Mandatory life sentences for manslaughter?

Indigo Jo Blogs - 16 August, 2020 - 21:09
Computer-generated image of the scene of PC Harper’s death

A few days ago I got a link on my social media to a story about a campaign for the law to be changed so that there would be a mandatory life sentence for killing any member of the emergency services. This came after three young men were given prison sentences for the manslaughter of a police officer after they dragged him to his death from the back of a getaway following a robbery in which the attackers had stolen a quad bike. The jury were unconvinced that they intended to kill the officer but convicted him of manslaughter; the driver received 16 years and the two passengers 13 years each. The campaign was started by the officer’s widow but then supported by another officer who had suffered critical injuries from being run over by car thieves. It is supported by the head of the Police Federation.

I find this to be one of the most stupid campaigns I have ever heard of. There is already a mandatory life sentence for murder, and where the victim is a police officer in the line of duty, the minimum time to be served (the tariff) is higher. Murder is unlawful killing which is intentional or where the attacker intended to cause them grievous bodily harm; manslaughter is where there is some mitigation, such as that there was no intent to kill and that the course of action does not usually result in death (such as when someone dies from a single punch to the face). Other mitigations include provocation and diminished responsibility, meaning that someone’s mental health is impaired, even if only temporarily. Manslaughter can result in a life sentence, though not a whole-life tariff (i.e. where someone is told at trial that they will spend the rest of their life in prison), which is generally reserved for multiple or highly aggravated murders. An example of this was Mick Philpott, who set fire to his house (it is believed so that he could “play the hero” by rescuing his family) and the fire killed six children (five his, one his wife’s from a previous relationship). A list of people serving whole-life sentences can be found here.

It’s dangerous to demand that someone who kills unintentionally should face the same sentence as a serial murderer just because of who the victim was. The lives of police officers or even fire-fighters or paramedics are not more valuable than those of the rest of us. A myth is being promoted that police officers are in general heroes who put their lives on the line for our sake and this is not always the case. Some police officers are also corrupt, racist or abusive. If such an officer is killed by someone they had provoked or abused while on duty, or (say) during a car chase which started when a motorist sped away from the latest in a long line of stops which were clearly motivated by his skin colour, the sentence should be no more than if he had treated anyone else in the same way. Similarly, when someone causes another’s death through reckless driving, there is an appropriate sentence depending on the severity of the careless or dangerous driving as it takes only a minor distraction to lose control of a vehicle and only a low-speed collision to kill someone. It is unjust that someone could be jailed for life for causing death by mere careless driving just because the victim is someone ‘important’.

This campaign would not be running if PC Andrew Harper’s killers had been found guilty of murder and received life sentences. PC Harper’s widow tells us she hopes that “any widows of the future will not have to experience the same miscarriages of justice”; this was not a miscarriage of justice but merely an unsatisfactory outcome of a system designed to ensure justice and that punishment is proportionate to the crime. That system errs on the side of acquitting rather than convicting. I agree that people who kill officers to aid their getaway or who attack paramedics or fire-fighters for kicks or to make sure a victim dies or that their property is destroyed deserve to be punished severely (all the more so in the latter case if the fire-fighters or paramedics are killed), but we must resist emotion and make the usual distinctions so that only murderers are punished as murderers.

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London driving and the heatwave

Indigo Jo Blogs - 14 August, 2020 - 19:12
A suspension bridge over a river with towers, archway and supports painted green. The sky is blue.Hammersmith Bridge, London

So, the heatwave in the UK has finally ended after six days of temperatures in the mid-30s (Celsius) every day. Yesterday or the day before, much of the south has had at least one major thunderstorm and a good dose of rain and temperatures are down to a more normal and bearable 25 degrees. Many of us were waiting expectantly for the storms as the forecasts had been predicting them to start on Sunday night, then Monday morning, and in the event we had to wait until Wednesday evening for the first storm in London and even then it was only a short one in south-west London. Although never as hot as the hottest day last year, when temperatures of 39 degrees were recorded, nor anything like as long as the dry spell of 2018, I cannot remember seeing temperatures in the mid-30s for this many days running. The drop in temperatures is very welcome as it became impossible to sleep comfortably, even with the windows open and fan on.

