Deborah Orr: A damning verdict on our society

The ugliest assumption is that the lives of the disabled are not as precious as the lives of others
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The Independent Online

You'd imagine that the sort of "abnormality of mind" that inspires the deliberate killing of your 10-year-old son would be a fairly permanent one. But apparently not. Andrew Wragg walked free on Monday from Lewes Crown Court after committing just such a crime. No further psychiatric reports were deemed necessary by the judge before she passed her sentence.

Andrew Wragg received a two-year suspended jail term for manslaughter with diminished responsibility after deliberately smothering Jacob Wragg with a pillow, following a day of heavy drinking. He did it, he said, because he "saw in Jacob's eyes" that he had "reached the end of the road". These sound like the ravings of a very disturbed man. But Andrew Wragg's mental disturbance had a special feature, one which won over a judge and a jury completely. His son had a rare degenerative illness called Hunter syndrome, which severely curtailed his quality of life. Wragg says that his was an act of mercy.

The mother of this child, Mary Wragg, was the chief witness for the prosecution, and disagreed with the idea that has insidiously dominated this trial, that Jacob's life was somehow more conditional than the lives of more able-bodied people. She told the court: "This case was never about Jacob's quality of life. He wasn't aware he was different or less able in any way. Jacob was a happy, loving child living in a sometimes difficult body."

The judge, Mrs Justice Rafferty, appears to have disregarded Mrs Wragg's evidence. She suggests that Andrew Wragg would never have taken his son's life had he not been under the impression that this was what his wife wanted. "I accept that you would not have taken Jacob's life had you, for a moment, thought that she disagreed with what you were to do."

Thus, Mr Wragg is distanced still further from any form of responsibility for his actions. He had acted in what he believed to be the best interests of his son and of his wife. His own best interests, it appears, were not an issue. Which for Mr Wragg, appears to have been quite a novelty.

For while most people can imagine that the stress and heartbreak of caring day after day for a severely disabled child - and one who is, further, inexorably deteriorating from a formerly healthy state - might be enough to make a vulnerable carer resort to desperate measures, one could argue that Andrew Wragg did not fit this model.

For the first couple of years of his son's life, he was in the Army. His wife and son lived in married quarters and were "isolated", while Wragg's home leaves were dominated by drinks with the lads and the rhyming nickname "Shag" because of his love of one-night stands. And although he left the Army on compassionate grounds when Jacob was two years old, Wragg chose then to set up a business away from the marital home, and spend only weekends in the orbit of his family, where his drinking continued to be a problem.

The marriage broke up, and from 1999, when Jacob was five, until 2003, he saw little of Jacob or his younger brother George. He did, however, father another son, who has never seen his father. He and his wife got back together in 2003, and by early 2004 Wragg had accepted a three-month job in Iraq. On his return, he says, he was so shocked by the deterioration in his son, as well as by the sights he had witnessed in Iraq, that he began to consider taking the boy's life.

I'm not trying to say here that Wragg is therefore undeserving of compassion or sympathy. Clearly he found it hard to cope with caring for his son, and sought ways of minimising his day-to-day involvement in his care. Equally, he appears to have found it difficult to countenance abandoning Jacob and his family completely. But what can be said, quite categorically, is that there is no pattern here suggesting that Wragg was in the habit of putting the needs of his wife, or of his son, before his own.

This man coped badly - he was selfish, as many people in his situation would be. The judge, however, dismissed the idea that he was motivated by selfishness and instead directed that he was in fact guided by altruism.

This may seem odd, since Mrs Wragg herself challenged that view so strongly. Yet, she had, on the night of the killing, vacated the house with George and waited in a lay-by for the call from her husband that told of Jacob's death, before driving on to her mother's and dropping George off unexpectedly. Such behaviour, in a woman who claims no inkling of her husband's plans, seems utterly bizarre.

Other allegations about the couple's lifestyle that have appeared in the newspapers suggest dependence on drugs, alcohol and experimental sex. Again, this salacious stuff suggests not that the pair were not morally upright enough to be deserving of sympathy, but that neither of them was in a fit state to cope with the enormously trying circumstances they were in.

What Andrew Wragg and Mary Wragg clearly needed, from the moment of their child's diagnosis, was help and support. The couple were in touch with social workers, but often this sort of support focuses so much on the perceived well-being of the child that it can actually increase the strain on carers.

There are often petty investigations, for example, over matters such as lack of weight gain or rashes or bruising that make parents feel that social services are their enemies rather than their friends. It seems fairly obvious that the Wraggs did not feel that there was someone to turn to when the crisis struck. The couple may have been hostile to therapy - often the people who need such services most are most firmly against them.

But what sends out a really bankrupt and awful message is the idea that even now the behaviour of Mr Wragg does not warrant such intervention. Mr Wragg's suspended sentence ought to have provided at the very least for some kind of treatment. Yet even after he has taken a life, this does not appear to be deemed necessary.

It is this dereliction of understanding that underpins the ugliest assumption of all in this case. Which is that the lives of the disabled are nothing like as precious as the lives of others, and that those unfortunate enough to have such people as children cannot be judged even as particularly unwell for ridding themselves of their terrible burden.

There is a definite line between compassion for a stretched and troubled person and entirely condoning their disturbed behaviour. In this case, that line has been breached. There are very many cases in which medical intervention rather than judicial sentencing is appropriate. This is most certainly one of them.