'Mercy killers' may be spared murder trials

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The Independent Online

Dozens of people who commit mercy killings would no longer be tried for murder, under proposals published by the Law Commission.

Reform of the murder law, the first for 50 years, could lead to a new classification for murder offences - modelled on the American system that gives judges more discretion when imposing sentences.

For the first time, criminal courts would no longer be bound by the compulsory life sentence for all murder cases, including mercy killings. The law commissioners of England and Wales suggested establishing a new framework of "first degree" and "second degree" murder alongside a revised definition of manslaughter.

There should also be new categories of murder for specific offences, such as assisting suicide and infanticide. Crucially, killers who intend to cause their victims "serious harm" but not to kill will be treated as second-degree murderers and will no longer face compulsory life sentences.

"The foundation on which our proposed framework rests is that the most serious offence within the framework, and the only one that should attract the mandatory life sentence, should be confined to cases where the offender intended to kill," said the commissioners.

The second tier would include killings through "reckless indifference" to causing death, intention to do serious harm and cases where the killers claim they were provoked, suffering diminished responsibility or under duress.

Jeremy Horder, one of the commissioners, said: "The law is not what the public thinks it is. It is confusing and unfair, and the judiciary have to adapt it to meet the needs of the 21st century on a case-by-case basis."

For many years, judges and criminal justice reform groups have objected to the inflexible rules that govern the prosecution and sentencing of murder and manslaughter cases.

Yesterday's proposals were welcomed as a more modern and humane system for trying the worst murder cases while allowing mercy killings and unintentional homocides to be prosecuted within the facts of each particular case.

Simon Hughes, Liberal Democrat legal affairs spokesman, said he broadly welcomed the proposals but added: "Discussion must take into account and respect the views of individuals who have lost loved ones as a result of the violence of others. We need a rational debate to agree a clear code of laws so people who commit the most serious crimes know what sort of punishment they will receive." The Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Sir Ian Blair, also gave his backing, saying it was "difficult" when the only sentence for a mercy killing was life. He explained: "There is something here about making sure the deeply premeditated, hideously cruel murder of children, or murder and terrorism, or whatever, is at one end of the sentencing scale which, again, is open and transparent, and a mercy killing is at another."

Justice, the law reform group, said it was pleased the proposals recognised the scope of the current offence was too wide and that this, combined with the mandatory life sentence, could result in injustice.

'There is no leeway with the current law. There's no room for compassion'

Heather Pratten, 68, took a pillow and placed it over her son's face, a final act of mercy that helped end his life and fulfil a promise she had made him on his 42nd birthday. Nigel Goodman suffered from the debilitating brain illness Huntington's disease.

Police had little option but to treat Mrs Pratten as a murder suspect. "I spent nine months on bail for murder," she says. "The police told me that because I had told them about the conversation I had had with my son they had no choice. It was a terrible time for both me and my family. We tried to carry on but all the time it was in the back of mind that I might be charged with murder."

When the case eventually came to courtMrs Pratten was not tried for murder. Instead, the Crown Prosecution Service decided she should be prosecuted for aiding and abetting suicide.

Even so Mrs Pratten had to rely on the mercy of the judge to avoid a prison sentence. She was given a one-year conditional discharge after she pleaded guilty at the Old Bailey in 2000of aiding and abetting the suicide of her son. "There is no leeway with the current law," she says. "Murder is so black and white and there is no room for any compassion. People do not do these things unless they have come to end of the road. The new proposals will give judges more discretion over sentencing."