Friday, 28 October 2011

When should inadmissible evidence be allowed?

This afternoon A Dutchman, Vincent Tabak, was found guilty of murdering Joanna Yeates in Bristol in December 2010.  Tabak had already pleaded guilty to manslaughter, claiming that he had tried to kiss her, and when she screamed, he had put a hand over her mouth, another around her neck and accidentally strangled her to death.  He then disposed of her body and attempted to implicate an innocent man, Chris Jefferies, in her murder. Mr Jefferies was arrested and hounded by the media to the extent that he has subsequently successfully sued a number of the British tabloids for libel.

The prosecution’s case was that Mr Tabak had visited Joanna Yeates with a sexual motive and had then murdered her.  The defence had argued that Mr Tabak was in a monogamous relationship and was generally sexually inexperienced and had misread signals from Ms Yeates which had led to him making a pass at her and then accidentally killing her. 

In the end Tabak was found guilty of murder by a majority verdict, and has been sentenced to life in prison, with a minimum term of twenty years.

However, subsequent to the verdict, it has been disclosed that images were found on Tabak’s computers depicting strangulation pornography, where women were strangled and in some instances, bound and gagged in the back of cars.  This evidence was granted inadmissible by the judge on the basis it might prejudice the jury.

Now questions are being asked as to why this evidence was not considered admissible in court. 

In truth the fact the evidence was not presented has proven to be irrelevant in this case, since Tabak has been convicted of murder.  However, given the argument for the defence was one of intent, it was not beyond the realms of possibility that a jury could have found him not guilty of murder without knowing all the facts about him.

This was a man who enjoyed watching videos of women being strangled, who then went out and strangled a woman and killed her.  Perhaps it could be argued that being in possession of this knowledge might sway the jury in terms of their own moral opinions on the viewing of this kind of material.  However given this was a man who was presented as sexually naive, having never had a girlfriend until the age of 29, and having misconstrued the signals given to him by a woman, which then led to her death, is it not also possible that the jury has been sent out to consider a verdict without actually being in possession of the full facts? 

As a rule, previous exploits and convictions are not taken into account when someone is tried for a crime, for fear that a jury might be prejudiced and also because disclosure of previous convictions can be used as a reason for appeal if it is believed that the jury were prejudiced due to the disclosure of previous convictions/pastimes.

I am torn over this.  I can see why past convictions are not taken into account, after all if someone is convicted of a crime doesn’t necessarily mean they will go on to commit the same crime again, and having knowledge of this fact would almost certainly sway a jury in terms of reaching a verdict. 

But here we have a man who strangled an innocent woman, who admitted to doing so because he claimed his sexual naivety led him to misconstrue the signals she gave him when she invited him into her flat for a drink.  The jury are led to believe by the defence that this man didn’t have a girlfriend until he was 29, we could be forgiven for thinking that perhaps he was socially awkward, but otherwise a man of previously unblemished character.  

Meanwhile the prosecution are trying to put forward a case for there being a sexual motive to the crime, except there is no evidence to suggest a sexual motive – no sexual assault, she was still wearing her jeans, etc. 

Only after the jury have delivered their verdict did it become apparent that this man was into watching violent porn where women are strangled and bound and gagged in the back of cars.  And suddenly a sexual motive becomes abundantly clear.  And even if it doesn’t lead to intent to kill, it completely alters the argument that a man who was into strangulation porn who then strangled a woman didn’t know what he was doing.

As I said further up this post, the fact this evidence wasn’t entered at this stage does not alter things – Vincent Tabak was found guilty of murder.  But he was not found guilty by a majority – two jurors did not believe him to be guilty.

Would the evidence have altered the outcome?

If the defence paint someone as an upstanding citizen should the prosecution not be able to present evidence that directly contradicts these statements?

And more to the point, if someone’s fetishes spill over into real life and someone ends up dead, should these not be explored as part of the motive for committing the crime in the first place?

Sunday, 23 October 2011

egg donation - or is it now egg selling?

This week the human fertilisation and embryology authority (HFEA)
announced that it is considering tripling payments to women who donate
their eggs.

Currently egg donors are paid approximately £250 for their donation,
but it is hoped that increasing payments might encourage more women to
come forward.

For me this raises huge questions as to whether we are turning
potential children into commodities.

