On 3rd August 2013 Brian Holmes, a 66 year old man who had just been given the ‘all clear’ from cancer, got into an argument with Alan Watts (a 65 year old man) over disabled parking in ASDA. During a minor altercation (the sort that happens up and down the land every day) Mr Watts punched Mr Holmes twice. Mr Holmes fell to the floor and fractured his skull. He died the next day.
Mr Watts stood trial for manslaughter and on 12th December 2013 was found guilty. He was sentenced that day to 5 years in prison.
In this case the Prosecution never alleged that Mr Watts had ‘murdered’ Mr Holmes. It was accepted by Mr Watts that he had punched him, the issue for the jury was whether Mr Watts was acting in self-defence, ie did this as an act of aggression rather than to ward off an attack? The jury were obviously sure that this was not self-defence.
The difference here between murder and manslaughter is the intent. For it to have been murder, Mr Watts would have had to intended to kill or cause ‘really serious harm’ to Mr Holmes. It seems clear from the fact that this was never an issue.
Why 5 years?
I was surprised that the Judge passed straight to sentence without calling for a Pre-Sentence Report, if for nothing else, but to assist with how long any prison sentence should be.
But, in any event, this sort of offending is very hard to sentence. The Court of Appeal has said that when the case is one of manslaughter because of a lack of intent to cause death or really serious harm, the widest range of sentences are in play.
Some further guidance was given in the case of AG Ref (no 60 of 2009)  EWCA Crim 2693 where it was said that sentences should be higher than they previously were (no surprises there – despite what the tabloids say, sentences generally always go up).
For that reason, the sentence of 5 years, whilst it was more than Mr Watts would have received 10 years ago, is one that a Court of Appeal is unlikely to interfere with. I would expect there to be an appeal against sentence as it is right that the Court of Appeal should consider the matter. My view is that in a tragic case such as this, given that Mr Watts is (we understand) a man of good character, a sentence of about 3 years would have been appropriate. Having said that, if I were Mr Watts, I wouldn’t be holding my breath.