Should manslaughter mean a full 20 years in prison because the person killed was a police officer?

By Mark Leech FRSA

The mother and widow of PC Andrew Harper have both launched campaigns for tougher punishments for those who kill police officers.

Debbie Adlam, PC Harper’s mother, said that “something needs to change” after those responsible for her son’s death were handed 16-year and 13-year sentences at the Old Bailey last week.

She is calling for a minimum term of 20 years for anyone who takes an officer’s life – with no chance of parole during that time.

Pc Harper’s widow, Lissie Harper, has launched her own campaign, backed by the Police Federation of England and Wales, for full-life prison terms for those who kill emergency services workers.

The 28-year-old Thames Valley Police officer died as he tried to stop three thieves fleeing after they stole a quad bike in Stanford Dingley, Berkshire, on August 15 last year.

Henry Long, 19, and 18-year-olds Jessie Cole and Albert Bowers were sentenced for the newlywed’s manslaughter.

Pc Harper was caught in a crane strap dangling from the back of a Seat Toledo driven by Long, and dragged to his death.

Launching her campaign Mrs Adlam said: “We’ve come to realise that, with the outcome of the trial as it stands, something needs to change.

“He is worth much more than this and we’ve been thinking for some time that something needs to be brought in to protect our police officers.

“There’s nobody looking out for them and we aim to change that.”

Mrs Adlam added: “We’re looking to bring in a minimum term – 20 years. No parole, no reductions.”

The Attorney General’s Office has confirmed that it has been asked to consider if the jail terms handed to PC Harper’s killers are too lenient.

Long, of College Piece in Mortimer, was sentenced to 16 years, while Cole, from Paices Hill, Aldermaston, Reading, and Bowers, of Windmill Corner, Mortimer Common, Reading, were each handed 13-year terms.

Currently defendants under the age of 21 receive lower sentences, but Mrs Adlam believes this should end.

“As far as their age and the reductions go, my personal thoughts are there is no sense whatsoever in being 18 or 19 and getting time off your sentence.

“My gut turns when I think about that because you can change your gender, you can get a mortgage, you can serve in the Army, and the thing that really bugs me is you can be on a jury – yet you are not treated as an adult until you’re 21 in the judicial system.

“That can’t be right.”

Mrs Harper is also campaigning for tougher penalties in a move backed by the Police Federation, which represents more than 120,000 officers up to the rank of chief inspector.

She said: “As a widow of a police officer – a title which I would give everything to not have – I have witnessed first-hand the lenient and insufficient way in which the justice system deals with criminals who take the lives of our emergency workers.

“The people responsible for wreaking utter despair and grief in all of our lives will spend an inadequate amount of time behind bars.

“These men who showed no remorse, no guilt or sorrow for taking such an innocent and heroic life away will find themselves able to live out the rest of their lives free and able to commit more crimes and continue to put people in danger when they are released in a very small number of years.”

Since 2015, the starting point for a judge sentencing an adult over the age of 21 who has been convicted of murdering a police or prison officer is a whole life sentence.

The judge then takes aggravating and mitigating factors into account before either passing a life sentence with a minimum jail term, or a whole life order – but where the conviction is for manslaughter the sentencing range stretches from nothing to life.

I am absolutely with Andrew Harper’s family on reduced sentencing for those aged under 21, in this day and age it is totally out of date as a line to be drawn in the sentencing sand.

We need to change our system and make the term ‘young offender’ apply to those who are under the age of 18 – and as a result apply sentencing reductions to those aged under 18 when the offence was committed.

Those who are aged 18 and over should be treated as adults and be sentenced as such – if you are old enough to join the army, and die on active service for your country, then you are old enough to be treated as an adult.

However I am not with Andrew Harper’s family in demanding a minimum 20 year sentence without reduction or parole because a police officer died in the crime for which the conviction was manslaughter.

What happened to Andrew Harper was horrific but a fundamental cornerstone of English criminal law is that we leave matters of guilt to the jury – in this case the jury decided the evidence that those in the car knew Andrew Harper was being dragged behind it simply wasn’t there beyond a reasonable doubt and, as a result, manslaughter was the appropriate verdict.

Now we can all disagree with that; personally I find it inconceivable those in the car were not looking through the back window to see if the police car was following them, and if so they must have seen the officer being dragged behind their vehicle – but I was not in court, I did not hear the evidence and I was not on that jury – and in all probability neither were you.

The reality is that we are where we are.

If the Attorney General decides to refer the case to the Court of Appeal under the unduly lenient sentencing arrangements –  and it would be political suicide for her not to do so in my view – [she referred it on 21st August 2020] then the Court of Appeal will get the chance to review the sentence that was passed.

What we must not do, however sympathetic we are to the family of Andrew Harper, is allow cases where emotion is the driving factor to change our legal system – it is education not emotion that is needed here.

Murder of a police officer already carries a whole life sentence, which is absolutely right, but we do not advance the cause of justice by moving the legal goalposts and pretending a conviction for a lesser offence ought to be treated as more serious just because emotion skews the reality.