Egg donation is considered to be a selfless and altruistic act,
entered into by women who want to be able to give an infertile couple
the chance of having a child. The current payment is considered
enough to cover costs such as travel costs. But if this sum is
increased then surely it becomes questionable as to whether it is in
fact a donation or whether women are in fact then selling their eggs.

There are many countries where women are paid for their eggs, and this is seen as controversial because many of these women are poor and this is their only means of making some money.  Therefore it is not unreasonable to suggest that many of these women are exploited by the fertility clinics, who pay them a small amount of money for their eggs while taking vast sums from the desperate couples who travel there in order to receive fertility treatments. 

Fertility treatments are strictly regulated in the UK, and so it is hoped that if payments to egg donors were increased this too would be regulated in order to ensure that women were adequately counselled in order that they were fully aware of the risks of the treatments plus the potential long term implications. 

In the UK donors are not given anonymity, therefore if you choose to donate your eggs or sperm there is a chance that any resulting biological child would be entitled to contact you in the future should they wish to do so.  This step has, in fact, been seen as a huge contributing factor towards the drop in egg/sperm donors over the past few years. 

Egg donation is invasive and is not without risk.  Therefore generally women who choose to go through the process do so because they want to give an infertile couple the chance to have a baby.  I can’t help thinking that increasing the payments received will lead others to decide to go for egg donation for purely financial reasons.  People should donate their eggs because they want to donate their eggs, not because they want the money. 

The fertility industry is now a multi million pound industry.  Without donor eggs, many hundreds of couples go abroad and receive their treatments there.  Perhaps I am cynical in wondering whether a small payment made to women to sell their eggs is seen as a boost to an already thriving industry, and that women will be more likely to spend their money in the UK rather than going abroad for treatment.

Thursday, 20 October 2011

The death of Gaddafi in pictures - do we really need to see?

This morning, history was made when Libya's Col Muammar Gaddafi was killed. 

News quickly spread around Libya, and before too long, around the world.  This is the end of an era for the Libyans, and hopefully the beginning of a new one. 

But as the news spread, so did the graphic images and video footage, first of a still alive Gaddafi being paraded around the streets and then of his bloody corpse.

This is more than just news – it’s history.  Our children will learn about it in years to come.

However, I can’t help feeling uncomfortable at the level of graphic imagery that has been shown in conjunction with the broadcasting of this news story.  If you opened any news website this afternoon, you were confronted with the image of Gaddafi’s corpse without any prior warning.  The 6:00 BBC news headline started with “shocking images have been shown around the world,” as the “shocking images” scrolled across the screen.  And tomorrow’s front pages carry many of the same images. 

I personally think we should all take an interest in the news, I am constantly shocked at people who have no idea of what is going on around them.  However I fail to see why news stories such as this one need to come with graphic images attached.

The Libyan people needed confirmation that Gaddafi was dead.  Only if you have lived in Libya can you surely know just what it was like living under his regime and the impact his death may have on your life and that of your family.  But I don’t see why we need to see proof that he is dead, and if the media outlets absolutely feel they must publish these images, why they can’t do so more discretely either on the inside pages or after the watershed.

Our televisions have an off switch.  Every one of us has the option to not watch the broadcast news.  However it is much harder to avoid walking past newspaper stands or newspapers in supermarkets.  Is it appropriate that young children be subjected to these pictures without warning? 

The watershed exists in order to shield children from acts of sex or violence.  Is the broadcasting of a bloodied dead body, whoever he might have been, any less an act of violence purely because it’s a real life event and not a portrayal?

We are quick to condemn other countries for parading our own soldiers on their news channels, and while there is no comparison between Gaddafi and one of our own, and his death was inevitable, sensationalizing it by adding video footage and graphic pictures is no less distasteful.

Thursday, 13 October 2011

iOS5, the good, the bad and the general view

It was with eager anticipation that Apple users awaited the release of iOS5 yesterday.  Many said that they would wait to download and install it to their iPhones/iPods/iPads, as the demand was expected to be high, but in the end I think many just couldn’t wait and installed it anyway. 

As a self-confessed iPhone geek I decided not to hold out until the demand slowed and downloaded the update last night. 

For months now people have raved about the new improvements, so I thought I would give my own view on iOS5 and what I consider to be the pros/cons. 

There are three features which people have most anticipated, the notifications centre, iMessaging, and the iCloud. 

