Mother appeals against jail sentence for lying to police

JAILED PARENTS: Public outrage continues to grow over the punishment meted out. Mary Braid reports

Patricia Whitehead, the mother-of-three jailed on Friday with her husband for lying about a minor motoring offence, will launch an appeal today at the High Court in London. Last night, the couple's children had still not been told what had happened to their parents.

Public outrage continues to grow over Mr Justice Ian Kennedy's sentencing of Mrs Whitehead, 34, a cub scout mistress, to two months in jail and her husband David, 47, a Sunday school teacher, to four months, for perverting the course of justice.

Mr Whitehead is also considering an appeal against the punishment which has separated the couple from their sons Alexander, aged five, Christian, seven and Ian, nine.

Yesterday as the children played at their grandparents' home on the Isle of Wight, unaware of their parents' predicament, prayers were said for the family at all three Sunday services at their local church, St Saviour's, in Brockenhurst, Hampshire. The Rev David Brewster, the vicar, said it was "extraordinary" how the village of 3,000 people had come together against a sentence "out of all proportion to the offence".

Lavinia Whitehead, 74, the boys' grandmother, said they had been told their parents were on holiday. She and her husband, Archie, 75, were forced to take charge of the boys when their son and his American- born wife, who had expected a fine or community service, were jailed at Winchester Crown Court.

Mr Justice Kennedy had heard Mrs Whitehead's plea that she regretted her involvement, lying was against everything she taught her children and that she had acted out of a sense of misguided loyalty. "The children don't know what has happened," their grandmother said. "If they knew where their mummy and daddy were it would break their hearts."

Mrs Whitehead said her son had made a tearful call from prison, asking about his wife and sons' welfare. "He shouldn't be in prison. If he was a burglar, or a robber or a murderer I could understand. But he and Patti told a small lie and then admitted it because they could not live with it. How can that justify a prison sentence?"

Her "subdued, unhappy and devastated" daughter-in-law had also called. "Her boys are her world," said Mrs Whitehead. "She kept asking about them. I don't think she can comprehend what she is doing in a prison."

Patricia Whitehead falsely claimed she was driving the family car when it collided with a motorcycle last August. Her husband had been driving. The motorcyclist was not hurt but Mr Whitehead wrongly feared he might lose his licence because he already had some penalty points. They told the police the truth a week later. No traffic charges were brought.

Yesterday Stephen Shaw, director of the Prison Reform Trust, called the sentences "a monstrous abuse of a judge's powers". Francis Crook, of the Howard League for Penal Reform, said: "It's an absolute scandal. It's easier to get into prison than hospitals these days. There are 20-30,000 in jail today who, like the Whiteheads, should not be there."

Mr Justice Ian Kennedy, 64, is no stranger to controversy. Last year he was criticised by three Court of Appeal judges for his hostile and sarcastic interruptions during a murder plot trial which led to Susan Whybrow and her lover Dennis Saunders being jailed for eight and ten years respectively.

The Court of Appeal ordered a retrial after defence counsel argued the judge's behaviour had robbed their clients of a fair hearing. At one stage, the judge took over cross-examination and effectively ridiculed the evidence of one of the defendants by asking 51 questions. During another lengthy interruption by the judge the defence counsel sat down in desperation

The couple, who had been found guilty of conspiracy to murder Mrs Whybrow's barrister husband Christopher by faking his accidental death under a lawnmower, were freed after a retrial.

While his sentence on the Whiteheads has been roundly condemned for its severity, Mr Justice Kennedy has also been criticised for leniency. He provoked an outcry five years ago when he decided against jailing a mother who laughed while her boyfriend battered her baby to death. The woman was put on probation instead. In court a pathologist described it as the worst baby battering he had come across.

A sentence passed just before the Whiteheads were punished will add to doubts about his judgement. Trevor Moore, a coach company owner, was fined and disqualified from driving for three months after being convicted of careless driving after a cyclist was killed in an accident. Mr Moore had hit the cyclist from behind.

Four days later, the Whiteheads, who had harmed no one, were jailed by the judge. Perhaps he believed prison offered little hardship to the couple. In 1993 he was reported as arguing that conditions in some British jails were better than Butlins.

Mr Justice Kennedy, a father of four, who was educated at Wellington College private school and Pembroke College, Cambridge, has been a judge since 1986.

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