It is perhaps the worst part of the job. You’ve lost. The police are jubilant and the Crown Prosecution Service is making the finishing touches to its triumphant public statement.
What’s the best way to describe him?
“A prolific sexual offender?”
A bit feeble. How about:
“A prolific and evil sexual predator?”
Better, but still not quite right. Leaves a bit of wriggle room.
I know, I’ve got it now:
“A prolific and evil sexual predator who has preyed on innocent children for decades.”
He may be taken down to the cells straightaway, or may be allowed his liberty for a few more days while reports are prepared.
What do you say when you reach the comparative calm of the interview room?
It’s not particularly easy.
The prolific and evil sexual predator is an old man with a bladder problem and a sense of humour, whom you have come to rather like and even – more often than people might imagine – to believe in over the two weeks of the trial. You have done your best but the jury have turned flat against both of you.
He is sitting slumped at a table with his head in his arms. He might be crying, although a stiff upper lip comes in handy at such times. Sometimes his wife is still there, hollow-eyed with grief and humiliation; more often she left him 12 months ago once she learnt what the accusations were.
Sympathy sounds empty at such a moment, but it is all you have left.
“I’m so sorry Mr X.”
There is seldom much point in talking about the length of the sentence he can expect. That was a conversation for an earlier, more optimistic, stage of proceedings, although if the verdicts are mixed or unexpected sometimes you can point out a few crumbs of comfort. “At least you got off the rape.”
If you are lucky he will turn his red eyes to you and thank you for trying hard.
If you are unlucky you will be inwardly cursing yourself for a bad decision you took during the trial, and if you are very unlucky he will be outwardly cursing you for the same thing.
You can perhaps try to soften the blow by talking about a possible appeal. The old boy might be comforted at the time, but in truth any defendant’s chance of getting a conviction overturned on appeal are vanishingly small. However good an appeal point you think you may have you can’t ever, honestly, be confident about it. “We’ll give it a go” is about as gung-ho as one can ever be.
Meanwhile prison looms. It is a particularly grim prospect for two categories of defendant: the very young and, as Rolf Harris is no doubt thinking this week, the very old.
Harris “could die in jail”, claimed the Daily Telegraph. Of course that goes for anyone who is sent to prison, but Harris is so near the end of his natural life that it is quite likely that his slow shuffle of shame up the steps of Southwark Crown Court on Friday morning will be his last as a free man. His sentence will be measured in years and he cannot have many years left. Oscar Wilde’s observation that “every saint has a past and every sinner has a future” is not true in his case. He has no future.
The CPS cannot be criticised for bringing the prosecution. The central allegation, of an abusive relationship with a thirteen year old girl, was too serious to be overlooked. Nevertheless, it is hard to see what purpose can be served by imposing a long sentence on the wretched man.
Punishment is meant to serve three purposes: rehabilitation, deterrence and retribution.
Talk of “rehabilitation” is absurd. Were he an illiterate 18 year old from a broken home, in gaol for robbery it might, in theory, make some sense: he could – despite Mr Grayling’s book ban – learn to read, learn to be a painter and decorator and perhaps emerge from prison in a better position to lead a law abiding life. But Mr Harris has not offended for years. He apparently suffers from the sort of age-related conditions that tend to dampen libido, but even if he retained the urges of an adolescent kangaroo it is inconceivable that he will ever again be in a position to grope children and young women; still less to conduct a sexual relationship with a thirteen year old girl. Prison will not rehabilitate him and nor does it need to. There is no point in turning him into a second rate decorator. We can be certain that his days of sexual offending are over.
When he is sentenced the judge will probably speak of the need to deter others. Yet in truth a prison sentence will hardly be more of a deterrent than his public humiliation; and that will continue indefinitely. Even while his trial was in progress there was a huge amount of sometimes disgraceful comment that seemed calculated to influence the jury (although they would have been told repeatedly not to look at internet gossip). This tweet, for example, was a comparatively mild example of potentially prejudicial comment noteworthy only because its author claims – astonishingly – to be a practising magistrate. Perhaps she should find another way to occupy her leisure time.
All restraint has now been thrown to the wind. Already in an attempt to increase his guilt by association Harris has been linked with Jimmy Savile, because on one occasion he was shown round Broadmoor Hospital in his company. The fact that Savile showed other celebrities around the hospital, such as Frank Bruno (to whom no suspicion whatever attaches) will be ignored, as will the conclusion to the official report into the matter:
“all of these visitors were escorted, and we heard no suggestion of any inappropriate
behaviour or access to patients.”
But facts no longer matter. It is even possible that a prison cell will provide a shelter of sorts from the obloquy that is raining down, some of it inevitably from people whose own lives have hardly been models of probity.
What of the idea that Harris should be gaoled as an act of retribution? That can be the only remaining justification for locking him up: because he “deserves” it. It’s a grim justification for sending an old man to gaol, but to mark his disgrace by doing community service in a hospice like the septuagenarian Sylvio Berlusconi would seem faintly grotesque.
Will those whom he abused so long ago feel better for Rolf Harris’s incarceration? If so then some good might perhaps come of what is otherwise a miserable story. But it is hardly something to be enthusiastic about.