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

Recruitment Genius: Senior Digital Marketing Consultant

£28000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Senior Digital Marketing Cons...

Recruitment Genius: Assistant Stores Keeper

£16640 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Assistant Stores Keeper is r...

Recruitment Genius: Claims Administrator

£16000 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an excellent opportunit...

Recruitment Genius: Software Developer - C# / ASP.NET / SQL

£17000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Developer required to join a bu...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Mosul falls: Talk of Iraq retaking the town, held by IS since June, is unconvincing  

Isis on the run? The US portrayal is very far from the truth

Patrick Cockburn
Photo match: Nicola Sturgeon on the balance beam on 27 April. Just like that other overnight sensation, Russian Olympian Olga Korbut, in 1972  

Election catch-up: SNP surge, Ed Balls’s giraffe noises, and Cameron’s gaffe

John Rentoul
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

Everyone is talking about The Trews

Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living
Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

Homeless people keep mobile phones

A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before
'Queer saint' Peter Watson left his mark on British culture by bankrolling artworld giants

'Queer saint' who bankrolled artworld giants

British culture owes a huge debt to Peter Watson, says Michael Prodger
Pushkin Prizes: Unusual exchange programme aims to bring countries together through culture

Pushkin Prizes brings countries together

Ten Scottish schoolchildren and their Russian peers attended a creative writing workshop in the Highlands this week
14 best kids' hoodies

14 best kids' hoodies

Don't get caught out by that wind on the beach. Zip them up in a lightweight top to see them through summer to autumn
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The acceptable face of the Emirates

The acceptable face of the Emirates

Has Abu Dhabi found a way to blend petrodollars with principles, asks Robert Fisk