Sentencing for murder/ manslaughter- time for a change

Written 19th October 2020 by Ruth Peters

‘An eye for an eye a tooth for a tooth’. A person who has injured another should be punished in the exact terms of the consequences of his crime. 

Until 1965 when capital punishment was suspended, this principle derived from the old testament, was accepted to be appropriate punishment.

What is the sentence for murder?

The law is more nuanced now. For those convicted of murder the sentence is set by law namely life imprisonment. However, this rarely means life. A full life term is reserved for those truly horrific murders or multiple victims. Most notably in recent times, Dale Cregan, Ian Brady, Ian Huntley and Harold Shipman.

The sentencing Judge will set a minimum term (‘the tariff’) which means the defendant will become eligible for release after a minimum  period of time. The Parole Board will determine whether the defendant is no longer a risk and can order or refuse release.

For those released they will be on life licence. In theory any further offending can result in lifetime recall to prison.

What is the difference between murder and manslaughter?

The law has always distinguished between murder and manslaughter. Centuries ago murder would attract the automatic death penalty. Manslaughter would not. The usual punishment was branding!

Manslaughter comes in many shapes and  forms, as do the sentences. A drunken fight outside a pub and one punch can lead to an unexpected death. A construction worker who fails to secure equipment causing the unexpected death to an innocent party (possibly an emergency worker). A wife who has been abused by her partner for decades who finally snaps. A person suffering from some form of mental impairment falling short of insanity who can claim diminished responsibility.

The variables are infinite. The lack of intention to cause serious harm is the common theme. In as much as the circumstances are different the sentences are also. The maximum sentence is life imprisonment for offences that fall just sort of murder. There is no minimum.

The tragic death of  PC Andrew Harper and the sentence of Hashem Abedi has brought into focus sentences for those who have taken lives as a result of criminal enterprises.

At the time of the Manchester Arena atrocity, May 2017, Abedi was 19  years of age. For the murder of 22 and attempted murder of hundreds, a full life term may in some quarters be considered to be lenient. However because he was under 21 the law does not allow a full life term. The Judge hampered by this, imposed a record breaking tariff of 55 years. Abedi will be in his mid seventies before he is eligible for release. The Judge commented he may never be released. In any event those relatives and loved ones of the deceased will in all likelihood not be around in 55 years time.

The tragic death of PC Harper however raises a number of interesting questions. 

The offence the Jury found Henry Long and his two associates guilty of was manslaughter ie they they did not have the necessary intent to cause serious harm. 

The trial judge referred when passing sentence to the crucial question that the jury had had to answer:

‘The jury were not sure that Henry Long knew that … the car he was driving was dragging a human body. That is what the prosecution had to prove before anyone could be convicted of murder and they did not succeed in doing so.’

Henry Long, the driver received a sentence of 16 years imprisonment and the two passengers in the vehicle received 13 years. All three were teenagers at the time and it is clear that if they would have been older their sentence would have been measured in decades. The Court of Appeal are to decide at the end of October as whether these sentences were unduly lenient

Harper’s Law

PC Harper’s widow, Lissie started a petition calling for ‘Harper’s Law’. Half a million people have signed up, demanding a change in the law to ensure those convicted of killing a police officer, firefighter, nurse, doctor, prison officer or paramedic are jailed for life.

The campaign is not directed at those who murder emergency workers. Murder already attracts an automatic life sentence, and where the victim is a police officer doing his duty the statutory ‘starting point’ is life without parole.

The object of the petition is to ensure that those guilty of the lesser offence of manslaughter also receive a life sentence, where the victim is an emergency worker. However imposition of this sentence would considerably blur the distinction between murder and manslaughter.

Perhaps Harper’s law should apply only when emergency workers are killed while doing their duty? But this would hardly make it less unjust. Should the manslaughter of a police officer killed by a rowdy teenager with a single punch attract an automatic life sentence, when a death of a tenant when landlord lets his flat knowing there are ventilation issues and a faulty boiler. Should the former receive a life sentence and the latter less?

The public have enormous sympathy for the family of PC Harper. The defendants apparently smirked their way through the trial. They showed no remorse. Maintained their innocence despite the tragic consequences of their criminal behavior and to the lay man received a sentence that appears lenient. However a minimum sentence as envisaged by Harper’s Law would be a knee jerk reaction to a tragedy beyond words and a freak set of circumstances.

There also remains the question as to whether some lives are more important than others. Should the death of an emergency worker be punished more severely that a decent, honest philanthropic member of the public simply because their job is more ‘critical’? Where would you then draw the line. The life of a drug dealing wife being less important than anyone else? The law needs to be applied equally.

An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth would make us a blind, toothless society.

Article written by Max Saffman

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