Pump Court Chambers

Murder, Manslaughter and the Court of Public Opinion

Blog 29th July 2020

Following the verdict of manslaughter returned against three defendants for the killing of PC Andrew Harper, news broke on 29th July 2020 that his widow had written to the Prime Minister to ask for a retrial after the jury failed to convict the three of murder.

In the now infamously tragic case, PC Harper, a police officer investigating the theft of quad bikes who became entangled in a tow rope attached to the getaway vehicle and was dragged by the car over a mile before becoming dislodged and dying on the roadside.

Following the verdict and Mrs. Harper’s letter, the responses on social media have been numerous and varied, with many supportive of her appeal to the Prime Minister and adamant that the only possible verdict in such a case was one of murder. Some have gone so far to say that any killing of an officer on duty must amount to murder and suggestions that only a jury that had been ‘bribed’ could reach the verdict that they did, and that any ‘decent person’ would support her. While most will sympathise with the personal tragedy of the victim’s widow, her request raises bigger issues about the role of juries, politics and populism in the application of the law.

Given the array of incorrect definitions of the offences that have found their way onto social media, first it is important to explore what, in law, amounts to murder and what constitutes manslaughter:

Murder is an offence at common law and requires the mental element (mens rea) that an individual intends to cause grievous bodily harm or death to another, and the act is that the person is killed. A common misconception amongst public opinion is that the individual must intend to kill the victim or in some way plan to do so, such that the offence is ‘premeditated.’ This is likely to have been usurped into the public consciousness by the varying degrees of murder found in US law and often reported in both high profile cases and part of popular television dramas.

Manslaughter on the other hand is an offence committed when death occurs without the requisite intention, either through gross negligence or an unlawful act.

It is unhelpful to speculate on exactly what evidence the jury in this case heard. An important warning given to jurors at the beginning of every case is that they must confine themselves to the evidence heard in the court room and not try to do their own research. It is that evidence, and that alone on which they should base their verdict. There is good reason for that warning, because the law of criminal evidence contains within it mechanisms to guard against prejudice and ensure that a fair trial is carried out. Nobody who is commenting on social media or signing petitions for the retrial was in all likelihood present to hear all of the evidence presented to that court and their anger and condemnation derives from simply an emotional outpouring.

The most common thoughts espoused by these would-be legal commentators is a mixture of feeling that justice has been denied for the family, and that the defendants deserved the murder conviction for failure to show sufficient remorse. There are several issues with these viewpoints:

First, the prosecution is brought on behalf of the state and not on behalf of the loved ones of the deceased. Their views, while powerful in understanding victim impact on sentencing, are not relevant either to the counts on the indictment or the verdict returned. With regard to the defendants themselves, the issue centres on who as a society we believe should be entitled to the protection of the law. Is the answer ‘everybody’ or should there be a criterion of ‘likeability’ before that protection is afforded?

What most of this public anger is overlooking is, that sentence has not yet been passed in this case and, a hefty sentence can be expected for the manslaughter conviction. The maximum penalty for a manslaughter conviction is life imprisonment. This differs from murder only insofar as with murder, the only available option to the sentencing judge is a life sentence. This does not in reality mean that a convicted murderer will never be released on licence- that is a decision for a parole board once the tariff sets by the sentencing judge has expired and is based on a careful calculation of risk by an independent panel. If the concern of the social-media masses is that the defendants in this case will not be sufficiently punished, there is ample scope within the sentencing powers to ensure that this will be achieved. Their lack of remorse will be one such factor a sentencing judge would be entitled to take into consideration. Arguably the outpouring of anger is misconceived.

The most important consideration here is that of populism eroding at the foundations of our justice system. Those calling for the judge in the case to be removed are fundamentally misunderstanding the way criminal trials in this country work. The judge does not determine a verdict, they decide the law. The facts are decided upon by the twelve members of the public, selected at random, after hearing the evidence and having been given a direction on the law. The covid-19 crisis has called into question the continuation of jury trials for a number of offences due to expedience; cost and a mounting backlog of cases that long predate the pandemic. This example of public outrage and support for an attempt to undermine a verdict decided by impartial members of the public in receipt of all the evidence is little short of alarming. The jury system has been in place for hundreds of years and with it, the evolution of important evidential protections for the individual on trial against the state.

We none of us know when we may find ourselves on the wrong side of the prevailing public mood, and there remain serious concerns about the dissemination of false information and stifling of debate on internet forums. As devastating as the death of PC Harper was to both his family, and the wider public, it is now more important than ever to acknowledge the importance of juries in criminal cases and not seek to undermine their position by playing out justice in the court of public opinion.

This article on Murder, Manslaughter and the Court of Public Opinion was written by Siân Beaven,  for further information on Siân’s practice please contact Tony George via our switchboard on 01962 868161 or via email: t.george@pumpcourtchambers.com

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