12:17, April 06 230 0 theguardian.com

2018-04-06 12:17:25
The Guardian view on burglary: a matter for the law

The death of Henry Vincent, a career criminal who died after being stabbed in a fight with a south-east London pensioner more than twice his age whose house he was trying to burgle, has unleashed violent public passions and arguments. Legally, the matter may be a simple one. Ever since the case of Tony Martin, the Norfolk farmer who shot in the back and killed a young thief in his isolated farmhouse in 1999, and served three years in prison for manslaughter after an outcry against his initial conviction for murder, the law has been successively rebalanced in the interests of homeowners and against intruders.

Householders are now entitled to fight back – and even to deploy “disproportionate force” – in self-defence if they are attacked in their own homes. Richard Osborn-Brooks, the 78-year-old pensioner involved in the fight, has been met by a wave of public sympathy, while the dead man, his family and associates, have all been the subjects of scorn and abuse from the papers. Any gang which preys on old people, as they did, deserves public obloquy as well as prison sentences. It’s difficult to imagine a crime that is more despicable and spreads more fear and distrust than stealing from pensioners. The instincts of the public in this case are entirely on the side of justice. But they are not the same thing as justice.

The rush of public sympathy and understanding for Mr Osborn-Brooks is not at all hard to appreciate or to sympathise with. If he did kill Vincent this will have been an entirely traumatic experience for him; even having to confront a burglar in the middle of the night is shocking enough for most people. But the rush of vicarious rage which has also greeted the story is a reminder of what the law and the criminal justice system stand for. Its measured deliberations ensure a balanced approach and protect us from our own most violent instincts. Vincent may well have deserved another long prison sentence, an exceptionally grim punishment in the present state of prisons. His death was, in a sense, a foreseeable consequence of his wicked and profoundly antisocial behaviour. Nonetheless, he did not deserve to die, as his family has pointed out, and had he stood trial for breaking into an old couple’s house he would not have been sentenced to death.

The passions aroused by this case are reminiscent of some of the tragic cases in the US, though fortunately without the racial angle which makes such episodes so very poisonous there. The easy availability of guns in the United States means that the American householder who feels threatened becomes a very much more dangerous person than a British pensioner. The result is not a safer country but a very much more dangerous one, with higher murder rates and much more fear and unease in the background of daily life.

Which brings us back to the tragic statistic that in the first months of this year the murder rate in London exceeds that of New York; and most of these killings have involved knives. The death of Henry Vincent was not a “knife crime” in the sense that the label is usually applied. But it is a reminder of how dangerous a stab wound can be, even when inflicted by a pensioner; and it should serve as a reminder of the urgency of stopping the use of knives as a means to settle any disputes. Cases such as this one are mercifully rare. Most crimes involving knives are not fatal; many are also morally much less clear. But this one should remind us that it is the law and its enforcement which exist to keep old and vulnerable people safe, not unofficial or vigilante violence.