European Court Nixes Mandatory Life Sentences for Murder

Wednesday, 10 Jul 2013 03:20 AM

By Joel Himelfarb

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The European Court of Human Rights has ruled in favor of three convicted British murderers who claimed that their mandatory life sentences amount to inhuman and degrading treatment, providing new legal grounds for some of the country’s most notorious killers to seek sentence reductions.
 
The ruling by the court based in Strasbourg, France, means the British government will have to amend the law to ensure that it complies with European human-rights standards or prepare for more legal challenges from murderers seeking release from prison.

The judges said in their ruling that mandatory life sentences violated Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights, the Guardian reported.

However, the judges said their decision did not give three men — who include Jeremy Bamber, 51, convicted of murdering five members of his family in 1985 — any change of imminent release because the court had not heard evidence on whether they present a danger to public safety.

Bamber has protested his innocence and claimed his schizophrenic sister shot her family before turning the gun on herself. He brought the appeal with Peter Moore, who killed four gay men in North Wales in 1995, and Douglas Vinter of Middlesbrough, who admitted killing his wife in 2008.

Currently 49 murderers are serving life sentences in Great Britain, the London Telegraph reported. These include serial killer Peter Sutcliffe, the “Yorkshire Ripper,” convicted of murdering 13 women and attempting to murder seven others.

Under current law, they will almost certainly never be released from prison because their crimes are deemed to be so serious. They can only be freed if they are terminally ill or seriously incapacitated.

Vinter’s attorney Simon Chreighton said the ruling was not a “get of jail free” excuse for prisoners serving life sentences. According to Chreighton, it merely ensured that prisoners had “some right” to have their sentences reviewed in the future.

But former Home Secretary David Blunkett, who introduced the current life sentencing system a decade ago, emphasized that the British Parliament has the right to determine criminal sentences. Blunkett, a former Labor Party MP who served as home secretary under Prime Minister Tony Blair, said Parliament adopted life sentences as an alternative to capital punishment.

“I pushed this through Parliament in response to the overwhelming demand of the British people for clear, transparent sentencing and for certainty that what starts out as a clear and unambiguous punishment will be carried out,” he said in reaction to the ruling.

The failure to do this “can only lead to disillusionment, mistrust of and a dangerous alienation from our democracy itself,” Blunkett added.

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