The news that five Maori family members were given community sentences and spared jail terms after being found guilty of the manslaughter of their niece, who they believed to be possessed by demons, during a prolonged exorcism ritual that involved repeated eye scratching and waterboarding (a term now unfortunately part of the popular lexicon) of the victim (who it turns out was mentally ill rather than possessed), has caused a predictable stir in judicial and political circles. Pundits on the right lambaste the apparent double standard applied to Maori in this instance, where gross ignorance, superstition and stupidity cloaked in the garb of “traditional beliefs” is given a cultural pass when it comes to adjudicating personal and collective responsibility for the lethal consequences of said beliefs. The argument goes that any Pakeha exorcism resulting in death would have seen those responsible incarcerated, and that ignorance is no excuse is the eyes of the law. There is truth to this view, as there have been prior instances of bible-bashers (here meant literally) being jailed for abuses against individuals suspected of possession or other religious transgressions. There is also the issue of relative justice, in the sense that people involved in assisted suicide or drugs offenses have received jail terms rather than community service (ie. their crimes were less heinous Â than this one). From this vantage point, the light sentences handed down to the defendants on grounds that they did not realise the consequences of their actions and thought that they were doing good for the victim is an astonishing act of judicial double-standards rooted in over weaning political correctness. The bottom line, in this view, is that is is condescending, patronising and just plain wrong to let Maori off lightly because they may have “traditional” beliefs the lead them to commit acts that others could not get away with. After all, “traditional beliefs” are not always correct, civilised or appropriate, because if they were then NZ society and the law would approve of foot-binding, genital mutilation and ritualistic whippings as acceptable practice for those who ascribe to them.
On the other hand, some progressive pundits and cultural relativists see in the decision a wise act of compassion by a judge who believed that the family had suffered enough with the inadvertent death of Janet Moses at their own hands. In this view it serves no purpose to punish them with jail terms because they are already acutely aware of the mistake and have a life long punishment to serve as a result of it. They and society would be better served by having them do community service and learn more about their own cultural heritage so as to not distort traditional beliefs regarding makuto and its treatment.
From my perspective, the main trouble is that in democracies the law should universally apply, and that application should apply universally in sentencing. If ignorance of the law is not an excuse for violating traffic regulations, then surely it is no excuse for manslaughter. Yet in heterogeneous societies comprised of an assortment of pre-modern, modern and post-modern beliefs espoused by indigenous, colonial and post-colonial groups, it may be impossible to apply the “justice for all” standard in ways that do, in fact, ensure so. I am thus left with mixed feelings about the verdict and sentence. On the one hand, the actions of these individuals are inexcusable; on the other hand, they were acting in good faith when they committed them. What then is a fair sentence in this case? Â Are some groups entitled (that word again!) to different standards of justice based upon their belief systems? For the moment I am left with the uneasy feeling that ignorance may not be bliss, but for some it makes for a better defense.