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The conviction of teenager Losi Filipo is nothing to celebrate

Congratulations, New Zealand. The court of public opinion has outdone any mere judge, delivering a punishment that reeks of knee-jerk outrage and lazy prejudice, writes Madeleine Chapman.

Losi Filipo was today re-sentenced to nine months’ supervision and counselling for assault. After being discharged without conviction earlier this year, the victims spoke out to the media and shared their side of the story. The public were outraged, threatening to boycott Wellington Rugby for allowing Filipo to remain in the programme, and calling for the sentencing to be appealed.

Wellington Rugby buckled, terminating Filipo’s contract, and the sentencing was overturned. Now Filipo has a conviction, no career, and few prospects given his name conjures up feelings of moral outrage, not to mention the google search nightmare which will forever be associated with it. Justice has finally been served, right?

What absolute bullshit.

The handling of this whole case has highlighted the worst aspects of New Zealand culture and its attitude towards both rugby players and young offenders. The court of public opinion delivered its own damning verdict apparently based on one online article.

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The purpose of our justice system is to allow those who have in-depth knowledge of a case to make decisions on offenders based on countless mitigating factors. When someone is charged with an offence, they enter into the legal system and some time later, they exit the system with or without a conviction.

In that time, that all important time, a lot of things happen. Trials are undertaken, counsellors are met, references are consulted, and future repercussions are considered. Losi Filipo entered the justice system, went through all the relevant processes, cooperated fully, accepted his fault, committed to restorative justice, and was discharged without conviction.

That should be the end of the story. That is the justice system working.

Instead, cue moral outrage. It makes us feel superior when we can take a stand against a wrongdoing. So when the “news” broke of the victims telling their side of the story, it was eaten up without question. Nobody stopped to consider that this was of course a subjective account of events, and so might prove to be less than 100% accurate.

Nobody questioned the hyperbolic nature of an article that read very much like a victim statement. Nobody cautioned against the emphasis on one of the victims being a “world class barbershop singer” who was “punched straight in the throat”, as if Filipo knew this and therefore ruthlessly targeted her in an attempt to end her career, when it was written in the original judge’s comments that his altercation with both women was “more in the nature of pushing and shoving”. That might clutter the path of indignation.

A terrible headline

A terrible headline

No doubt, the judge’s original decision appears lenient. But instead of immediately assuming the judge is a rugby fan, willing to risk his career and legacy on a random player’s potential career, just maybe we can consider that he made the decision for other reasons. Like maybe the fact that it was a first offence, remorse was shown, community work was being done, and Filipo was a young, Polynesian man from a low socio-economic home, most at risk of becoming yet another sad crime statistic if convicted. Punitive punishment is so easy to suggest but so often ends badly for everyone.

Instead, the online machine roared to life with calls for Filipo to be jailed, along with as a disturbing number of racial slurs against the New Zealand-born Samoan. The fact that he was an imposing brown man, who was involved in a violent incident with two white women, wasn’t lost on many of these social-media analysts.

Wellingtonians threatened to boycott Wellington Rugby despite next to nobody attending last year’s Lions matches anyway. Media personalities joined in on the outrage with Paul Henry managing to provide an even more racially ignorant take than usual. People were getting riled up and loving it. So riled up that when the principal of St Pats Silverstream, where Filipo attended college, acted within the Catholic values of the school by refusing to disown Filipo, people called for his resignation. It’s so ridiculous you could almost laugh, except it got worse.

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By the time the full incident and its details finally trickled into the public sphere, it was too late. The outrage train had left the station and there was no turning back. Wellington Rugby, perhaps not wanting to be lumped in with the Chiefs in their handling of legal issues, terminated Filipo’s contract. New Zealand rugby, the very organisation that was applauded for standing by Julian Savea during his own assault charge and subsequent personal issues, very ironically threw Filipo under the bus.

Yes, remember Julian Savea and his 2013 domestic assault charge? A charge that was withdrawn without conviction after Savea cooperated with the system, showed remorse, and accepted counselling (exactly as Filipo did). It appears to be a very similar case, but, oh my gosh, look at what he did at the 2015 World Cup! He was so good! Nobody can stop The Bus! Which invites the question, if Filipo wasn’t just a promising rugby player, but a rugby star, would the public have reacted the same way? Maybe the biggest factor going against Filipo in this whole saga is that he wasn’t a better rugby player yet.

Instead, he was a teenager, 17 at the time, who got into a fight. I’m going to call it a fight because despite that first, bad article presenting it as a cold blooded attack, other versions of events suggest there were was some provocation. But more importantly, he was 17 at the time. With recent calls being made (and receiving a lot of support) to include 17-year-olds in youth court, it’s funny how quickly people wished prison time on Filipo, a young man who, if the many of the same sort of people had their way two months earlier, would have been tried in youth court.

While we love to be outraged that poor 17-year-olds are being tried as adults, when literal push comes to shove the cry too often quickly becomes “throw him in jail!” I remember learning about the benefits of restorative justice on a society when I studied criminology at university. Everyone in the class agreed that, if possible, restorative justice was the way to go, especially for first-time offenders. It makes sense, but apparently not if that young person is then going to go on to play rugby?

Losi Filipo and Scott Kuggeleijn

Losi Filipo and Scott Kuggeleijn

If a man discharged without conviction for a violent incident can’t even get a job playing a sport that glorifies overt expressions of strength and physical dominance, what hope do any offenders have in successfully reintegrating into society as positive influences? Meanwhile, Scott Kuggeleijn, a “promising young cricketer” is being applauded for his performances with the Northern Districts cricket team while he awaits retrial on a rape charge. If he is found guilty, the shit will rightfully hit the fan. If he is acquitted, life will carry on as normal and he’ll continue playing professional cricket. And, as seems usually to be the case with rape trials, the victim’s version of events will be interrogated and impugned from every direction.

Because that’s how it works. But in Losi Filipo’s case, the court of public opinion apparently deemed justice insufficient, shouting loudly, if incoherently, enough that the police themselves buckled and appealed his sentencing. So now he has a conviction and people still aren’t satisfied because he “avoided jail”, as state broadcaster One News so eloquently put it. Such choices of wording are exactly what encourage such gross knee-jerk reactions.

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If he had been given nine months’ supervision and ordered to attend counselling the first time through the justice system, Filipo might strangely be in a better position than he is today. Because apparently an assault conviction isn’t as career-ending as his first judge thought.

The Losi Filipo case has proven that more often than not, outrageous moral high ground comes before reason and way before compassion. A young man committed an offence, expressed remorse, attempted restorative justice, and was given a chance to be a positive influence in society. That same young man is now a convicted criminal, a known hated face and name without any apparent clear purpose in life, for the near future at least.

Congratulations, New Zealand. You got what you wanted.

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