I have to say that I found the notifications centre to be quite impressive.  Even as someone who uses few notifications, I like the idea of being able to look in one place to see whether I have had responses to my tweets/direct messages/text messages, if you are a player of lots of games and a user of Facebook I imagine this particular feature would be especially useful.  And the best thing about it is that it can be accessed from anywhere on the phone. 

A feature which had been widely anticipated was iMessaging, which can be used for iPhone/iPad/iPod users to be able to message other users.  This is not a feature unique to Apple – in fact Blackberry messenger has been available for years. 

I have to say that I have some reservations about this feature.  While Blackberry Messenger is an app in its own right, Apple’s iMessaging is essentially part of the text messaging facility already built into the phone, and now presumably the iPad/iPod.  I think this has great potential for confusion, as an iMessage is exactly the same as a text message, and you therefore have no idea whether you are sending someone an iMessage or a text message, so therefore also have no idea whether it is potentially costing you money if you’re on a text plan.  It’s potentially not an issue to many, as people would iMessage the same people they might ordinarily text, but I think that it is somewhat deceptive.

The iCloud is a feature which enables you to store everything, music, contacts, etc without having to interact with iTunes.  Instead of your data being stored on a computer it will be stored on the iCloud.  I have personally not enabled this feature as I am not altogether comfortable with the notion of all my music/contacts/details being stored under Apple’s control. I also think that with recent events during which the Blackberry servers have suffered massive downtimes having all this information stored in one place like that is not necessarily a good thing.

There have been lots of improvements in terms of accessibility features for disabled users, both visually and hearing impaired as well as those with motor skills impairments.  I am a voiceover user and have noticed some of the changes already, although these will become more apparent the more I use it. 

Another feature which was widely talked about is the new voice recognition system.  This is only available to iPhone 4S users, so as I am a 3GS user I have not been able to experience it.  However contrary to the demonstrations which showed people jogging while speaking their text messages into their phones/making their appointments/reading and writing emails, I can’t help thinking this will be a gimmick which does not have lasting appeal.  As much as I think there is a certain element of fascination at being able to talk to a device and it essentially talking back to you, in truth I think very few people will want to be sitting on busses/trains/walking down the street shouting their text messages into their phones in the hope that the device will convert the speech to text accurately and then read the responses out loud for all to hear.  I think the novelty of that will wear off fairly quickly for most.  As someone who has played with dictation apps such as Dragon, the accuracy is rarely to a degree where you wouldn’t have to spend time editing anyway, so you might just as well type out your texts and maintain your privacy. 

Of course if you potentially have dexterity problems which make typing on the phone difficult then voice recognition is undoubtedly an excellent feature.  But I can’t see it being appealing to the mass market as Apple would have us believe. 

In conclusion – on the whole I think that iOS5 is not a bad update to Apple’s devices.  But I think that it is not without criticism either..

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Internet safety down to your ISP?

Today four of the UK’s internet service providers have announced plans for increased internet safety.  These include subscribers being able to choose to block sites with adult content at the point they sign up.  The measures are aimed at being able to prevent children from accessing porn on the internet.

In theory this might be seen by some parents as a positive step.  After all no-one wants to think of their children inadvertently stumbling across porn online, or in the case of older children, actively looking for it.  But I think how effective these measures will be in practical terms has to be questioned. 

What constitutes as adult content is, after all, very subjective.  So while a site which actively promotes the distribution of pornography is one that would be easily identified and blocked, sites such as Amazon which sell books and DVD’s which might be of an adult nature might easily be identified as adult sites, even though they are not.  Similarly web forums where strong language may be used in everyday conversation could be classified as adult purely because of the nature of some of the words being used there. 

It’s therefore not inconceivable that a parent choosing to have adult sites blocked in the belief that they are blocking porn will, in fact, end up blocking innocent sites they themselves choose to use on a daily basis.

Rather than having someone else decide what constitutes acceptable content, shouldn’t parents be educating themselves on how to police their children’s internet use better?  It would be all too easy to pass the responsibility of keeping children safe online on to someone else, however ultimately parents need to take responsibility for what their children are viewing on the internet, if for no other reason than to have awareness of what it is their children are doing online.

There are plenty of decent parental control solutions out there, which can be individually tailored to ensure that while the parents can access the sites they need to, the children cannot, and can remain safe online.

It should come down to individual responsibility, not the mass blocking of websites based on someone else’s perceptions of what is and is not appropriate content.