The Law of Murder
Murder is usually regarded as the most serious offence in the criminal law.
Murder is committed when a person of “sound mind” unlawfully kills another, with the intention either to kill or, more commonly, to cause grievous bodily harm (which means really serious harm).
Conspiracy Solicitors have conducted a multitude of murder cases over the years, several of which have been high-profile cases attracting extensive media attention. We’ve dealt with everything from street fights which go tragically wrong, to organised criminal conspiracies to execute gangland rivals with firearms, and robbery conspiracies which lead to multiple murders.
A conspiracy to murder will usually involve a group of offenders who have agreed together to carry out a course of action which would result in the unlawful killing of another person. If a group of people agree to hire a hitman to travel to and shoot another individual dead, that would amount to a conspiracy to murder even if the hitman is never contacted, or even if the hitman took the money but decided not to carry out the shooting. Such cases are often highly complex.
Police Station Interviews in Murders
Representing a suspect accused of murder is a specialist skill. In serious investigations such as these the police will be carefully planning everything they do, and will carefully manage the information they provide.
Less than careful handling of the interviews and the response to questioning can lead to difficulties at trial.
It is important to have an experienced representative in murder interviews and we at Conspiracy Solicitor recognise the need for this.
Murder trial solicitors
Murder cases must be tried at the Crown Court before a judge and jury. after one appearance before the local Magistrates’ Court the case will be sent directly to the Crown Court. After that all hearings will be before the Crown Court, with cases managed by specially ticketed Crown Court judges, or even High Court judges (so-called “Red Judges”, because of the colour of their robes).
Murder trials usually raise complex issues of evidence. There will often be extensive evidence from Scenes of Crimes Officers (SOCOs or, these days, Crime Scene Investigators or CSIs) dealing with the forensic findings at the scene of the crime. This may lead to expert evidence from forensic scientists, to deal with DNA deposits, blood spatter pattern distribution, fingerprints and footprints, and other evidence which can assist the Court in deciding who did what in the murder case, and how they did it. Also more and more common in modern cases is telephone and internet evidence. There will often be records of telephone calls and messages, or messages via networks such as Facebook, Twitter or MSN, which can reconstruct how people were feeling at the time, and in the case of phone evidence can also lead to cellsite evidence, which uses transmissions from particular mobile telephone masts to show (roughly) where a particular phone was at a particular time.
We are experienced with all aspects of murder trials, having dealt with many, often successfully. We have access to many experienced leading QCs, as well as suitable expert witnesses who we have used in the past to undermine or contradict aspects of the Prosecution case on murder.
Bail in murder cases
The Magistrates’ Court no longer has the power to grant bail in murder cases, so the first chance for bail to be considered is at the first hearing in the Crown Court. In most cases bail will be refused, and it can sometimes be better to wait a short time for material to be gathered to allow for a better bail application, but we have successfully obtained bail for several clients accused of murder in the past.
If bail is granted to a murder defendant it will usually be on very strict conditions, and past offending often weighs very heavily against bail being granted, but it is not impossible to achieve if a good application is put together.
Sentencing in Murder cases
Murder carries a mandatory life sentence for an adult, and for those convicted under the age of 18 years, they are detained “at Her Majesty’s Pleasure”. Both of these mean that the length of the sentence will vary depending upon individual circumstances, including the way in which the offence was committed and whether or not the defendant has any previous convictions.
A life sentence, or its youth equivalent, has life-long consequences, as the person will be on licence for the remainder of their life after they have been released. However, the minimum term (the tariff, or term of years) is what is of primary interest at the start of the sentence. In any sentencing exercise for murder the Judge will set a term of years which the person must serve in prison before they can be considered for release by the Parole Board, and unlike ordinary sentences of imprisonment that period must be served in full, usually less any time spent on remand, so if the Judge orders a minimum term of 14 years, that is how long it will be before the Parole Board considers release for the first time.
There are complex legal provisions governing what the likely sentence will be in the event of a conviction for murder. Whilst the life sentence aspect is not optional, the number of years the Judge will set as a minimum can vary greatly, and it is essential to have expert advice and representation. The features the Judge will consider are those set out in Schedule 21 to the Criminal Justice Act 2003. The options range from a basic starting point in normal cases of 15 years, or 12 for young offenders, up to 25 or 30 years for more aggravated offences and, for the most serious cases, whole life orders.
With the consequences for the defendant being so great, it is important to have experienced representatives. We’ve dealt with many murders and understand what clients accused of such offences need.
