I’d really rather be able to move on from this subject, but the Herald Sun apparently can’t help but keep misleading its readers in its Court reporting. This morning’s edition features three poorly-reported crime stories, a sanctimonious “we know best” editorial, and a series of “BRING IN MANDATORY SENTENCING!” letters from poorly-informed but strident readers.

The point to keep in mind here is that if there are serious questions to be asked about sentencing practices in this state, then why does the Hun constantly feel the need to exaggerate them? Not just occasionally, but pretty much every single time?

Firstly, Aaron Toal and the “bet” that resulted in the tragic death of Yuxiong Han. To begin with, the paper version of the Hun starts out with this patently misleading and prejudicial headline:

Just $10 for a life

That makes it sound like the punishment for this manslaughter was a $10 fine (the $10 was the amount the defendant offered his 15 year old mate to chase the victim), whereas the actual punishment was a two year Community Based Order with the maximum 500 hours of community work. (You can read the judgment to hear the Judge’s reasoning.)

Now, you might well disagree with that sentence – although the general public would like criminals to be rehabilitated, the instinctive reaction to a tragic incident like this is to wish that punishment was the primary consideration, no matter whether that turns a young offender into a hardened criminal or not. Likewise, it is difficult at first glance to appreciate why someone who pleads guilty should get a discount on their sentence, without a more sober reflection on how much it would cost the community and victims if every matter proceeded to a full contest.

But even if you think 500 hours of community work insufficient in this case, it’s clearly quite different to “Just $10 for a life”.

The Hun also tried to take issue with the Judge’s finding that the young man was extremely remorseful, on the grounds that he told their reporter to go away:

Despite court evidence that Toal was genuinely remorseful over the death of victim Yuxiong Han, he refused to apologise when approached at his front door.

When asked if he wanted to say anything, he told the Herald Sun to “forget it” before retreating inside and slamming the door.

Nice – the Hun is pretending that it represents the victim and the community. But remorse for what he did to the victim and his family is hardly the same as wanting to play along with the Hun’s savage little games – although I’m sure it didn’t help encourage the journalist to cover the story fairly.

The second example is this one:
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“A priority”? I do love the News Ltd standard implication on these matters that a criminal retaining their basic rights is somehow in opposition to you or I retaining ours. That if they don’t actually lose all their rights, then somehow they’re getting “priority” over the rest of us. It doesn’t make a jot of sense if you think about it, but if you just let the impression wash over you, well, then mission accomplished.

Finally the Hun reports an acquittal thus – “Thug set free on kill charge” (on the main page) and “John James Stewart free on St Kilda kill charge” on the story itself.

“Set free” sounds like he’s guilty but has been released by some kind of softy judge – it downplays the fundamental point there, which was that he was not found guilty and is consequently to be considered innocent. Perhaps next time they might consider going with the more accurate and less misleading “Man with prior convictions acquitted of new charges”. Or “John Stewart Innocent”.

The Hun then has a go at the fact his priors were not known to the jury:

The jury that found John James Stewart not guilty of beating to death a lonely, homeless man in a St Kilda boarding house was not aware of his long history of violence.

Is the Hun campaigning for people with criminal histories not to get fair trials now? That it doesn’t matter whether they’re innocent of this particular charge, they deserve to be found guilty of things they may not have done just because they have priors?

The reason people’s criminal histories are not put before fact finders is that they are likely to result in the conviction of innocent people – as a lawyer would put it, their prejudicial effect vastly outweighs their probative value. And it’s important that the people we convict of offences and send to jail are actually guilty of those offences.

We err on the side of innocence because an innocent person in jail is a worse injustice than a guilty person out of jail. (It’s called “Blackstone’s Formulation” and it even has Old Testament biblical authority, for those so inclined.)

The point of all of this? Although it wants to be believed and taken seriously by its readers as a reliable source of information, the Hun can’t help but exaggerate. $10 for 500 hours. No remorse for not wanting to talk to its reporter. “Priority” for “still having some rights”. And “set free” instead of “innocent”.

Whatever the merit in the point they’re trying to make (and I don’t think there’s much), the dishonest way they pursue it seriously undermines it.

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