Back in 2006, the Sun was tipped off that the killer of headteacher Philip (see comments for the cock-up previously here) Lawrence, Learco Chindamo, was being allowed out for a day unsupervised from his open prison, part of the usual program of preparing prisoners for their eventual release, of which Lawrence's widow had been informed, if not told of the exact nature of his day out. Their article, headed "OUTRAGE", was under the by-line of John Kay, the Sun journalist convicted of killing his wifein a failed murder-suicide pact. Despite describing him as "not having a care in the world" and "swaggering" he was in fact pursued at length by the paper's team, even though they got the shots which would be used as he had first emerged from Ford open prison.
Today the paper splashes on his release from prison, having served two years more than the minimum which was recommended for his offence. The article, in many ways, is remarkably similar. Probably realising that they couldn't have gotten away with one killer calling another "evil", it this time fell to Anthony France to write the article, headlined "HEAD'S EVIL KILLER FREED". The pattern is exactly the same: his every move over the weekend was monitored, right down to the truly thrilling detail that he found himself on the wrong train platform and had to sprint to the right one. This time, rather than "swaggering" he was instead "strutting", although a "source" declared he was "strolling along enjoying the sunshine as if he didn't have a care in the world".
All of which is, it should be noted, with the exception of the description of him as "evil", is fair enough. The release of a notorious killer into the community is undoubtedly a matter of public interest. Far less fair are the same inaccuracies which almost always feature in any report on Chindamo. Firstly, that his appeal against deportation to Italy was granted on human rights grounds when it was not. The Asylum and Immigration Tribunal's decision was in fact based on the 2004 EU citizenship directive, and the government's appeal was rejected on the grounds of a subsequent 2006 EU immigration regulations, where the judge decided that Chindamo did not pose a "genuine, present and sufficiently serious threat" to society. It was in any case perverse that Chindamo could have been deported back to Italy - he arrived in London when he was 6, could speak no Italian and had no actual family connections in that country. He was a product, of this country and while he was responsible for his actions he should also be considered our responsibility, not that of a country he left as a small child.
The second inaccuracy is the continued assertion that Chindamo was still considered a threat back in 2007, not just repeated in the Sun's article and its leader comment, but also in the Telegraph. It's true that in the Home Office's submission to the immigration tribunal it says that "the appellant’s crime is of such severity that he will always continue to be a threat to the community such that his release on licence would be on the basis that he might be recalled to prison at any moment for any breach of his conditions". This however is the regime which all those sentenced to life in prison find themselves under when they are released on parole; they are on licence for the rest of their lives and any breach of their conditions, if considered serious enough, results in their instant return to prison. The other parts of the paragraph which are less willingly recalled directly contradict the claim that he still poses a threat:
In the revised reasons for deportation letter it is noted that it is unlikely that the appellant will re-offend, and that he accepts his responsibility for his offences and has undertaken courses for anger managementIn other words, the Home Office was not justifying his deportation on the grounds that he himself was a threat, but rather of what might increase the risk should he be released, which unsurprisingly is the media following his every move as it has so far done. If anything, it seems to be suggesting that the problem might be if he is forced to defend himself; far easier to dispose of him to Italy where no one would recognise him then have to draw up effective and also expensive plans to potentially protect him. It also has to be remembered that this was part of a letter putting forward the case for his deportation, where the argument was always likely to put as forcefully as possible. In any case, the Asylum and Immigration Tribunal at the time rejected it, and the parole board would have heard exactly the same arguments before making its decision, again obviously rejected, with any threat or risk decided to be manageable.
In this regard though we must bear in mind the point to which we were referred by Mr Scannell that that assessment was not made on account of the appellant being a threat to the public but because of the likelihood of media scrutiny and/or public interest. The letter does note that risk factors might increase because of media and public scrutiny that the appellant might receive. It also comments that the OAsys report notes that there are occasions where the appellant has overacted to situations and there are severe concerns with finding him appropriate accommodation on release if allowed to remain in the United Kingdom. He would need to be excluded from certain parts of the country, community integration would be a problem on release and he might suffer a backlash. The letter states that the appellant’s notoriety might make him feel excluded from society as he had been before and there was a significant risk that his previous disregard for authority and the law might resurface and result in him coming to adverse attention. As a consequence it was considered that he posed a continuing risk to the public and that his offences were so serious that he represents a genuine and present and sufficiently serious threat to the public in principle such as to justify his deportation.
The Sun does at least at the end of their story give space to the statement issued by Chindamo's solicitor, which outlines his remorse and gives an indication as to how he intends to continue to atone for his crime. It doesn't however make mention of the how the deputy prison governor at Ford considered Chindamo to be one of the very few prisoners he had encountered who had genuinely made a change for the better, who if given a chance "would prove himself worthy of trust", probably for the reason that he tried to get the hearing held behind closed doors because of the press coverage of his day release.
The paper's editorial tone has also somewhat changed from back in 2007 when it declared he should not be released, although not by enough, and which again repeats the inaccuracies dealt with above. It also mentions another comment made, dealt with myself again at the time:
One fellow con said he showed not one ounce of remorse - quite the opposite, in fact.The fellow con was Mark Brunger, and his comments were based on how Chindamo supposedly was while at a young offender's institution. Back in 2007 at best he had not had any association with Chindamo for 3 years - and at worst anything up to 7, and that's if we believe him.
That was just three years ago.And the Sun, as the Home Office set out, is doing its part perfectly.
We can only pray that letting him loose is not a gamble with someone else's life.
All the signs are however that Chindamo is that rare thing - a truly reformed character. Giving a convicted killer the benefit of the doubt is always going to be difficult, even when Frances Lawrence has herself apparently now forgiven him and magnanimously hopes for the best. Chindamo has to live up to what is expected of him, but to do that others have to take him into their confidence as well. The Sun, the rest of the media, and the public should now give him the opportunity and the space to do just that.