Peter Hitchens’ comments about Jo Cox’s killer betray a fundamental ignorance of the basic facts

A familiar sound for readers of the Mail on Sunday is the deafening cymbal-clash of Peter Hitchens colliding with reality. This last Sunday offered a particular highlight, which, although there is undoubted wisdom in leaving him alone to figuratively wander the 21stcentury in his dressing gown shouting at clouds, cannot pass without comment.

Summarised by this tweet:

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he shared his considered view that Thomas Mair, who was convicted by a jury of the murder of Jo Cox MP and sentenced to imprisonment for life, has wrongly been tarred a terrorist.

Undeterred by the fact that there was a wealth of evidence before the court which he, as somebody who was not in court for the duration of the trial, has neither seen nor heard, Mr Hitchens, armed with a fistful of second-hand newspaper reports of snippets of the case, assured readers that he, the clear-sighted rationalist, can see the case for what it is: “a tragedy twisted into a bogus ‘terror plot’”.

The premise of his thesis, as he expanded in a further blogpost on Monday, appears to be twofold. Firstly, it is “absurd” for anyone to claim that Mair was a “rational, coherent political actor”, as his actions “predictably achieved more or less the exact opposite of what he supposedly intended – and he would have grasped this in a second had he been in a normal state of mind”.

Allied to this is the second proposition: in Mair’s trial, there was evidence of mental ill health, which was suspiciously omitted from the legal proceedings. “Mair’s lawyer said he would not bring his medical history into the case. But why not?” “Why does the authority ignore such vital facts?” he demands, fingers twitching towards the tin foil with millinery intent. “Does the government want to believe, and to spread the idea, that there is some organised Right-wing terror plot?”

We can deal with the first argument swiftly: irrationality and mental ill health are two discrete concepts. The former may be a symptom of a latter, but they are not necessarily linked. Most of the people who cross the threshold of the criminal courts are irrational.  I’ve prosecuted more burglars than I can count who, despite their extensive experience, have still failed to process that climbing through a broken window is likely to result in your blood being left at the scene. The number of young men who, disqualified from driving and flagged down by the police, decide not to cut their losses and take their dues but instead to lead the police on a merry 90mph pursuit through residential areas and red lights before, inevitably, being caught, adding dangerous driving to the charge sheet – irrational? Tick. Incoherent? Tick. Achieving the exact opposite of what they supposedly intended? Tick. Colloquially they might be said to, in Hitchens’ words, be “roaming along the outer frontiers of sanity”, but mentally ill? That’s something different.

But amateur diagnostics aside, let’s consider Hitchens’ overarching theory: the suspicious omission of medical evidence of mental ill health from Mair’s trial. Referring to comments in news reports, he finds various examples of people claiming to know Mair – none apparently medically qualified – and offering anecdotes and opinions on Mair’s mental health. There is also a suggestion that Mair was in receipt of psychotropic medication. From this, Hitchens decries the “puzzling decision to ignore the plentiful evidence of Mair’s mental abnormality, reported at so many different times by so many independent people, but not discussed before the jury.”

Well this is only suspicious and puzzling if you don’t understand the first thing about how a defendant’s mental health is relevant in criminal proceedings. And it is regrettable that, given how frequently Mr Hitchens finds novel ways to be wrong about the criminal law, he did not think to ask anybody involved in criminal justice for their insight. Had he done so, he may have been told something along the following lines.

Evidence is carefully filtered in every criminal case. The court is only allowed to receive evidence that is relevant. Many defendants in criminal proceedings have lengthy histories of mental health problems. But it is only in a handful of trials that their condition is relevant to the issues that the jury have to determine.

How might mental ill health be relevant?

If a defence solicitor or barrister believes that a client may be suffering from mental ill health, they will as a matter of course obtain the client’s medical records and commission a psychiatric report. That report may be asked to comment on one or more of a variety of matters.

A psychiatrist may be asked to assess whether a defendant is “fit to plead” – legalese for being fit to participate in the trial process. This involves an assessment of whether a defendant can: understand the charges; decide whether to plead guilty or not guilty; exercise his right to challenge jurors (if, say, he knows one of them); instruct his legal representatives; follow the course of proceedings; and give evidence in his defence. If he can’t do one or more of those things, and if a judge hearing the evidence of two psychiatrists finds that the defendant can’t, he will be unfit to plead. This means that instead of a criminal trial there is a modified process (known as a “trial of the facts”), where a jury decides not on guilt but whether the defendant “did the act”. If so found, the court’s powers are limited to strictly rehabilitative options.

