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Maintaining public confidence 2

The recent escape of Patricia Gillette was one which was rightly reported, on the face of it unexplained, and was precisely the sort of incident which gives rise to widespread public concern.

Patricia Gillette is from Streatham and is 41 years of age. In August 2006 she killed Mark Murphy, aged 38, at his Streatham home. She was apparently convicted of the killing in 2007 and detained indefinitely under a hospital order.

On the inauspicious date of Friday, 13 November 2009 (namely a little more than three years from the date of the killing, and less than three years from the date of the conviction) for some unexplained reason she was taken (from the Bethlehem Royal Hospital where she was being held) on an escorted shopping trip to the High Street in Bromley. She promptly escaped. Police described her as dangerous and someone who should not be approached but who if seen should be reported immediately to the police rather than challenged.

There was a curious difference between the description given to the public and the apparent description given within the Metropolitan police to assist her apprehension. The original description (a photograph was issued) was that she was black, between 5ft 3in and 5ft 8in, large build, moles under both eyes, scars on the left side of her neck and her left ear, with a ponytail. Her clothing was also described as was the fact that she had friends in the Streatham and Lambeth areas (so those were presumably the places to keep a particular look out for her, and indeed she was eventually apprehended in Streatham). The description given to the Metropolitan police apparently suggested that she was overweight, 5ft 5in tall and weighing about 25 stone.

I'm afraid the suspicion must be that overweight (which if the description of 5ft 5in tall and 25 stone is correct would be a highly charitable way of putting it) and the exact weight was not included in the public announcement either because it was considered to be too impolite or in some way thought to infringe her privacy in terms of indicating details as to her weight which were known. However it did mean that the description was manifestly unsatisfactory. There is a big difference between being a large build and being 25 stone. That means large build was a euphemism for enormously fat. You could see lots of ladies of large build, some you might describe as fat some definitely not, but I would imagine that women weighing 25 stone are still pretty thin on the ground (if that is not an unfortunate expression to use in the context). Giving a precise details of her physically would have made identification and no doubt apprehension easier. This however is a less important gripe, particularly because in the circumstances there does not appear to have been a further incident involving her and she was apprehended within two days.

The real question is, what on earth was she was doing on a shopping trip? She is not a long way into her sentence and so on the face of it it would be surprising if anyone thought she was imminently ready for release on the hapless populace. I accept however that sometimes that knee-jerk sort of reaction might be unhelpful. There might be some reason why her mental condition or state was capable of relatively swift change so that she was indeed on the path to rehabilitation and release. I would not rule that out (albeit unlikely) even after a relatively short period of time (although one would have to very much err on the side of caution having regard to the nature of the crime). However the difficulty with this is that she was quite plainly regarded as extremely dangerous. That does not sit very well with the idea that she was just about ready to be released into society.

If she was nowhere near ready for release, as would appear to be the case, what on earth was the purpose of taking her shopping? I would hope that this was not merely used as the sort of occasional treat to try and avoid those being detained becoming unmanageable because they have nothing to look forward to. I suppose it is possible that it was felt that normalising experiences would assist in her treatment, but that does not appear terribly likely, and were that the case it would have been much more helpful if some sort of public statement had been put out to that effect.

As things stand the impression that the public will have gained is the dangerous killers are allowed out on shopping trips willy-nilly (and no explanation having been forthcoming, it cannot be said that that is not a feasible view of what has occurred). Quite apart from concern at the idea of killers being allowed to go shopping (and associated questions such as shopping for what and who was footing the bill?) there is a question of the degree of security or lack of it. They knew she was dangerous, and she was hardly difficult to spot. She was hardly likely to have been able to slip out of some small window you might not have thought a person could get out of. Even if there is a justifiable reason for taking a killer out shopping, the security has to be adequate.

I'm sure there are a number of circumstances in which outside visits are justified and sensible even for serious offenders. However it is vital if these things are to take place that the prisoners or detainees are adequately guarded, and that the public in case of mishap are given some coherent account as to why the person was being allowed out. Absent that they will understandably assume the worst. Whilst it would appear that no harm occurred to any individual from this escape (other than in respect of any disciplinary action in respect of those guarding her if circumstances demonstrated a serious failing on their behalf, or in respect of the escapee herself given that one would imagine this will impact substantially on any opportunity she is given for the future) the harm to the public perception of the sentencing system is substantial. When that perspective is adversely affected, it adversely affects public confidence in the legal system as a whole.

Michael J. Booth QC