The suspended sentence handed to 28-year-old Mel Spiteri after he sped down the road and mowed down Elizabeth Tuknutt Whilems, who was crossing the road, is incomprehensibly lenient.
The case was retried due to a technical error the first time round, when a jail term of two years had been handed down.
On retrial, Magistrate Rachel Montebello opted for a suspended sentence. The ruling noted the crime was “an isolated and unfortunate incident, caused by the carelessness of youth, and not a case that occurred when the accused was under the influence of alcohol or illegal substances”.
The judgment then delved into Spiteri’s track record after the incident, which happened nine years ago, in which he had no brush with the law and now leads a “structured and stable life.”
The magistrate then decided that given these circumstances a suspended sentence would be more appropriate than imprisoning him.
Yet the blowback from this is that delays in lengthy court processes turn into an advantage for the accused and in the process serve as a double injustice for the family of the victim.
There is something perverse about justice ‘served’ following delays in court. For the victim’s family, the passage of time is an injustice in itself.
As the saying goes, justice delayed is justice denied. But for the accused, the delay dims the possibility of harsh punishment.
As the accused reforms himself or manifests that his life is full of promise and possibility and that the crime was a one-off error of judgment, any imprisonment could then be seen simply as retribution.
An examination of the salient elements of this case would have to take into account that the accused had sped down the road spectacularly when he hit and killed Whilems, and then he sped off and attempted to make it seem as though the car had been stolen (he even broke the driver’s window to fabricate evidence of the car being stolen).
He was in fact charged with involuntary homicide, which carries a maximum sentence of four years imprisonment, as well as “simulation of offence” (the fabrication of evidence intended to make it seem as though the victim was hit by the thief who then abandoned the car), which specifies imprisonment “not exceeding one year”.
It appears that the court gave little consideration to the aggravating factors, particularly the second charge, and the fact that the accused reportedly had no licence and no insurance.
Another consideration not given due weight is the deterrence factor. The point of putting someone in prison is to encourage reform as well as enforce societal deterrence to crime.
Although there was may have been no need to put Spiteri in prison for the sake of reform (particularly considering criticism of prison conditions), it’s hard to see how the deterrence factor was served by a suspended sentence.
The idea we get from the sentence is that if you mow down someone through reckless overspeeding and make attempts to cover up the crime afterwards, you could – if enough years have passed before sentencing – get away with a suspended sentence.
Another troubling element of this sentence is that the long delay in the court process is somehow, even if unwittingly, being normalised as a mitigating factor when it comes to sentencing.
For the family, it represents a double injustice – the injustice of the delay, and that delay serving to mitigate the punishment.