An Oxford student ‘too bright’ for prison is spared jail for stabbing boyfriend’. If you’ve been active on social media over the last couple of weeks, it likely you’ve seen at least one variant of this shocking piece of news.
It’s a brilliant headline really – one simple sentence that sent many a social-media-user-turned-activist rushing to their keyboards to allege social injustice, to defame a legal system where ‘only those with the least talent and potential should suffer the inconvenience of paying for their crimes’, and to protest against Judge Ian Pringle’s decision to suspend Lavinia Woodward’s sentence for 18 months, with many comparing the case to that of sex offender Brock Turner in 2016.
Sparking outrage and fuelling heated online discussion, it is the perfect clickbait, but if you’re one of the many well intentioned users who have helped spread this story, I’m sorry to break it to you, but you have fallen into a carefully crafted trap.
Mainstream media has delighted in painting Woodward as the ‘Oxford University Slasher’ who walked free after she viciously ‘plunged’ a knife into her partner’s leg, simply because of the Judge’s concern for the bright future of an intelligent, rich white woman. Dig below the surface, and ‘Slasher’ is exposed to be a cruel nickname for a woman struggling with mental illness who, while ‘intoxicated, deeply distraught and mentally disturbed’, stabbed her partner for trying to help her before turning the knife on herself.
Back in May, Woodward pleaded guilty to unlawful wounding, a charge which carries a maximum sentence of 5 years. This charge is extremely broad, ranging from minor to life threatening injury. Woodward’s offence was deemed a category two, because despite the provocative language used in headlines, the injuries were relatively minor. A level two offence carries a maximum sentence of 18 months.
In the UK, official guidelines state that it is appropriate to suspend a sentence for two main reasons – if there is strong personal mitigation, and if there is a realistic prospect of rehabilitation. In his sentencing remarks, the judge acknowledged several mitigating factors – that she was suffering from ‘emotionally unstable personality disorder’, ‘a severe eating disorder’ and ‘alcohol drug dependence’, as well as recovering from a previous abusive relationship – but her intelligence was barely mentioned, and certainly not as a mitigating factor. Furthermore, he acknowledged her rehabilitation efforts, pointing out that she had ‘undergone extensive treatment including counselling to address the many issues’. If this is not a textbook example of when a sentence should be suspended, then what is? Surely no one is suggesting that our legal system shouldn’t take mental health problems such as these into consideration during the sentencing process?
Brock Turner was released from prison after serving just three months for sexually assaulting an unconscious woman, due to the judge’s fear that this would have a ‘severe impact’ on his life, while simultaneously disregarding the impact on the life of his victim. He continues to deny responsibility for what his father described as ’20 minutes of action’, choosing instead to blame Stanford’s ‘party culture’, and has not apologised for his awful violation of a young woman’s body. To compare this case to that of Ms Woodward, a mentally ill student in desperate need of help and rehabilitation, is sickening.
There is no denying that there are issues of class prejudice that are ever present in our legal system, however to make Lavinia Woodward the poster girl for this is not only morally wrong, but also woefully misinformed. The injustice is not that Woodward was spared jail due to mitigating factors, it is that these same factors are not considered in all cases in a country where over 50% of female prisoners have suffered some form of abuse.
(Image courtesy of The BBC)