A panel of judges has upheld the principle of whole life sentences for the most dangerous offenders but ruled that the “life means life” terms imposed on a murderer and two rapists were wrong.
In a ruling likely to be interpreted as a signal to judges in Europe that the courts in England and Wales are satisfied with the validity of whole life sentences, the Court of Appeal said it was right that judges could send offenders to jail without the prospect of release in a “few exceptionally serious cases”.
But the court, which had been hearing appeals against sentence from four men sentenced to whole life terms, decided that three of the prisoners should instead be given finite jail terms. The three included Daniel Restivo, an Italian-born hair fetishist who murdered and mutilated a mother of two.
The judges underlined that the crimes of Restivo, 40, and two rapists - Michael Roberts and David Martin Simmons - were nonetheless so serious and each man so dangerous that it was extremely unlikely that any of them would be ever released once they become eligible for parole.
The Court of Appeal judgment comes a week before an appeal by Jeremy Bamber, who has always denied the murder of five members of his family in a Essex farmhouse, and two other murderers to the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights to have their whole life tariffs overturned.
The hearing before the highest level of the Strasbourg Court will test whether it is right for judges in England and Wales to have the power, granted by Parliament, to impose jail terms without the possibility of release. A lower chamber of the European Court has already upheld the principle.
Lord Judge, the Lord Chief Justice, and four other judges said Parliament had made its intentions clear and that the whole life order needed to be imposed only when “just punishment and retribution” required it.
He added: “If that conclusion is justified, the whole-life order is appropriate, but only then. It is not a mandatory or automatic or minimum sentence.”
Sentences of “life means life” currently apply to just 46 prisoners, meaning that other offenders given life sentences can be released on licence if they can prove that they are no longer a risk to society.
In their ruling, the Court of the Appeal judges said that the whole life sentence given to one killer, David Oakes, 51, who “sadistically tortured” and shot dead his former partner and then murdered their daughter in Essex, was justified.
The court also upheld the 30-year minimum term imposed on Kiaran Stapleton, 21, the self-described “Psycho” who walked up behind Indian student Anuj Bidve and shot him at point-blank range on the street in Salford, Greater Manchester.
But the judges found the whole life sentences had been incorrectly imposed on the remaining men and instead sentenced Restivo, who was found guilty of the “depraved” and “callous” murder of his neighbour, Heather Barnett in Bournemouth in 2002, to a 40-year minimum term.
Roberts, 46, a rapist whose attacks on women in south east London led to him being described as the Bermondsey Beast, was sentenced to a 25-year term and Simmons, 40, who has been held at Broadmoor Hospital, had his whole life sentence replaced by a ten-year minimum.
Lord Judge said: “We should perhaps emphasise at the outset that each of these appellants is dangerous, and on the available evidence, likely to remain dangerous for the indefinite future. At present it is difficult to see how it will ever become safe for any of them to be released from custody.”