An irritating thing about heatwaves in this country is how they are talked about in the media. For some reason, weather forecasters (especially on local radio) are incapable of talking about it in factual terms; they always gush about how wonderful hot weather is. A hot day is never just a hot day; it’s a “lovely day”. A rainy day is always a “miserable day”. Even as the recent heatwave progressed and it looked like it was going to be broken by thunderstorms, presenters told us that there was a ‘risk’ of thunderstorms and that there might not be “decent heat”. I appreciate that sun is welcome after a wet spell, but the same is true after a long or intense dry (or humid) and hot spell, but even so, for those of us who have to work outside, an overcast, moderately warm day has more comfortable conditions to work in than a sunny day with temperates in the high 20s, let alone 30s. They are only “lovely days” if you are at leisure. And much as rain can be inconvenient (or dangerous, if too much falls at a time), the rain that falls is the water we drink and wash with. Does anyone want to live in a desert? Does anyone realise how lucky we are not to suffer severe water shortages in this country, that we are not restricted to four-minute showers because of constant drought?

If you’re in an air-conditioned office, heat does not become as irritating as it can be if you are sitting in a long traffic jam, made all the worse by idiotic decisions by town hall bureaucrats (since London doesn’t have a proper council). London’s Vauxhall Bridge has been closed for “essential works”, meaning people have to use Lambeth or Chelsea Bridges instead. Vauxhall is the lowest bridge on the Thames which has no weight or width limits and no toll; temporarily, Lambeth Bridge and its two southern approaches have been exempted from the Congestion Charge but more direct routes to Lambeth Bridge are still subject to the toll. So, on Wednesday afternoon I left a building site north of Chelsea Bridge around 3pm and hit solid traffic as Ebury Bridge Road merged with Chelsea Bridge Road and everyone from those two had to compete with traffic from both directions on the Embankment to get onto the one lane of Chelsea Bridge. We also could not turn right onto the Embankment towards Earl’s Court and the A4, despite this being the way we had been directed to come to the site, so we had to go south towards Clapham Common. I turned left, hoping to turn left up either Lupus Street (which turned out to be too narrow for the truck I was driving) or Vauxhall Bridge Road, but they had imposed a no-left-turn restriction at that junction for no obvious reason, meaning I had to go over Lambeth Bridge and back via Vauxhall.

Transport for London has a page about the closure but it does not mention the fact that access to Vauxhall Bridge Road from Grosvenor Road is closed, nor explain why; it explains that there is no congestion charge on the signed diversion route but does not give a description of it (and the signage is not all that good; one folding sign at the approach to each roundabout). It would be better if direct routes to Lambeth Bridge were also excluded so that people could make a quicker exit east or west (via Horseferry Road and/or Lambeth Road) but they are not. Both the decision making and the communication about it are appalling and I can see a lot of people stuck in those delays not wanting to vote for Sadiq Khan when his extra year in office ends (assuming there’s not another wave of Coronavirus by then and they extend it by yet another year).

And only yesterday, Hammersmith Bridge was closed to pedestrians and cyclists as well as motor vehicles after another crack was discovered following the heatwave. The river and walkways under the bridge have also been closed. The Victorian suspension bridge has had three attempts made to destroy it by the IRA or splinter groups since the 1930s and since 1998 has had a 7.5T weight limit until last year when it was closed to all motor vehicles. Until then it had been a major route, linking the A3 with the A4 and making the trip through Sheen and over Kew Bridge unnecessary. If it’s not even safe to walk or cycle over, surely now is the time to finally demolish it and replace it with something that might not be as pretty but can carry the traffic it used to carry — something that should have been done years ago, when they discovered that they clearly could not strengthen it.

Finally, earlier this week I read that cycling campaigners were up in arms that one of the roads through Richmond Park, from Kingston to Richmond gates (the Queen’s Road), was being re-opened to through traffic after having been closed during the lockdown. Other roads in the park will remain closed, as have a number of other roads through London’s Royal Parks such as Chestnut Avenue in Bushy Park, which links Hampton Court with Teddington (to show how important this road is, the A309 route stops at the northern gate and restarts at Hampton Court Bridge; Chestnut Avenue is the missing link, though it was only ever open during daylight hours and only to cars, not goods vehicles). Frankly, the cyclists can “do one”. They have cycle paths through Richmond Park already which they rarely seem to use. The Queen’s Road is an important thoroughfare linking places to the east of Kingston with Richmond, Sheen and the M4. It has always been used by through traffic. Without it, you would have to drive through Kingston town centre, along a residential road in between the town and the park, or via a circuitous route around the park via Roehampton — the route swollen with the traffic that would previously have used Hammersmith Bridge. Richmond Park is huge; the roads are round the perimeter and most of it is traffic-free and it would not cost much to install crossings so that people could safely make their way from the car parks to the interior. Cyclists already have plenty of traffic-free space in Richmond Park; they do not have a right to claim a major route that is for everyone.

Image: Edwardx, via Wikipedia. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike (BY-SA) 3.0 licence.

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