Mandatory life sentences for manslaughter?

Computer-generated image of the scene of PC Harper’s death

A few days ago I got a link on my social media to a story about a campaign for the law to be changed so that there would be a mandatory life sentence for killing any member of the emergency services. This came after three young men were given prison sentences for the manslaughter of a police officer after they dragged him to his death from the back of a getaway following a robbery in which the attackers had stolen a quad bike. The jury were unconvinced that they intended to kill the officer but convicted him of manslaughter; the driver received 16 years and the two passengers 13 years each. The campaign was started by the officer’s widow but then supported by another officer who had suffered critical injuries from being run over by car thieves. It is supported by the head of the Police Federation.

I find this to be one of the most stupid campaigns I have ever heard of. There is already a mandatory life sentence for murder, and where the victim is a police officer in the line of duty, the minimum time to be served (the tariff) is higher. Murder is unlawful killing which is intentional or where the attacker intended to cause them grievous bodily harm; manslaughter is where there is some mitigation, such as that there was no intent to kill and that the course of action does not usually result in death (such as when someone dies from a single punch to the face). Other mitigations include provocation and diminished responsibility, meaning that someone’s mental health is impaired, even if only temporarily. Manslaughter can result in a life sentence, though not a whole-life tariff (i.e. where someone is told at trial that they will spend the rest of their life in prison), which is generally reserved for multiple or highly aggravated murders. An example of this was Mick Philpott, who set fire to his house (it is believed so that he could “play the hero” by rescuing his family) and the fire killed six children (five his, one his wife’s from a previous relationship). A list of people serving whole-life sentences can be found here.

It’s dangerous to demand that someone who kills unintentionally should face the same sentence as a serial murderer just because of who the victim was. The lives of police officers or even fire-fighters or paramedics are not more valuable than those of the rest of us. A myth is being promoted that police officers are in general heroes who put their lives on the line for our sake and this is not always the case. Some police officers are also corrupt, racist or abusive. If such an officer is killed by someone they had provoked or abused while on duty, or (say) during a car chase which started when a motorist sped away from the latest in a long line of stops which were clearly motivated by his skin colour, the sentence should be no more than if he had treated anyone else in the same way. Similarly, when someone causes another’s death through reckless driving, there is an appropriate sentence depending on the severity of the careless or dangerous driving as it takes only a minor distraction to lose control of a vehicle and only a low-speed collision to kill someone. It is unjust that someone could be jailed for life for causing death by mere careless driving just because the victim is someone ‘important’.

This campaign would not be running if PC Andrew Harper’s killers had been found guilty of murder and received life sentences. PC Harper’s widow tells us she hopes that “any widows of the future will not have to experience the same miscarriages of justice”; this was not a miscarriage of justice but merely an unsatisfactory outcome of a system designed to ensure justice and that punishment is proportionate to the crime. That system errs on the side of acquitting rather than convicting. I agree that people who kill officers to aid their getaway or who attack paramedics or fire-fighters for kicks or to make sure a victim dies or that their property is destroyed deserve to be punished severely (all the more so in the latter case if the fire-fighters or paramedics are killed), but we must resist emotion and make the usual distinctions so that only murderers are punished as murderers.

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