This blog will rarely discuss particular cases. When dreadful crimes hit the headlines, there are (too) many opinions on offer and emotions are high. It is rarely a good time to see what can be learnt about the origins of grave crimes – which is something we need to do if we are going to do all we can to reduce the chances of their happening.
But at least one particular aspect of the recent case of Richard Huckle is worth pondering. Huckle, whose several appalling crimes led to a sentence of life imprisonment, wrote a letter to the judge before sentence which was reported to have contained apologies to his victims’ families but which the judge regarded an attempt to ‘justify the unjustifiable’. The Guardian report continues ‘in light of Huckle’s refusal to hand over encrypted passwords to hidden files on his computer, the judge added: “In my view, you may well harbour feelings of regret but there is no feeling of genuine remorse in this case.”’ This seems a very reasonable inference: if Huckle had been genuinely remorseful, he would have done all he could to make amends and this should begin by giving up these encrypted passwords. Failing to do this may also look like a willingness on his part to continue his abusive behaviour and / or to enable others to do so.
Remorse is at once one of the most influential and least understood aspects in a sentencing decision. We know that it can make an enormous difference to the sentence. Even if remorse is not always an occasion for a lighter sentence, the lack of remorse will often be commented upon by a sentencing judge and is always likely to incur a weightier punishment. But while we all recognise the value of remorse, it is worth asking why it matters. Is not remorse the least that can be expected? There is no reason to think that it is any kind of assurance of better behaviour in the future and it is not clear that it can in any way undo the past. And if remorse doesn’t matter, why should its absence? Since defendants usually have their remorse expressed on their behalf by professional advocates, how are we to judge when its expression is ‘genuine’ or merely self-serving (as Huckle’s seems to have been)?