Friday Law Report: Sentence guidelines for terrorist crimes

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The Independent Culture
6 November 1998

R v Martin

Court of Appeal, Criminal Division (Lord Bingham of Cornhill, Lord Chief Justice, Mr Justice Tucker and Mr Justice Richards) 28 October 1998

THE COURT of Appeal gave guidance on the appropriate level of sentencing in cases involving terrorists.

The appeal of Patrick Hugh Sean Martin against a sentence of 35 years' imprisonment, imposed in respect of an offence of conspiring with others to cause by explosive substances explosions of a nature likely to endanger life or cause serious injury to property in the United Kingdom contrary to s 3(1)(a) of the Explosive Substances Act 1883, was allowed, and a sentence of 28 years' imprisonment was substituted.

The appellant, who was a member of an active service unit of the Provisional IRA, had planned with others to cause explosions at the six main external sub-stations feeding electricity to London and parts of the South East of England from the national grid. The conspirators were arrested when the plan was about to be put into effect.

Kenneth Macdonald QC and Timothy Owen (B.M. Birnberg & Co) for the appellant; Nigel Sweeney (Crown Prosecution Service, Ludgate Hill) for the Crown; David Perry (Treasury Solicitor) as amicus curiae.

Lord Bingham CJ said that in passing sentence for the most serious terrorist offences, the object of the court would be to punish, deter and incapacitate; rehabilitation was likely to play a minor part, if any.

It was appropriate when considering the right level of sentence for grave crimes such as the appellant's, which were wholly abnormal, to bear in mind the term likely to be served by a defendant guilty of deliberately taking human life, particularly in a case where the offence was aggravated by features which led to a longer than normal period of imprisonment.

Murderers in those categories, together with political assassins, gangland executioners and others who killed in aggravated circumstances, were ordered to serve real terms of imprisonment of 20 to 30 years, and on occasion even more. There could, however, be no precise equivalence between murder and conspiracies such as that in the present case: conduct which threatened the democratic government and the security of the state, and the daily life and livelihood of millions of people, had a seriousness all of its own.

A distinction should be drawn between a conspiracy to cause explosions which had the object of endangering life, and one which had the object of causing injury to property. It was important to note, however, that conduct, even if directed against property only, might "endanger the State".

The current level of sentencing in cases involving acts done, or conspiracies, to cause terrorist explosions appeared to be in the range of 20 to 35 years, although there were cases which fell outside that bracket. The appropriate sentence for any given offence would plainly depend on a large number of factors, which would include the likely result of any explosion or the target of any conspiracy; the role of the individual defendant; the nature, size and likely effect of any explosive device; the motivation of the defendant; and, where death, injury, or damage had been caused, the nature and extent of the death, injury and damage in question.

Although there would be some property-directed conspiracies for which sentences below 20 or even 15 years might be appropriate, in a case such as the present it would be unrealistic to ignore the threat to life and limb, since, had the conspirators' plan been implemented, it was probable that some injury and loss of life would have resulted, whether intended or not.

There was no doubt that the judge in the present case had been fully entitled to take the view that the offence called for a sentence of the utmost severity. Some weight should, however, have been given to the fact that death and injury, although a likely by-product of implementation of the conspirators' plan, was not its primary object, and, accordingly, the sentence would be quashed and a sentence of 28 years' imprisonment substituted.

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