Possessing higher than average intelligence, let alone good-looks, does not and should not qualify as grounds for legal ‘leniency’.
In May this year, Lavinia Woodward, an Oxford medical student, was found guilty of stabbing, and seriously injuring, her boyfriend. An exceptional delay in the verdict was pronounced, the court having heard of her ‘extraordinary talent’ as sufficient reason for this strange decision. The judge had made it clear that he did not favour a prison sentence but wanted to give our sweet Lavinia the opportunity to get rid of her drug addiction. Under the influence of drinks and drugs, in addition to stabbing her boyfriend in the legs with a bread knife, Woodward also hurled a laptop, glass, and jam jar. Her boyfriend could probably count himself lucky, as things would have really got nasty, had she managed to dismantle the window radiator.
The Oxford Crown Court judge admitted that, although this sort of act was invariably punished with a prison sentence, the sentencing would “be too severe” for what he considered to be a “one-off”, taking into account her “extraordinary talent” for medicine. I counted no less than four “one-offs” – the bread knife, the laptop, the glass, and the jam jar – not counting her intention to chuck the window radiator at her boyfriend. Last September, Lavinia Woodward received a 10 month sentence and suspended for 18 months. This means that if she can manage to stay away from the kitchen knives for 18 months, she will be in the clear.
From an ethical standpoint, the act that she committed, and pleaded guilty to, should be absolutely independent of the amount of talent that she may or may not have for medicine. In such cases, the rule of law is the rule of law, and must be applied to everybody. The verdict pronounced by the court must be based on the evidence concerning the case, coupled with a moral judgement of the accused. Immanuel Kant’s categorical imperative states that if something is morally right, it should be done no matter what the consequences. She should have been punished, irrespective of the consequences on her future studies. We could question, however, whether the judge was influenced solely by the fact that she is extremely talented, or that she is an extremely talented and “attractive” woman. It is also possible that the judge thought that a girl named “Lavinia” could not possibly go to prison, being so out-of-place in such confined circles. It is quite clear that the pronounced judgement is legally flawed, morally wrong, biased, and blatantly sexist.
I decided to pursue my own investigation into this “medical wonder”, who can escape the rule of law, by entering her name on PubMed, an open-source reference website.
PubMed comprises more than 27 million citations for biomedical literature from MEDLINE, life science journals, and online books. Citations may include links to full-text content from PubMed Central and publisher web sites.
Her name does appear five times in high-ranking publications, among which include: the Annals of Thoracic Surgery, Hypertension, and The Journal of Physiology. Impressive, to say the least. Three of the publications are review articles, however, comprising no original work. In the other two citations, her name appears in 3rd and 6th position, in the list of contributors. Appearing third in the list of co-authors, suggests that she could have actively participated, to some extent, in the publication. Appearing sixth, nevertheless, probably meant that she just served the coffee.
I must admit that, judging by her publications, for somebody her age, she has got talent, but only in writing review papers. I’m afraid that the judge has clearly been blinded by science. In the late 90’s, I was working part-time at the University of Lyon School of Dentistry in France. I was a member of a small research-unit where I completed a PhD in microbiology. Just for fun, I submitted an unsolicited review paper to a high-ranking international journal, Critical Reviews in Oral Biology And Medicine. To my surprise, the editor found the subject matter so interesting that he accepted the publication. Well, if I can do it, Lavinia can do it – or are we both talented? Maybe the judge should have investigated a bit more thoroughly into the nature of her publications before evaluating the extent of her talents. We are all uniquely talented for one thing or another, and her boyfriend was probably no exception.
A more serious aspect to this case concerns its ethical shortcomings. It seems that the judge was more concerned about protecting Lavinia Woodward’s future than correctly reprimanding her present conduct, and applying the law to provide some sort of moral compensation for her victim. Also of interest is the shift in the nature of the reasons given by the judge for coming to such a lenient decision. As already mentioned, in May the judge was really impressed by her scientific and medical capacities and did not want these to be wasted by such a petty deed as a potential manslaughter.
At the second hearing, in September, the emphasis had shifted to encompass her rehabilitation attempts, that were certainly commendable:
Most significantly, you have demonstrated over the last nine months that you are determined to rid yourself of your alcohol and drug addiction and have undergone extensive treatment including counselling to address the many issues that you face. – Judge Ian Pringle QC
I am quite convinced that the judge really wants this exceptionally intelligent young girl to continue her studies and fulfil her ambitions of becoming a heart-surgeon. She has all the necessary qualities:
Reports from the experts make clear, you suffer from an emotionally unstable personality disorder, a severe eating disorder and alcohol drug dependence. – Judge Ian Pringle QC
Quite capable of open heart surgery, it seems.
It is quite clear that the judge came to a wrong decision for the wrong reason, i.e. that she be able to continue her medical studies. Even though the law is the law, it is the judges’ responsibility and, indeed prerogative, to apply moral leniency to individual cases if need be. This leniency, however, must be based on certain universal ground rules. Possessing higher than average intelligence and capabilities does not qualify as criteria for leniency. The rule of law should be the same for everybody and independent of any intellectual capacities, with the exclusion of a medically proven diminished responsibility at the time of the act.
On her Facebook page – that has been closed – Miss Lavinia Woodward quoted Miss Marilyn Monroe as saying, “Imperfection is beauty, madness is genius and it’s better to be absolutely ridiculous than absolutely boring.” In voluntarily suspending her medical studies, she could have quoted another Hollywood great, Groucho Marx, who comically said, “Please accept my resignation. I don’t want to belong to any club that will accept me as a member.” Oxford University still has to decide whether she can continue her studies there.
If she is expelled from Oxford University, it is quite possible that she will go and study abroad and will probably obtain her qualification after all. Just warn me where she qualifies, and I’ll make sure not to have a heart attack there.
By expelling Lavinia Woodward, Oxford University can raise the somewhat low moral standards of a judicial case that is highly suggestive of a biased legal system, and rather resembles something written by Kafka, than how English justice should be run. James Sturman QC, who defended Woodward, said that she was a “different woman” and would continue her rehabilitation. Others, in similar situations, but with considerably less talent and “looks”, have not benefited from the wayward leniency and considerable altruism demonstrated in this court case.
In passing a ludicrous sentence, Judge Ian Pringle QC has only highlighted the well founded desire of the European Court Of Justice to want to protect EU citizens from the English legal system.
George is a British/French national. He has a passion for oral microbiology (obtained a PhD in Lyon, France) and a passion for philosophy and politics.