Leading article: Murder, manslaughter and our confused laws on killing

Share

One way or another, it has been hard to avoid the unpleasant subject of murder this week, with the resolution of three unusually high-profile - and, in particular respects, controversial - cases. Damien Hanson, only 24 but with a string of serious convictions to his name, was convicted of murdering a wealthy banker during a robbery at his Chelsea home. A teenage girl and three young men were found guilty of manslaughter for killing a bar manager during a "happy slapping" spree in central London. And, in what is already turning out to be the most hotly debated verdict of the year, a jury accepted the manslaughter plea of an ex-soldier, Andrew Wragg, for the killing of his disabled son in preference to the prosecution's charge of murder.

Compared with the other cases, Hanson's seems simple. This was everyone's nightmare of a murder: a young man with a violent history turns up on the doorstep equipped to rob, and brutally kills the householder. The biggest controversy here is why Hanson was released so early from his previous sentence and why his probation appears to have been so inadequately supervised.

In the "happy slapping" case, the jury seems to have accepted the argument that the gang, while intent on random violence, had not set out to kill, even though they kicked a man to death. A senior Metropolitan Police officer spoke for many when he expressed disappointment that the jury had not convicted the gang of murder.

But it was the Wragg case that really ignited passions. While many sympathised with Mr Wragg's predicament as father of a severely disabled and terminally ill child, there was widespread consternation that his plea of manslaughter was accepted, even though the killing was clearly premeditated. We share that consternation. For while we did not, of course, hear the evidence first hand, the judgment seems to send a deeply disturbing message. This is that the lives of those who are too young, disabled or ill to speak for themselves are somehow worth less than the lives of others.

It is our view, and we are gratified to find it shared by so many, that the paramount duty of justice is to defend those without the power to defend themselves. In this respect, the court failed Jacob Wragg. And his father seems to have got off lightly. Convicted of manslaughter, he received a two-year suspended sentence on the grounds that nothing would be served by a prison term. Would it not have drummed the point home that killing an individual in these circumstances is as unacceptable to our society as killing someone older and fitter?

The controversy surrounding this verdict will continue to swirl. And so it should because, with the "happy-slapping" verdict, it highlights the current incoherence of our murder laws. Rather than being treated as a separate category, the category of manslaughter seems increasingly to be applied to premeditated killing where there are deemed to be mitigating circumstances or responsibility is judged to be diminished. Confusion has been compounded by recent legislation that stipulates mandatory sentences for a wide range of crimes, including murder. This has reduced the room for judges' discretion and may also deter jurors from delivering guilty verdicts.

The Lord Chancellor, Lord Falconer, said this week that the demarcation line between murder and manslaughter would be among the questions addressed during the Home Office review of murder laws that is in train. One solution being mooted is a US-style division of murder into degrees, although the Lord Chancellor says he is against this. We await the outcome with impatience. As this week's verdicts show, clarity in our murder laws is overdue.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Trainee Consultant - Surrey / South West London

£22000 per annum + pension,bonus,career progression: Ashdown Group: An establi...

Ashdown Group: Trainee Consultant - Surrey/ South West London

£22000 per annum + pension,bonus,career progression: Ashdown Group: An establi...

Ashdown Group: Recruitment Consultant / Account Manager - Surrey / SW London

£40000 per annum + realistic targets: Ashdown Group: A thriving recruitment co...

Ashdown Group: Helpdesk / Trainee Application Support Analyst - Hampshire

£25000 per annum + pension, 25 days holiday: Ashdown Group: A highly reputable...

Day In a Page

Read Next
A relative of dead Bangladeshi blogger Washiqur Rahman reacts after seeing his body at Dhaka Medical College in Dhaka on March 30,  

Atheists are being hacked to death in Bangladesh, and soon there will be none left

Rory Fenton
9.4 million people watched the first of the three-way debates at the last election. The audience for the one on Thursday is likely to be far lower.  

David Cameron needs to learn some new tricks – and fast

Steve Richards
No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor