Death sentence

In the first of a series of articles explaining the complex world of sentencing, Police Professional explains the wide range of possible outcomes following a conviction for manslaughter.

Aug 31, 2017

Manslaughter is an extremely varied area of offending. It can involve an unintended death resulting from an assault, a fatality caused by negligence or someone who kills while suffering from a mental disorder. Sentence levels can also vary widely – from suspended sentences up to life sentences. This article will look at the offences manslaughter comprises, how courts approach sentencing and proposed new sentencing guidelines that are currently out for consultation. When courts are sentencing offenders, it is the seriousness of the offence that decides the level of sentence given, within the parameters allowed by law, such as maximum sentences. Seriousness is determined by assessing two factors: the harm caused to the victim and the culpability of the offender. The nature of the harm will vary from offence to offence, the harm caused by fraud and assault are, of course, very different. Some offences will also involve an inherently greater degree of harm than others, for example, the harm caused by common assault can never be of the level involved in grievous bodily harm. The culpability of the offender can also vary greatly. For example, some offenders commit offences with a great deal of planning, others are opportunists acting on the spur of the moment. Some may have a leading role in a group committing a crime, others may be pressured into collaborating. Manslaughter always involves the highest level of harm since, by definition, it always involves a fatality. Because of this, the law allows a sentence up to life imprisonment. However, manslaughter stands out in terms of the gamut of sentence levels that are given, which can range from suspended sentences to substantial life terms. This reflects the hugely different circumstances in which a manslaughter occurs and the levels of culpability. Manslaughter can involve an offence that is not far from being an accident, while another may be just short of murder. Manslaughter falls into two broad categories: involuntary and voluntary. Involuntary manslaughter is unlawful killing without the intent to kill or cause really serious harm and is a common law offence. There are two classes of involuntary manslaughter: unlawful act manslaughter and manslaughter by gross negligence. Unlawful act manslaughter is charged when death occurs due to a criminal act that a reasonable person would realise must subject some other person to at least the risk of some physical harm. It does not matter whether or not the offender knew that the act was unlawful and dangerous or whether harm was intended. This is by far the most common type of manslaughter with around 100 offenders being sentenced annually. It often involves deaths that come about as a result of assaults, a typical scenario being the so-called ‘one punch’ manslaughter. These can vary enormously in the planning and intention of the offender. There could be a situation not far from being an accident, such as a minor argument between friends where one pushes the other, who unexpectedly falls and suffers fatal injuries. In another situation, someone with a history of violence may go out looking for a fight and hit a stranger as hard as possible in an unprovoked attack. The harm is the same, but the culpability of the offenders in these situations is very different. In one case, sentenced in 2016, a “silly row” between two men who had been close friends for 45 years led to one hitting the other, who fell, striking his head, which caused his death. The family of the victim asked for the sentence to be suspended but a 28-month sentence was imposed. By contrast, earlier this year, Trevor Timon, who had a history of violence, pleaded guilty to manslaughter and was sentenced to six years in prison for killing banker Oliver Dearlove, who died after an unprovoked attack in the street. Manslaughter can also arise out of other unlawful acts such as robbery, arson and affray. Last year, two men received sentences of 13 years and nine years respectively for robbing a pizza delivery man who was punched to the g

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