MURDER: END OF LIFE SENTENCES; US-Style Legal Shake-Up Is Blasted as 'Licence to Kill'

Article excerpt

Byline: By ROSA PRINCE Political Correspondent

MURDERERS will no longer receive an automatic life sentence under plans revealed yesterday.

In a radical and controversial shake-up, lawyers want to split their crime into new US-style offences of Murder One and Murder Two and manslaughter.

They hope this will ensure those who kill in cold blood will get tougher sentences, but many victims' families say it gives criminals a licence to kill.

They are outraged by a proposal that killers who intend to cause "serious harm" but not death will be treated as second degree murderers and will no longer face mandatory life sentences.

Norman Brennan, of the Victims of Crime Trust, said: "These proposals will result in shorter sentences and it will be seen by a number of criminals as a licence to murder."

Shopkeeper Victor Bates, 66, whose wife Marian, 64, was gunned down in the family's jewellery shop in Arnold, Notts, in 2003, said: "There isn't a criminal out there who isn't smart enough to say, 'I didn't mean to kill' and, hey presto, Murder Two.

"If you go out with a gun and you shoot someone dead, then that's clear evidence of an intention to kill."

The recommendations by the Law Commission form part of the first major rethink of the murder laws for half a century and were commissioned by the Government earlier in the year. They follow complaints from judges who felt it was wrong that a mercy killer who put a dying relative out of their misery had to receive the same sentence as sick serial killers.

And Commissioners deny their proposals are soft, saying more people could be prosecuted for murder under the plans. Some killers be charged with Murder Two instead of manslaughter.

Commissioner Dr Jeremy Horder said of the current position: "The law is confusing and unfair and the judiciary has to adapt it to meet the needs of the 21st century on a case-by-case basis."

Chair Sir Roger Toulson described the homicide laws, some of which date back to the 17th century, as "archaic".

At present, those convicted of murder receive an automatic life sentence with the judge setting a recommended minimum "tariff" of time to be served.

But the report's authors said the penalty of life "should be confined to cases where the offender intended to kill". They added: "Taking a risk, even a high risk, of killing someone is recklessness and very serious but is not the same as the deliberate taking of life."

Killers out to inflict serious injury - but not death - would be prosecuted for second degree murder and would not face a mandatory life sentence.

Also in this category would be those who killed with "reckless indifference", were provoked, suffered diminished responsibility or came under duress.

Mercy-killers and women who kill violent partners could be prosecuted for "Murder Two" and spared life.

Yet Teacher Rose Yates, whose son Christopher was kicked to death by a gang at the University of East London, said: "Different levels of murder will allow some people off the hook. It will just confuse judges and juries. You can't get inside the mind of a person and that's what this is trying to do."

Ian Levy, whose son Robert, 16, was stabbed to death as he tried to break up a fight, called the plans "preposterous". The college lecturer, from Hackney, East London, added: "People will say, 'I didn't mean to kill. …