The case we have all watched in horror playing out in the news is over. Clayton Weatherston has been found guilty of murdering Sophie Elliot and his attempt at the partial defence of provocation was rightly shown the contempt it deserved by the court. At MandM we maintained our standard policy of refusing to comment while a trial is in progress but now the verdict is in we will add our voices to the debate raging in New Zealand over the partial defence of provocation.
Like everyone, we found it sickening to watch the narcissistic Weatherston trying to paint his victim as evil in an attempt to have his brutal stabbing and mutilation of her rendered manslaughter instead of murder. Watching her brave mother, who not only testified but who tried to stop him stabbing her daughter, suffer through the ordeal of the trial, made all the worse by Weatherston’s desperate attempt to save himself from the consequences of his actions, was awful. As a mother I cried with her. No mother should have to bury her daughter much less witness her daughter’s murder and then sit in the same room with her killer as he spent days in the court room trying to spin his actions into something understandable.
However, likewise, no accused should lose their right to due process, to a fair trial, just because this accused was so obviously guilty and so obviously wrong and utterly reprehensible in his attempts to suggest that his culpability should be reduced. The Weatherston case was open and shut murder. However, not all cases are this clear and some people are falsely accused and some accuseds should succeed with a partial defence of provocation. If we remove the partial defence of provocation because of our disgust at Weatherston and what he tried to argue in the courtroom and how deeply we feel for Mrs Elliot, we would do a far greater wrong.
Accuseds will often try to raise defences for which, if they are being honest with themselves they should not be trying to raise; however, if we remove a defence because we do not like witnessing these attempts, we will be removing it for those whose actions did amount to provocation, who do deserve the lesser charge of manslaughter.
Would you want her to not have that option, to be stuck with murderer as her label? Surely, even though we can all appreciate hacking Weatherston to death with an axe at that moment would have been wrong, we can at least see that the level of blame we as a society should attach to the likes of Weatherston, should not apply to the hypothetical, axe-wielding, Mrs Elliot in my scenario.
Not all killing is equal. We can tell the difference between an accidental death and a pre-meditated killing. We recognise that there are degrees between these two extremes. We also recognise that sometimes murder is understandable, even if not completely excusable; this is precisely why we have the partial defence of provocation.
The person who reacts to discovering an intruder in their child’s bedroom by repeatedly bashing them over the head with a cast-iron frying pan is not on par with a serial killer. These degrees are recognised in both the sentences the courts hand down and the convictions placed against the actors names and it is important for justice that the police, the courts and accuseds have this range of options to measure a person’s actions and intentions against when they grapple with the evidence and the events and circumstances surrounding a homicide.
People accused of criminal acts, who are not prepared to face up to what they have done and accept the consequences, will always try to run any kind of far-fetched defence they can dream up in a desperate bid to get off. Had Weatherston not had provocation as an option he might have tried self-defence or a complete denial of guilt and you would have seem very similar attempts to smear the victims playing out on the news as he tried to run with these options; likewise if consideration of provocation is moved to sentencing. The only way you can get rid of attempts to smear the victim and the pain the family of the victim goes through in a trial is to completely get rid of trials and summarily convict all accuseds. What Mrs Elliot and Sophie’s family, friends and memory went through, terrible as it was, is nevertheless, the lesser evil.
The system worked. Weatherston’s attempt at provocation rightly failed and in making that attempt he made himself look worse and his victim gained more sympathy, distasteful as the process was. Further, we all understand as a community that the court was right to deem this man a murderer. John Stuart Mill was right, truth becomes more evident and thus, more valuable, when it has been permitted to grapple with falsehood.
No Defences Permitted For The Accused