Judge overturns his own sentence for schizophrenic killer

The family of a former banker who was stabbed to death by a mentally ill man expressed their dismay last night after learning that a judge has halved the tariff imposed at the original trial.

John Barrett, who had a history of violence and paranoid schizophrenia, admitted the manslaughter of Denis Finnegan, 50, as he cycled through Richmond Park in September. Claiming diminished responsibility, Barrett, 42, was sentenced to life imprisonment at the Old Bailey in March and given a tariff of 15 and a half years - the period before which he becomes eligible for parole.

But in a private hearing at his chambers at Lewes Crown Court 17 days after the trial, Judge Anthony Scott-Gall reduced the tariff to seven-and-a-half years. Mr Finnegan's brother John, who attended all the court proceedings, said he was only informed of the reduction in the tariff by a probation officer.

He said last night : "I want the CPS to get in touch with us and explain why the judge changed his mind. I don't think 15 and a half years is too much for the crime he committed."

The judge was using a little known power called the Slip Rule, which allows for a sentence to be altered by the trial judge within 28 days of the original trial. After that time, any alteration must go though the Court of Appeal. Last night the Crown Prosecution Service said it was unlikely to contest the judge's ruling with the Attorney General's office. A spokeswoman said: "We do not regard this reviewed sentence as unduly lenient." The CPS said informing the family was a matter for the police.

However, the Home Office expressed disquiet that the decision had been taken in private, at a four-minute hearing with only the presence of a prosecutor and the defence lawyer.

As he disclosed his decision to lessen the "excessive" tariff, Judge Scott-Gall said that his actions were "academic" but conceded that they would come as a surprise to Barrett.

When handing down his original sentence Judge Scott-Gall described how Barrett had purchased a 12-inch blade the day before. "This was a planned attack on a completely innocent member of the public, a family man who was a complete stranger to you chosen at random."

Barrett is being treated at Broadmoor. Because his condition is so severe, it is expected he will never be released. But at the trial the judge said that society would have to "think long and hard whether it is safe to release [Barrett] back into the community."

The case prompted mental health campaigners to warn that systematic errors in the care-in-the-community scheme were still failing patients and putting the public at risk. Barrett was a voluntary patient, and had been granted "ground leave", allowing him to walk out of Springfield Hospital in Tooting, south London, before killing Mr Finnegan.

At his sentencing, the court heard that on the day before the stabbing, a consultant forensic psychiatrist, who was not named, in consultation with a senior nurse, had taken the decision to grant Barrett leave.

Shortly after the killing, John Reid, the then Secretary of State for Health, ordered a review of proposed changes to the draft Mental Health Bill in the light of the case, which raised questions as to whether doctors should be given powers to detain patients, such as Barrett, who volunteer for treatment for mental illness and then discharge themselves.

Campaigners have accused doctors of conducting inadequate risk assessments of patients and allowing too many to go free, despite obvious warning signs that they constituted a risk both to the public and themselves. The Government has already ordered an independent inquiry into the case.

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