A `simple larceny' - but not so simple a story


My friend Dave died 12 years ago from a heroin overdose. He was a gentle guy - too gentle. He couldn't hack it once we all grew up. I thought above Dave for the first time in ages a few days ago when his eyes, what looked like his eyes, stared back at me in a haze of newsprint. The face they gazed from belonged to Sabrina Walsh.

Sabrina's face stayed with me all week. Gaptoothed, open-mouthed. A choirboy's haircut above ears that wore two pearls like Princess Di's. She had stood shocked and bewildered between two prison officers, one with a neat goatee, all of them outside the Court of Criminal Appeal. She might as well have been staring into her own grave.

Sabrina is the young woman who stole a handbag in a trendy Dublin cafe, was caught, and then sent down for nine years. Sabrina was to be made an example of. She was. A week ago when she appealed her sentence, the court reduced it to six years. The sentence had been one year short of the maximum possible for simple larceny, as this crime is called. Her story wasn't simple at all.

The bag she stole belonged to a tourist, and its contents were worth £10,000. Her counsel said Sabrina had not known. She probably thought it was the usual kind of bag that hangs around Dublin, the one with keys, some cash, and the remains of an old make-up bag with headache tablets crumbling in the corners. If so, I bet she was surprised.

You can't trust junkies, let's be clear about that. They're neither moral, nor immoral, but way outside the two. Give them love and they'll cash it in, stealing your cheque book if you have one, forging your signature when they do. Give them support and if they're not ready to lean on it, they will turn around and break your faith in human nature without a backwards glance. Nothing personal - there's almost nothing personal left. To feed their habit, they'll not only bargain their own soul, they'll try to bargain yours too. The contract they have entered into can't be even called a Faustian pact.

Junkies don't learn from experience. They can't. Back in pre-ecstasy, pre-compact discs days, my friend Dave stole a wodge of my summer earnings, pawned my best albums. Comparatively, I was lucky. He took his parents and brothers for every penny they had. No matter how many times they persuaded him to go for treatment he'd revert to form as soon as he got out. By that stage, we weren't actually friends any more. The gang had moved on, leaving him slouching hollow-cheeked in an old navy reefer jacket with frayed hems trying to tell us of some "really amazing" idea he'd just had, while we hopped on or off the bus to one of our third-level colleges or some smart job in town. A while later, I heard he went to London.

I gather that was something like the pattern Sabrina followed too. And she had not the reasonably ready social access of a guy like Dave. She dropped out of school, as he did, some time around her Inter Cert. Once you start on hard drugs, the hit of literature or art can't work. We know the story off by heart.

People like her are easier to demonise than the shady characters who can do more damage longer-term. Still, I couldn't help wondering about the before of it all. Before she fell in love with a really unsuitable man, the way some people do, before she started trying to feel like a princess every day. Because feeling like a princess is what heroin does to you, in your own head. You start believing that you are a Sleeping Beauty. And you think you know for certain that some day your prince will come, even if the current one and all his predecessors were outright frogs.

Sabrina also was a gentle child, I learned. Too gentle. Her mother told me through an intermediary that she was just about the sweetest girl around. Of course, I think the same of my own six-year-old daughter, so good I don't know where I got her from. As Mrs Walsh has painfully realised, that's not a guarantee of much certainty any more.

Sabrina could have had another future, one where she's the woman sipping cappuccino in a trendy cafe.

So every addict has another story. So do the people from whom they steal. It's a classic liberal dilemma, the kind that needs the wisdom of Solomon to get straight. You know the context, you know it needs improving, but meanwhile if, like me, you realise you can't ever replace the 1960s rhinestone necklace your mammy gave you, or forget the sense of violation when your home was trashed to bits, you continue to lock all doors and windows, or walk the streets of Dublin in a state of alert.

Nothing is simple when you encounter people face-to-face. One of those wraparound surveys newspapers are always quoting was carried out recently in the UK. Polled as ordinary citizens, a majority favoured stiffer sentencing for petty crime. But placed in the situation of a juror with access to both forensics and emotions, they went almost entirely the opposite way.

I'm glad Sabrina was apprehended. Yet as crimes against the credit card or savings account go, this was hardly one of the worst. Knowing that her case is now visible because it affects Dubliners like me more immediately than, say, all those complicated, opaque crimes within the banking system makes it no less easy to understand her sentence. Knowing that Sabrina Walsh will spend her 21st birthday next February in an under-resourced prison with other desperate people can't make me walk the streets any less warily than I already do.

There is always a tough tension between crime and punishment, so tough that being saccharine about it won't change anything. You need to trust due process, to feel that justice has been done, and has been seen to be done. But when a case is presented to us as an example as this one was the question must be asked as to what precise example it can possibly give to anyone. Addicts won't care. Junkies won't change.

As for the wisdom of confining zero tolerance to so-called "simple" crime? I honestly do not think so.