Woodward Case: The Decision - Did the judge get it right?

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The Independent Online
There was some surprise but little criticism among lawyers of the nine-month sentence handed out to Louise Woodward. As Michael Streeter, Legal Affairs Correspondent, discovered, sentencing for manslaughter can vary enormously in both Britain and the United States.

While many lawyers, on both sides of the Atlantic, had been expecting a sentence of between two and five years for Louise Woodward, there was little feeling that Judge Zobel had gone "off the scale".

Bruce Holder QC agreed the sentence had been merciful; had the teenager been given several years, "no one would have been very surprised". But it was not out of line with expectations.

"The sentence was certainly at the merciful end of the scale, but not unduly lenient, not one that would be susceptible to a prosecution appeal in this country," he said. He also doubted whether the judge had been influenced by the media clamour surrounding the trial.

Nadine Radford QC, an American working as a criminal defence barrister in London, said the sentence was lenient, but believed the judge had been influenced not by the media, but instead the pressure on Woodward. "She has been under a great deal of pressure at a young age. The judge probably factored that in."

Judges in Britain, as in the United States, have great discretion in what sentence they hand out for manslaughter cases. In Britain, sentences can vary from the lower scale of probation, or suspended prison sentences for defendants - for example, where the accused has endured tremendous bullying - to a life sentence. In the US, the options are similar though in some states, such as Massachusetts, there can be a 15 or 20-year maximum.

Irwin Rochman, a defence lawyer and former prosecutor in New York, said there was some "surprise" among legal colleagues at the level of Woodward's sentence. But he added: "For surprise do not read criticism. Most lawyers are sophisticated enough to know unless they have sat throughout the whole trial and heard all the evidence you do not have a feel for what the case is all about."

Judges were experienced, of a high standard and in a position to listen to all the facts and make decisions accordingly. "That's what they are paid to do."

Another British barrister, Jonathan Caplan QC, who has experience of the US system, said there was no such thing as a "normal" sentence for manslaughter. "In some cases a probation order will be appropriate, in another only a life sentence might fit the bill."

Lawyers agreed that the judge would have taken into account Louise Woodward's state of mind, her age, and the fact that, as Mr Rochman said, she was "a young girl far away from home".

Paul Cavadino, principal officer of the National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders, agreed that in a similar case in this country such a sentence would have come as "no surprise".

Last September, Julia Watts, 31, was given an 18-month suspended prison sentence at Manchester Crown Court after she killed her severely handicapped baby daughter by removing a breathing tube from her throat. She had been convicted of manslaughter.