On 21st June 2016 Ben Butler, and his partner Jennie Gray, were convicted of offences relating to the death of Ellie, their six year old daughter, who had died on 28th October 2013.
Mr Butler was sentenced to life imprisonment with a minimum term of 23 years for murder. Ms Gray was sentenced to a total of 3½ years in prison.
Ellie Butler was born was born on 30th December 2006. At the time her father, Ben, and mother, Jennie Gray, were in a ‘casual relationship’ and living apart.
Six weeks later Ellie was at her father’s house when he noticed that Ellie “had gone “floppy and sheet white”. They rushed to hospital where she was treated and made a full recovery.
Mr Butler was charged with causing grievous bodily harm relating to this offence, he was convicted and sentenced to 18 months imprisonment.
However, this conviction was later quashed – the judgment can be read here – R v Henderson & Others  EWCA Crim 1269. In essence, there is a lot of areas of dispute in relation to baby shaking cases, with a mass of complex and sometimes contradictory medical evidence.
No re-trial was ordered. However, there were family proceedings which resulted in Ellie being returned to her parents. In fact, the High Court Judge having heard from over 20 medical experts ““exonerated” Butler – going further than the Court of Appeal, which had quashed his conviction“.
After that, social workers were monitoring the family and saw no sign of abuse.
On 28th October 2013 Ellie suffered a massive head injury from which she unfortunately died.
It was alleged that when Ellie died Mr Butler called Ms Gray back to their home and did not call 999 for two hours. In this time they planned a ‘cover up’ relating to Ellie’s death (this is what the Perverting the Course of Justice relates to), going to some lengths to set up a scene that was consistent with Ellie’s death being an accident.
This original account seems to have unravelled, and was to be replaced with another – still saying that the death was an accident, but changing the details. This account was rejected by the jury in 2016.
Meanwhile the Family Court again got involved, and made an order in relation to Ellie’s sibling.
The High Court Judge concluded that “Ellie died as a result of the father either hitting her on the back of the head with the leg of a child’s table, or swinging her with such violence that her head came so forcefully into contact with the table leg that the leg broke and she sustained the skull fracture from which she died.”
Mr Butler denied any wrong doing in relation to Ellie’s death, saying that when he found her dead he was overcome by shock. In addition, he and Ms Gray were concerned that he would be blamed for Ellie’s death given that he was previously wrongly convicted of offences relating to her.
On 21st June 2016 Mr Butler was convicted of Ellie’s murder. His wife, Jennie Gray, had previously pleaded guilty to perverting the course of justice.
In addition, both were convicted of child cruelty relation to an earlier shoulder injury inflicted on Ellie.
When he was convicted, Mr Butler shouted – “I’ll fight for the rest of my life – unbelievable … I will fight forever to prove this wrong. My daughter was jumping in the house. I’m 100% not guilty.”
This is a bit of a side note, but I am always surprised that there is not more of this when people are convicted. But either way, it is probably not possible to read too much into it in terms of an individual’s guilt or innocence.
The only sentence for murder is life imprisonment (our factsheet on how a Judge approaches sentencing is here).
The Sentencing Remarks of Wilkie J have been published. This is, as always, vital reading. It is fair to say that he took a (perhaps understandably) dim view of Mr Butler.
He was described as “self absorbed, ill tempered, violent and domineering man who, I am satisfied, regarded your children and your partner as trophies having no role other than to fit in with your infantile and sentimentalised fantasy of family life with you as the patriarch whose every whim was to be responded to appropriately.”
Mr Butler received a life sentence, with a tariff of 23 years. The Judge took a starting point of 15 years, and then increased by nearly fifty per cent to account for the aggravating features and the other offence of child cruelty (for which there was a concurrent sentence of 5 years).
There were some mitigating factors – no intention to kill, no premeditation, and the stress that he had been under for a number of years. The Judge concluded that these were far outweighed by the aggravating factors.
In relation to Ms Gray, the offences were clearly far less serious. The Judge noted that she had been convicted of the child cruelty offence and set out the factual basis for sentencing (although with reference to a document that hasn’t been published).
He also noted that Mr Butler had been physically and mentally abusive to her prior to this offending, which was mitigation, but her offending was serious, and so the Judge sentenced her to 18 months for the child cruelty, to run consecutively to the 2 years for perverting.
All deaths are tragic of course, but there is something particularly tragic about the death of a child.
We expect that there will be an appeal by both parents, against conviction and sentence. We don’t have enough information to say anything about the conviction.
On the face of it, the tariff of 23 years is slightly higher than we would expect, but we doubt that an appeal would succeed.
Equally, although we would have anticipated a slightly higher sentence for Ms Gray, it cannot be said that there is anything to suggest that this highly experienced Judge went wrong.
But we will keep an eye out for an appeal and come back to it if there is one.