It’s 3.30am. You’re fast asleep. You had a few drinks earlier on and now you’re completely out of it. You’re disturbed. Something has woken you. Your ears prick up and your eyes widen. The sound of a door being opened? Or closed? Downstairs.
You’re thinking, ‘is it my imagination? Was it a noise from my blurry self-conscious?’ But no. There’s chatter. Whispering in the living room. You sit up. Slowly becoming more and more aware that there is somebody in your house. Maybe there’s two of them?
You’re thinking of your children. Fast asleep in the next room. In the four walls where they should be safe. Your spouse is asleep next to you. ‘What do I do?’ Do you let them take their fill of what is yours or do you confront them?
You get up. Slowly. Terrified. You look around for something to defend yourself with but there’s little there. You find a large pair of scissors and with hairs standing up on end you make the move downstairs.
‘Do I pounce at them or sneak my way through?’ You don’t know. You’re almost frozen stiff. But then before you’ve had time to properly analyse the situation your face to face with one of them. His face is masked. Neither of you say anything for what feels like an eternity. There’s a perpetual freeze as instincts kick in. The predator has been caught but will they become the prey?
You scream ‘GET OUT!’ The kitchen scissors clasped in the sweaty palm of in your right hand. But he doesn’t move. From the kitchen area another appears. ‘Get out now!’ But nothing. You don’t know where to look or what to do but mere seconds later one of them is running towards you with something gripped between his hand. So what do you do? Do you cower? Do you scream for help? Or do you go for him?
The reason I’m putting this hypothetical situation to you is because I believe these are questions which we must think about – especially in the aftermath of the Richard Osborn-Brooks inquest.
Refresh your memory with the story. 78-year-old pensioner Osborn-Brooks, opened his door to two men who forced themselves inside. Osborn-Brooks picked up a knife and burglar, Henry Vincent, armed with a screwdriver, made a move towards him after a short argument in which Vincent said: ‘Come near me and I’ll stab you’. Osborn-Brooks, fearing for his life and for his disabled wife, made the split-second decision to raise his knife – causing injuries which ultimately killed Vincent.
The case which followed concluded yesterday on the decision that Henry Vincent had been ‘killed lawfully’ – to the celebration of many, and to the disgust of others.
A similar story you might remember is that of Tony Martin who sparked a national debate in 1999 after shooting and killing a 16-year-old who broke into his home.
Martin had been broken into over ten times and had lost over £6,000 worth of furniture. He kept a loaded shotgun beneath his bed. When in the late hours of an August evening in 1999, he woke up to the sound of one of his windows being broken he went downstairs and opened fire a number of times into the dark – striking what turned out to be two burglars. Both were injured, but the 16-year-old, named later as Fred Barras, died just moments after being shot.
Martin was arrested and served almost three years in prison for the killing – significantly longer than the surviving burglar served.
The most interesting thing here – is that in the Osborn-Brooks case, he was found innocent. In the Tony Martin case he was found guilty.
This merely proves that there is no set answer to the question pondered in my headline.
Another interesting fact to bear in mind is that 95% of burglaries go unsolved. So on average, of the 175,000 burglaries which happened in the UK in 2017, only 8,750 came to any level of justice.
I am under no illusion that most criminals don’t just wake up one day and think I’m going to break into a house tonight. I have no illusion that they’re driven to crime – whether through lack of education, employment, or to fund a habit of some kind.
I am also certain that almost every criminal can rehabilitate. Many former criminals have gone on to do incredible things. Many of them have changed their lives around. Take the fictional Jean Valjean for instance.
In Victor Hugo’s epic, Les Miserables, Valjean begins his life as a humble man – though uneducated and very poor. He steals a loaf of bread to feed his family and is sentenced to 19-years hard labor. He becomes, in Hugo’s words, an animal. He leaves prison bestial; full of hate and contentment for the world. He immediately re-offends and when he is pardoned, he steals again, this time from a poor child. He steals the only thing the little boy has. But after a shimmer of hope, Valjean turns his life around and becomes a tainted hero for humanity.
Though fictional, there are quite literally thousands of similar tales in the ‘real world’ of former criminals who have turned their lives around for good.
Of course every criminal deserves the chance to rehabilitate – and yes, nobody deserves to die. But are you really going to be thinking about that moral dilemma in the two seconds you’ve got to make a decision as a burglar charges at you? Of course you’re not. You’ve got to answer one of the biggest philosophical questions of all time in a split second flash.
There is no size that fits all in this hypothetical. Every single case is different and that is why it is impossible to answer the question pondered in this article. You should never kill intentionally, of course, and I feel ridiculous even writing that as a sentence.
But, I believe, you should have the right to defend yourself and you should have the backing of the law. Osborn-Brooks has every right to be a free man.