When taking a life should not mean life in jail

Heather Mills examines calls to scrap the mandatory sentence for murder
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The Independent Online
For the second time in a week, a high-profile case has revived calls for an overhaul on the law of murder.

The release of Emma Humphreys after 10 years in jail raises questions over the merits of the life sentence, which judges are compelled to impose on anyone convicted of murder.

The same questions were raised at the start of the week over the case of Private Lee Clegg, released from jail after serving only four years of a life sentence for killing a joyrider in Northern Ireland.

Miss Humphreys' release came after a campaign on behalf of many battered women who kill, to amend the defences available to murder.

In particular, they wanted the law on provocation - said to better reflect a man's instant reaction to an event rather than a woman's slower build to breaking point.

Now a growing body of influential opinion - includingLord Taylor, the Lord Chief Justice, and Lord Lane, his predecessor - believe such controversy in the one case and the need to tinker with defences in another could be avoided if the mandatory life sentence for murder was abolished.

At present, judges cannot reflect any understanding, mercy or sympathy for a battered wife, the soldier, or the doctor engaged on a mercy-killing. They have to be sentenced in exactly the same way as the terrorist, the violent robber or serial killer.

The issue is currently being considered by the all party Home Affairs Select Committee, which heard from a succession of judges, lawyers and campaigners that the cases this week were just two of many that were serving to undermine public confidence in the sentence.

Interestingly, the only evidence in support of maintaining the sentence came from Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, who believes that, in the absence of a death penalty, the mandatory sentence is needed to reflect society's condemnation of the crime. But Julie Bindel, of Justice For Women, said yesterday: "We are putting forward a new defence of self-preservation. We also want to extend provocation so that violent men cannot use it when they claim their wives have been nagging them or for infidelity, but which allows women like Emma who have suffered years of abuse to actually use it properly."

Lord Ackner, the recently retired Law Lord, said: "The House of Lords in its legislative capacity has tried again and again to get the law changed, but the Government won't have it."