Dominic Lawson: When 'life' should mean life.

A man with a “life sentence” who kills again cannot receive an additional one
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The Independent Online

Sometimes we learn of crimes so vile that the overwhelming public reaction is that the perpetrator should never be released back into society. The case of the Sheffield man – known only as "The Gaffer" – who repeatedly raped his two daughters over a period of 25 years – is Britain's latest contribution to this catalogue of depravity.

Judges are all too frequently quoted as saying a case is the "worst I have ever come across", but this one is definitely in a league of its own. The man in question began his assaults when his daughters reached the age of eight, and continued to rape them, almost on a daily basis, until he was finally arrested this year. One of his daughters had been made pregnant – starting at the age of 13 – on 12 occasions; the other seven. There were nine live births.

When the father discovered that his daughters were taking contraceptives, he forcibly removed the packets. Relatives claim this was part of a plan to maximise the household's child benefit payments, which he used to pay for alcohol and other pleasures for himself. Pathetically, one daughter attempted to hand over all her benefits as a "bribe" to pay her father not to continue raping her.

The man's control over his daughters was maintained by the constant threat or use of violence, including holding their faces to a gas fire. While on remand awaiting trial, he wrote to a friend complaining: "We were all getting on well before this came out. What went wrong? My daughters have got something out of this – kids – what have I got?"

You could be forgiven for thinking that what he has got out of this is a life sentence without possibility of parole. That is what a number of newspapers suggested, quoting Judge Alan Goldsack, who passed no fewer than 25 "life sentences", as saying: "Members of the public will consider you should never be released. I agree." The defendant was not in court to hear the words addressed to him – he refused to attend the sentencing. If he had done so, however, he might have learnt something to his advantage.

For Judge Goldsack went on to state, at the very end of his peroration, that the father would be eligible for parole after 19.5 years; and what he had actually said earlier was: "You should either never be released from prison, or only when you are old and infirm." That's one hell of an "or". In 19 years' time, the man will be 75 – just two years older than his Austrian equivalent, Josef Fritzl.

So this is what "25 life sentences" amounts to. The point is not just that "life" doesn't mean life in prison; as usual in British law, the sentences run concurrently rather than consecutively. In effect the criminal is being punished only once – or in cases where there are a range of sentences passed for a variety of different offences, time is served only for the most serious of them.

Many years ago, Lord Justice Parker laid down in R v Foy why so-called life sentences could not run consecutively: "Life imprisonment means imprisonment for life. No doubt many people come out while they are still alive, but when they do come out it is only on licence, and the sentence of life imprisonment remains upon them until they die. Accordingly, if the court makes any period of years consecutive to life imprisonment, the court is passing a sentence which is no sentence at all, in that it cannot operate until the sentenced man dies."

That has unimpeachable internal logic, but it leads to some bizarre consequences. For example, if a man released on a "life sentence" murders again – and the number of such cases runs to three figures – he cannot receive an additional sentence. Instead, his parole is revoked – with pointless apologies all round.

It is true that since 1983 it has been possible for judges to pass a "whole life" sentence, under which there is no possibility of parole, except through an executive order by the Government. This was granted to three former IRA terrorists as part of the Good Friday Agreement.

I imagine that Judge Goldsack must have given some consideration to imposing a "whole life" tariff on the Sheffield rapist. After all, in passing sentence, he told the court: "A criminal justice system which does not reflect the views of the silent majority of the public does not deserve to have its confidence."

There is no precedent, however, for a "whole life" tariff being imposed on a criminal who has not committed murder, and the judge could be right in his assessment that at some stage this man might no longer be a risk.

Yet it seems to me that the "whole life" tariff is not simply based on the notion that the criminal is too dangerous ever to be safely released. Age and infirmity, in time, strip all of us of our physical capacity for serious violence. Surely the true point about the rare "whole life" sentence is that it reflects the Court's view that so vile and heinous a crime has been committed that, even if the perpetrator is transformed in prison into a veritable St Francis of Assisi, he should still not be released.

I am aware that many, for the best of Christian reasons, are repelled by the thought that in such cases no allowance is given for repentance and forgiveness. A number of such people, and not just the late Lord Longford, campaigned for the removal of the full life sentence ultimately imposed on Myra Hindley. Yet even if we disregard the fact that she began her campaign as a penitent reformed character while keeping secret the existence of the bodies of two other murdered children, it seems to me that forgiveness of Hindley is not something the state could ever have done on behalf of the families of her victims. It would have been the grossest moral impertinence.

Perhaps the wisest words on this matter were expressed almost 20 years ago by that devout Christian and connoisseur of crime, PD James. The novelist observed: "I can't understand, if Myra Hindley really has come to terms with what she did, why she should want to be released."

I asked Baroness James at the weekend whether that remained her view, following the death of Hindley. She said that it was, adding that there would have been much good that a truly reformed Hindley could have done within the prison system if she had chosen to concentrate on that, instead of a perpetual effort to regain her freedom and absolution from the state, rather than God.

So I would not regard it as inhumane if the Sheffield man who has brutalised so many lives was forced to spend the rest of his life in prison, without possibility of parole. For those children who are also his grandchildren, it would be a blessing.

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