There are several different kinds of manslaughter, and it is a relatively unusual charge. In many cases of murder the goal of the defence will be to bring the case down to manslaughter so that the mandatory sentence applicable to murder does not apply, and it is more common for manslaughter to arise in this way rather than as an allegation in its own right. This is called voluntary manslaughter, because death or serious injury was intended, but in circumstances where it can be partially excused because of the circumstances.
A number of the specific defences to murder, for example loss of control (which used to be called provocation) or diminished responsibility, have the effect of reducing murder to voluntary manslaughter in this way.
However, manslaughter can arise in other ways, called involuntary manslaughter. This may exist where death or serious injury were not intended by the defendant, but where death is the result of an unlawful and dangerous act (for example a lesser assault which unfortunately causes death) or a result of gross negligence.
Gross negligence cases can be exceptionally complex evidentially and may involve huge amounts of material and complex expert investigations, whereas unlawful act involuntary manslaughter is usually more straightforward. The common scenario is that a punch is thrown in a fight, without intent to kill or cause serious harm, but the recipient of the punch unfortunately falls and bangs their head on the hard pavement, resulting in fatal bleeding on the brain (the medical term would be an intra-cranial haemorrhage, or subdural-haematoma).
Manslaughter is generally considered to be a less serious offence than murder. With murder, the intention of the attacker has to be either to commit really serious harm or to kill. With manslaughter, although the end result is death (and therefore just as tragic), the attacker must only be intending to do some harm, or being negligent or reckless as to whether some harm would be occasioned. The defendant is therefore significantly less culpable for the result of what has occurred.
A life sentence is not mandatory for manslaughter, and many cases will result in a lesser sentence. There are specific sentencing guidelines for certain types of manslaughter:
- Sentencing Guideline for manslaughter by reason of provocation (loss of control)
- Sentencing Guideline for Corporate Manslaughter (and health and safety breaches which result in death)
To be found guilty of attempted murder, a person must have the intention to kill another person and have done something “more than merely preparatory” to commit the killing. Physically stabbing at someone with a knife, but not succeeding in killing is more likely to be charged as an attempted murder. In the majority of cases attempted murder usually has to involve an attempt so serious that death could well have followed from the actions of the defendant.
Attempted murder is relatively difficult to prove, so in many cases a different offence would be charged. The most obvious alternative is section 18 grievous bodily harm with intent.
There are specific sentencing guidelines for attempted murder.
Defences To Murder
General defences which also apply to murder include self-defence and defence of another, but certain defences, such as provocation (loss of control) and diminished responsibility (where a defendant was temporarily suffering from an abnormality of mind which impairs his mental responsibility for the killing), only apply to murder. These specific defences are referred to as partial defences, because they have the effect only of reducing murder to manslaughter, and thereby avoiding the mandatory life sentence.
The defences in murder cases can be very complex, and it is important to get advice early to ensure that all defences have been properly considered. To safeguard our clients’ position, for example, we will always obtain a psychiatric report at an early stage to ensure that there is no possibility of a diminished responsibility defence.
Managing A Murder Case
With many years of defending serious cases, including murder, we at Conspiracy Solicitors will be guide you page by page through the prosecution evidence to eliminate any element of chance during trial. In all but a minority of cases, we will instruct a QC (the highest grade of barrister) to lead a second junior barrister (usually very experienced in their own right – all barristers who have not attained the rank of QC (Queen’s Counsel) are referred to as Juniors, even if they’ve been doing the job for 20 years!) With life imprisonment looming following a guilty verdict, a defendant’s liberty will only be trusted with the best services of some of the country’s top barristers.
Murder cases can be very complex and the Prosecution will usually dedicate many resources to the investigation. Issues will be raised which do not generally feature in other cases – in few other cases, for example, do you have to engage the services of expert witnesses from the first day. Defending a murder is different. In murder cases, for example, it is often necessary to liaise with HM Coroner at an early stage to ensure that the body is preserved, and to secure the services of an expert Pathologist to carry out a second post-mortem examination on the body.
We endeavour to match the prosecution resources with our own expertise and access to the right experts and specialists, and use our experience of managing such voluminous significant cases to your advantage. Every murder case brings different challenges, but we can meet them.
Other fatal cases
There are several other species of fatality prosecution, most particularly motor manslaughter cases and those involving causing death by dangerous or careless driving.
We have experience of dealing with the unique features of all of these different specialist prosecutions.