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Media suppressing judge’s name?!

By Steven | April 28, 2011

An old mate of mine, former Fair Go editor Chris Mitson, wonders why the media aren’t naming the judge who gave Malcolm Chaston bail. After all, Chaston had 71 previous convictions and during his previous stretch in prison, a prison guard had warned of his ambitions to become a serial killer. Police reportedly opposed bail. Chaston went on to murder Vanessa Pickering. Why shouldn’t the media be asking the judge a few questions about why bail was granted, he asks.

There’s nothing to stop the media naming the judge. As far as I can tell, they don’t seem to have done so. I don’t know why not.

The reports do suggest that Chaston had been out of prison for a time before the alleged assault for which he was given bail. The judge is reported as saying: there was nothing in your recent history to suggest you would offend in that way. I’m not sure what this means. Offend in what way? Was the prison officer’s warning put before the judge? But the judge may have been saying, in effect, “he’s been out of jail for a while, and kept his nose clean, apart from this allegation; there’s nothing to justify keeping him locked up pending trial for this assault”.

Judges must grant bail in a case like this (I’m assuming the charge was common assault, with a maximum penalty of one year in jail) unless there’s “just cause for continued detention”. That might be because he’s likely to abscond, or to interfere with evidence or witnesses, or commit further offences. The judge can take into account his history of offending and the seriousness of the charge he’s facing, among other things. I don’t know all the circumstances here. There may be questions to ask about whether the judge exercised the discretion properly, or whether our bail laws strike the right balance. This seems a good case in which to debate those things. The media don’t seem to be doing so.

I wouldn’t recommend approaching the judge directly. He or she will simply refuse to comment. Questions could be put to the Chief District Court Judge, but his response would probably only be a general one. Still, the debate can still take place without them…

Topics: General | 1 Comment »

One Response to “Media suppressing judge’s name?!”

  1. metanarratives Says:
    April 29th, 2011 at 3:33 pm

    It’s an interesting decision. Before approaching the judge (or the chief district court judge), the media ought to ask the court for the judge’s bail decision, or put in an application to search the court file (however this costs money). I wasn’t able to find the District Court’s bail decision through the ordinary means – District Court decisions aren’t typically placed on the databases and it can even be hard to get decisions from the court (decision may not be transcribed, getting the information out may not be deemed a priority by the registry/judge). However if bail conditions were set, the decision is more likely to be transcribed and on the court file. Maybe what should really be the focus of examination are the bail conditions, their adequacy and their enforcement, rather than the decision to grant or refuse bail itself.

    It would be good to have a look at the court file to see what information was before the judge. This is speculation, but could make sense of the comment reported in the media, the judge may had detailed information (or even knowledge) about his past offences – most are minor or trivial, and the serious offences were at the lower end of culpability – and expert reports about his time in prison painted a different picture or contextualised his comments made to correctional officers. What weighs heavily on the judge’s mind is the alleged incident (rather than the charge) before the court – if the incident is minor or relatively trivial denying bail is not seriously going to be entertained. Sometimes minor charges may first appear as a holding charge for a more serious charge later. Conditions of bail ought to be the focus if the incident and also the charge aren’t overly serious.

    Regarding comments to correctional officers – judges must take into account all information (the rules of evidence don’t operate in bail proceedings). Not too sure how much weight you would give to such information. Prisoners when serving full term may often make such comments – they have been labelled dangerous, and the label works for them inside. Bumps them up the pecking order, means they encounter less problems. The judge’s comment that “nothing in your recent history to suggest you would offend in that way” may have set him off – he has been told he is dangerous in the past, gained status from this label and now it’s being denied.

    I doubt the judge would wish to talk to the media on approach. It’s a misnomer that judges talk only about individual cases inside the courtroom. Judges talk in public (extra judicially) quite freely, about their celebrated cases.

    If the media are thinking to pursue the judge, why not also pursue the Police (or the Crown Solicitor) and ask why no appeal was lodged, ask the police about the level of supervision provided to Malcolm Chaston when on bail and the enforcement of bail conditions, and the Department of Corrections as to why prison officers (six of them) took it upon themselves to send emails to the Sensible Sentencing Trust as a means to bring light to their concerns? And also why not ask the Department of Corrections what plan was put in place to minimise the risks of reoffending on his release? Did the prison gate just open, handed 100 bucks and told to get lost?


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