A psychiatrist may alternatively or as well be asked to opine on whether a defendant has a defence of insanity, defined as:

at the time of the committing of the act, the party accused was labouring under such a defect of reason, from disease of the mind, as not to know the nature and quality of the act he was doing; or if he did know it, that he did not know he was doing what was wrong

In murder trials, there is also a partial defence of diminished responsibility:

Furthermore, if a defendant were not capable of forming the specific intent to kill or cause grievous bodily harm (the mens rea for murder), whether because of a psychiatric condition or because of intoxication, that would also provide a defence to murder.

Finally, a psychiatric report may help with sentence. It may afford mitigation, if the offence was committed against the background of a mental health condition that reduced his culpability. It may make recommendations for particular disposals, such as hospital orders. And it may comment on issues that the court have to consider such as future risk.

Now the headline with all of these is that any such reported obtained by the defence attracts legal privilege. This means that the defence do not have to show anybody else – the court or the prosecution – the contents of the report if they do not wish to. So if a psychiatric report does not help the defence case, there will usually be no point in serving it. Many, many psychiatric reports are prepared for court cases every day and ultimately not relied upon. Often, the conclusion will be, “The Defendant suffers from psychiatric or psychological disorders, namely X, Y and Z, but not to the extent that any of the legal defences apply”. Sometimes, worse still, the report will be positively harmful to the defence. “The Defendant expressed no remorse and in my view presents a significant risk of serious harm to the public” is the last thing you want the court to read if you are trying to do the best for your client in mitigation. But, and I will repeat this, the fact that mental health issues were not “discussed before the jury” does not mean that all relevant mental health issues were not considered and dealt with appropriately.

Now we do not know why Mair’s lawyer did not rely on medical evidence. But we do know, because the defence barrister told the court at a pre-trial hearing, that Mair had been subject to an assessment.

So that leaves us with two possibilities:

  1. The defence lawyers considered that the contents of the psychiatric evidence, although perhaps showing that the defendant had mental health problems, did not assist the defence case;
  2. The defence lawyers ignored the psychiatric evidence, or negligently failed to appreciate that it was legally relevant and of assistance, and Peter Hitchens, who has never seen the evidence and is not legally trained, has correctly guessed this by piecing together things reportedly said by friends and neighbours.

Mistakes happen, of course. Negligence happens. Lawyers and judges are far from infallible. We see awful cases on appeal where the courts and/or defence representatives failed to appreciate the significance of a defendant’s mental health. But there is absolutely nothing to suggest that this is what happened in Mair’s case; to the contrary, his highly experienced lawyers indicated to the court that mental health had been considered and was not, for reasons that they do not have to state openly, going to be relevant to the issues the jury had to decide. Nor, from the sentencing remarks, was there any mental health issue relevant to mitigation. You’ll note that Hitchens does not suggest in respect of which legal issue – fitness to plead, a defence (and which one) or mitigation – the evidence of mental ill health ought to have been adduced. He just vaguely asserts that it should have been “discussed before the jury”, without deigning to tell us to what end.

Hitchens’ hang-up appears to stem from the false presumption that because an issue wasn’t raised before the jury, it wasn’t considered. That is wrong. No such deduction can safely be made. If Hitchens has spoken to those involved in the case, or has somehow seen Mair’s medical records or psychiatric reports, he may be onto something. Without any of those, it is nothing more than a conspiracy theory, and, given the imputation that Mair’s lawyers have been professionally negligent in service of a government agenda, a potentially libellous one at that.

Despite this all being pointed out to him, by numerous people, Hitchens remains characteristically recalcitrant. He insists that he is not seeking to excuse or defend Mair’s conduct, but he remains strangely keen to leverage minimal evidence of mental ill health to distance Mair from the “terrorist” label. The evidence of political motivation behind Mair’s actions was abundant, as the sentencing remarks made plain, but Hitchens goes to tortuous lengths to try to rebut this, climaxing with: “To me, his very insistence to police that “I am a political activist” shows that he was nothing of the sort.” Or as Brian’s followers would have it, “Only the true Messiah denies his divinity.”

Quite why Hitchens is so wedded to a thick black line that does not exist – attempting to separate mental ill health and terrorism into mutually exclusive camps – is also a mystery. Why he cannot accept the proposition that a person can be mentally unwell whilst still capable of committing deliberate and knowing acts of political carnage is as baffling as his determination to cast Mair as a victim of a state fit-up. The whole argument, as with so much of what Hitchens writes, is achingly bizarre. By the time you’ve finished deconstructing it, you almost forget why you started. Like the time he mistook the origins of the term “county lines” and got himself in a week-long tantrum, his thinking on this issue betrays a millefeuille of irrationality, incoherence and counterproductive reasoning. Hitchens has a term for that, but I expect he would not take kindly to it being applied to him.