusion
I adored this series! There were so many intricacies of the justice system that I was not fully aware of, but the experts interviewed helped to explain it in a way that was straightforward but captivating. I believe that it speaks volumes about this series that I listened to all eight episodes in one go, all at once. It has asked questions of me that I had not considered before and given voice to ideas that I was struggling to adequately form in my head.
Overall, "Real Crime: Locked Up for Life" was extremely engaging and wonderfully thought-provoking. I would recommend it highly to anyone with an interest in true crime and the philosophical questions surrounding crime in general, 5/5.
© 2020 VerityPrice
Mike on July 20, 2020:
You sure take a high stance on wanting these people back in population. I wonder if you'd be so agreeable if they were released next door to you. You seem to believe that people are redeemable. it's been my life experience that they aren't and that there's no upside to allowing a monster to roam free.