Friday, May 30, 2014

A crime in the neighbourhood

A woman was murdered in our neighbourhood last Saturday night. In some places, that’s nothing unusual, but in our neighbourhood, and in this country, it’s shocking.

The bare details of the crime are that a woman worked late on Saturday, catching a bus in the city around 7pm and never made it home. She got off the bus at her stop in our neighbourhood and started walking down the street, where something happened to her (the police haven’t said what), and she disappeared. Her phone and shoes were found near the footpath on the street she was walking down.

We never heard a thing. That’s not unusual, since we usually don’t hear noises from that street. We’re down hill from the area where the stuff was found, and there are many houses between us and there. That particular night, we had some people around to our house, so there was absolutely no chance we’d hear anything.

The first we knew anything had happened was Sunday morning, when our niece stopped by and told us parts of the street were cordoned off and there were police all over the place. That afternoon, police specialists in search and rescue came by our house and had a look around. They’d already had police dogs in the nearby park, and they looked in the bush not far from our house, too.

The next day, Monday, another cop came by to ask if we’d heard anything. He said they were exploring all possibilities, including that she’d been hit by a car and had crawled off. I helped them get access to the underside of houses around us so they could have a look (many of the houses in our complex are built on hillsides, so have big spaces underneath). We both knew there was no way someone hit by a car could have, let alone would have, crawled so very far, but it needed to be checked all the same.

Tuesday, another constable came by and asked who was here that night. I didn’t have everyone’s phone numbers (I keep forgetting to update contacts on my phone), but I was able to tell him who was here and at approximately what times. More or less. Who pays THAT much attention to ordinary life, like what specific time guests arrive or leave?

By the time the constable came around, police had already found the woman's body less than 2km away, in the bushy area of a cemetery, of all places. They’d also made an arrest.

Wednesday, the constable came back asking me to reconfirm with folks who were here, to make sure that no one had seen anything that night, and I worked on that so I could email him. This gave me time to get the contact details I didn’t have before.

It’s weird, and even silly, but being able to help the police in even these teeny, tiny ways felt like I was, well, helping—and, of course, in a way we were: Information like ours helps to flesh out the story of what happened that night. What seems insignificant and trivial to us can help police form a complete picture of the chain of events that night.

The whole neighbourhood was freaked out when the story broke: This sort of thing just doesn’t happen here. In fact, murder in New Zealand is so rare that when one happens, it makes the nationwide evening news, usually the top story.

I looked it up, and, per 100,000 population, in 2012 New Zealand had 0.9 murders, while Australia had 1.0, United Kingdom 1.2, Canada 1.6 and the USA 4.8. As compared to the USA in particular, it’s easy to see why a murder is such big news here.

As always happens at a time like this, gossip is taking on a life of its own. Part of that is because so little official information has been released, so people tend to make up their own stories, or elaborate on what is known, etc. But it can also have consequences: The judge issued a blanket suppression order, forbidding the publication of any details about the alleged murderer. People who are taking to social media to talk about the case are being rather careless about what they say—spreading not just gossip but also sometimes facts about the accused. They could be prosecuted for doing so.

The judge issued the order to ensure that the accused has a fair trial. I have no idea whether the suppression order was justified, but the goal of a fair trial is a worthy one, so maybe it was a good idea, even if people are reacting in anger to this crime—actually, maybe because people are reacting that way.

We need to have a full and open discussion of the issues of crime and punishment, the criminal justice process, as well as crime prevention, but that discussion shouldn’t be based on one particular crime, but on general principles, instead. I don’t think that sort of discussion can happen right now.

One thing we can all agree on, though, is that we shouldn’t even have to debate all this because of that one crime that happened nearly a week ago. The victim and her family deserve the attention right now. The rest can wait.


rogerogreen said...

I've made it clear that I think there's too much pre-trial talk in the US, and I will avoid being part of it. My gut says the suppression order is probably a good idea, based on my US experience.

Arthur (AmeriNZ) said...

My gut reaction is that you're right. In any event, I have no reason to breach the suppression order.