In April, 2012, in the Welsh port town of Caernarfon, a professional British soccer player named Ched Evans was convicted and sentenced to five years for rape. His victim, a local teenage girl, was deemed by the court to be too drunk to consent. Evans, a striker for Sheffield United who scored 35 goals in his last season, served roughly half his sentence and was released last October, a free man. But while Evans has paid his debt to society, he remains far from contrite. He still maintains he was wrongly accused and is working hard to get his verdict overturned.
Evans, who was signed into the Manchester City youth club when he was just 14, would like to play professional football again. Apart from working as a house painter during his stint in prison, it's the only job he's ever done and one he was very good at. Since his release, several professional teams have looked into signing him but have been scared off by public outcry and the threat of sponsorship withdrawal. Last week when the League One club Oldham Athletic seemed close to offering him a job, a petition opposing it gathered 30,000 signatures in a single day. So far, he remains unemployed.
Evans's story poses a difficult moral question: Should convicted felons return to high-profile positions once they have served the time for their crime? Does their continued fame effectively diminish the seriousness of their crime, or even glorify it?
The argument against allowing convicted felons to be celebrated in their fields occupies the fuzzy area of community values. Sure, Chris Brown might be a talented musician and Charlie Sheen a popular actor, but it's questionable whether we should look up to these men in light of their convictions for violent crime. We've forgiven Martha Stewart for insider trading but not Mel Gibson for his racist rants. As the celebrity-watcher Shinan Govani observed to me over e-mail this week, redemption after conviction is a tricky business for stars – one that is mostly based on the public's sense of betrayal over the perceived gap between perception and reality. "For every Halle Berry – who pleaded no contest in a hit-and-run, in 1997, and then won an Oscar – there's a Winona Ryder, who's never quite returned to the darling status she had prior to her shoplifting spree at Saks, and the publicity that followed."
These people have been tried and convicted and served the time handed down by the court of law, but the court of public opinion is often more mercurial.
While under Canadian law some convicted felons can be prevented from working in fields which might put them at risk to re-offend (most convicted pedophiles cannot work with children), most are free to pursue employment as they wish. But what if that employment might make them, well, famous?
Former media baron Conrad Black knows a great deal about the moral intricacies of being a convicted felon who earns his living in the limelight. Since serving five years in a U.S. prison after being convicted on fraud charges, he has continued to write books and publish essays and now hosts his own TV talk show. Asked about the issue of employment after incarceration, Black – who claims his conviction was a miscarriage of justice – was characteristically unrepentant, reminding me in an e-mail interview that "in general the idea of the criminal legal system is that when someone is convicted and has served the sentence, the matter is deemed to be closed. The sentence is not just the first instalment on a lifelong sequence of additional punishment that make it impossible for the individual to earn his livelihood in the manner in which he is qualified."
In the case of Ched Evans, he added, "I would be extremely cautious about attaching too much credence to the righteous pieties of observers and commentators and regulators of the game."
I tend to agree (with Conrad Black – I know!). I think it's unjust that Evans should be barred from professional sports because of public perception. He has served his sentence and should now be free to do any job he likes. At the same time I'm quite happy not to have to see the kids on my street wearing a jersey with his name on it. In essence: I vigorously defend his right, as a convicted rapist, to offend people like me by continuing to make millions and be publicly venerated as a professional athlete.
Some victim's-right organizations disagree. They argue that allowing convicts to be professionally visible could be detrimental to victims – particularly those who have suffered violent crime.
"It's a slap in the face to victims," says Bobbie McMurrich, director of Victim's Services Toronto, when convicted rapists (or even those just accused of alleged abuse, like Bill Cosby, Jian Ghomeshi or Ray Rice) are given high-profile employment. "It can send out a message that these sorts of crimes are not taken seriously – and certainly historically, violence against women in particular has not been taken seriously enough. Having an abuser in a public role means that their victim has a constant reminder and may be being revictimized every time they turn on the TV."
While McMurrich says she does believe in rehabilitation and the ability of abusers to change, that may not alter the experience for their victims. "If someone's been convicted of a violent crime then the public eye probably isn't the best place for them. Time for a career change, I'd say."
Toronto criminal lawyer Frank Addario would say second chances are vital, and that in fact, the good of society depends upon it. "Leaving aside cases where the felon is a danger, why shouldn't a bank robber be given a second chance? Our system of finite punishment is premised on the community getting its punishment, after which we invest in hope, redemption and rehabilitation. The alternative is to create an underclass of productive people who've made mistakes."
Addario points to none other than Conrad Black as a good example of someone who made a mistake, served his sentence, endured the collateral reputational harm and still has plenty to offer the community. "Role models who've made mistakes are just like role models whose mistakes are undiscovered," he says. "They are just a different teaching point."