MURDER MUST MEAN MURDER; Demand to Stop the Plea Bargains

By Macaskill, Jamie | Daily Record (Glasgow, Scotland), May 8, 1998 | Go to article overview

MURDER MUST MEAN MURDER; Demand to Stop the Plea Bargains


Macaskill, Jamie, Daily Record (Glasgow, Scotland)


Two words can save convicted killers from a life sentence - culpable homicide.

In 10 years, just five people convicted of culpable homicide have been put away for life.

But over the same period, 462 killers have been given life for murder.

The shock figures expose the stark difference between the two sentences - even though many cases share the same horrific violence and tragedy.

Yesterday, lawyers and politicians admitted it was time to close the loophole which can let killers off the hook.

They spoke out as Mark Ayton's killers awaited sentence - after they plea bargained from murder to culpable homicide.

Scottish Office figures from 1986-96 reveal that of the 850 killings in Scotland in the last 10 years, 462 people were convicted of murder and 388 of culpable homicide.

All those convicted of murder received life sentences. But 122 of those convicted of culpable homicide received jail sentences of less than four years.

And 77 were not jailed at all, receiving fines, community service or admonition.

Few killers are charged with culpable homicide.

The majority are initially charged with murder but the charge is reduced under late plea bargains hammered out between Crown prosecutors and defence lawyers in court chambers.

Many now fear prosecutors are under too much pressure to get an accused jailed - even on a lesser charge.

One lawyer said: "Juries became afraid of finding someone guilty of capital punishment because it meant the death sentence.

"Now they are becoming wary of a murder conviction because it means life."

Yesterday, one prosecutor, who agreed to talk on condition of anonymity, admitted that under current Scots law plea bargaining was a necessary evil.

He said: "Imagine the scene where you have three people in the dock but your evidence is thin, you know the natural reluctance of a Glasgow jury to believe the police and you are relying on alleged confessions.

"If you are offered a plea of culpable homicide, you may take the view that to get all three banged up makes more sense than going for murder and getting one or two or none at all.

"Quite often, what goes through your mind is `It's a marginal case. If I take this plea, I've got all three of them'.

"There may be the least evidence against the worst of the three. And if you go to trial you may not get him for anything, let alone murder."

The latest case to spark the debate over culpable homicide and plea bargaining is the Mark Ayton trial.

Seventeen-year-olds Ian Wheldon and Graham Purves, and Ross Gravestock, 16, had been accused of murder.

But after a plea bargain at the High Court in Glasgow they admitted a reduced culpable homicide charge.

Yesterday, Mark's father, Malcolm, a tax inspector, said he feared the plea bargain will mean the killers escape severe punishment. …

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