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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Dynamics CRM Developer (C#, .NET, Dynamics CRM 2011/2013)

£40000 - £60000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Dynamics CRM D...

Web Developer (C#, ASP.NET, AJAX, JavaScript, MVC, HTML)

£40000 - £45000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Web Developer ...

C# R&D .NET Developer-Algorithms, WCF, WPF, Agile, ASP.NET,MVC

£50000 - £67000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# R&D .NE...

C# Developer (Web, HTML5, CSS3, ASP.NET, JS, Visual Studios)

£40000 - £50000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Developer (...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

i Deputy Editor's Letter:

Independent Voices, Indy Voices Rhodri Jones
A couple stand in front of a beautiful cloudy scene  

In sickness and in health: It’s been stormy but there are blessings in the clouds

Rebecca Armstrong
Iraq crisis: How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over the north of the country

How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over northern Iraq

A speech by an ex-MI6 boss hints at a plan going back over a decade. In some areas, being Shia is akin to being a Jew in Nazi Germany, says Patrick Cockburn
The evolution of Andy Serkis: First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

The evolution of Andy Serkis

First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial: Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried

You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial...

Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried
Refugee children from Central America let down by Washington's high ideals

Refugee children let down by Washington's high ideals

Democrats and Republicans refuse to set aside their differences to cope with the influx of desperate Central Americas, says Rupert Cornwell
Children's books are too white, says Laureate

Children's books are too white, says Laureate

Malorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
Blackest is the new black: Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...

Blackest is the new black

Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...
Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

The US Ambassador to London holds 'jeans and beer' gigs at his official residence – it's all part of the job, he tells Chris Green
Meet the Quantified Selfers: From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor

Meet the 'Quantified Selfers'

From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor
Madani Younis: Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

Madani Younis wants the neighbourhood to follow his work as closely as his audiences do
Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

When it comes to national stereotyping, the Irish – among others – know it can pay to play up to outsiders' expectations, says DJ Taylor
Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy: Was the otter man the wildlife champion he appeared to be?

Otter man Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy

The aristocrat's eccentric devotion to his pets inspired a generation. But our greatest living nature writer believes his legacy has been quite toxic
Joanna Rowsell: The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia

Joanna Rowsell: 'I wear my wig to look normal'

The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef gives raw ingredients a lift with his quick marinades

Bill Granger's quick and delicious marinades

Our chef's marinades are great for weekend barbecuing, but are also a delicious way of injecting flavour into, and breaking the monotony of, weekday meals
Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014 preview: Why Brazilians don't love their neighbours Argentina any more

Anyone but Argentina – why Brazilians don’t love their neighbours any more

The hosts will be supporting Germany in today's World Cup final, reports Alex Bellos
The Open 2014: Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?

The Open 2014

Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?