Barrister tells students there can be good in the worst criminals

Wednesday 12 June, 2013

Although Criminal Law Barrister Dr Robert Webb has dealt with the most violent criminals imaginable, he says they can often be surprisingly open to doing good.

The holder of an honours degree in Philosophy as well as a Bachelor of Laws from the University of Sydney, Dr Webb says that often overseeing a person’s criminal case can give an opportunity to turn someone’s life around. This, he says, can involve organising rehabilitation or counselling for them or it can be as simple as encouraging them to say a prayer.

He told Warrane residents when he spoke at the College on on Wednesday 29 May: “I was recently involved in a homicide trial and at some point along the way, things were so grim I said well we better say a prayer. That man was so grateful. He was charged with terrible things, but he was so grateful tears were streaming down his face.”

Dr Webb said another case involved a paedophile “who had a terrible upbringing in a dreadful orphanage” and he was sentenced to 15 years in prison. Two days away from the prison sentence expiring he had confessed to further child offences and the matter went to court.

“He was found guilty and has passed away now,” he said. “But after the case I asked why he had confessed and he told me: ‘I can’t stop the way I’m going to act against kids so I have decided to stay in here forever because that is the way I think I can best protect children.”

Dr Webb said among the most despised in the community he often found “the inexorable mercy of God working”.

“In my experience over the years, notwithstanding whether a person may be despised, or at a particular moment of time at the absolute bottom of the barrel, one sees the spirit moving within them.

“And to try to facilitate that in the course of a professional life as a vocation is to my mind, one of the most interesting and probably most rewarding aspects of serious criminal defense practice.”

Dr Webb said in the final analysis almost all crime, whether it be related to homicide, large commercial supplies of narcotics, violence, sexual assault and so on, tended to be associated with drug intoxication.

“It often leads to very profound breaches in judgement,” he said. “Most of these things are drug driven in one way, shape or form.”

He said in this situation it was important “to try to make significant change, to assist people to get on track and get lives in order”.

In addition to the impact of drugs on young men and women, he expressed concern about the impact of the Internet and its role in crimes related to child pornography and child sexual abuse.

He said many of the people he had to represent were the sick and the most despised people in society, but he emphasised the terrible impact of imprisonment.

“You would have no difficulty accepting that a prison sentence of five years is terrible punishment,” he said. “A prison sentence of 10 years is not the death penalty, but it is getting close. Let me assure you that there is nothing left of a man after 10 years in prison.”

He said that he had found again and again how people turn to God in these circumstances:

“You may be aware of the old saying, I think it comes from the American marines, that there are no atheists in the fox holes when shells are going off. Whatever happens with the outcome of their case you find that people, almost inevitably, focus their minds on God and they come back to what is most important, not only in professional life, but in life itself.

Dr Webb said he normally tried to avoid divorce cases and tried to keep his clients out of family law courts, partly because in addition to breaking up marriages it often costs litigants their life savings.

He spoke of one client who came to him seeking a defense against an apprehended violence order for assaulting his wife.

“The real problem wasn’t assault or the apprehended violence order, but ultimately divorce,” he said. “So my advice was to send his wife a dozen red roses every day for two weeks. The solicitor with him said; ‘There’s obviously no fees in that Bob. Better go and see another barrister – this one’s hopeless.’ But after about 10 days of sending the roses, things resolved and the apprehended violence order was not pressed, and I can tell you 15 or 20 years later they are still happily married and getting along.

“So when you come to solve problems in your professional lives, be open to things that are conciliatory and where possible try to avoid things that are conflict based because they tend to be less effective.”

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