Courtesy of Crimeline, we were made aware of the sentencing appeal of Ceri Shipman ( EWCA Crim 1698) where the Court of Appeal reduced her sentence of 30 months to 20 months for Perverting the Course of Justice. And, prompted by a little nudge from one of our readers, we decided to have a look.
Ms Shipman was in a relationship with Jason Savage, a very violent man. During the course of that relationship, Mr Savage was arrested and charged with very serious offences (including 3 offences of rape and three of s18 – causing really serious harm), some of which he admitted. Others he denied, but his denials weren’t believed by the jury.
As a consequence, he was sentenced to life imprisonment with a minimum term of 9 years – a very, very serious sentence. Prior to the sentence, Ms Shipman gave birth to their daughter.
Ms Shipman believed that there had been a miscarriage of justice – a belief described by the Court of Appeal as ‘absurd‘, pointing to, among other things the fact that Mr Savage had been violent towards her during their relationship (something that she was not able to accept until earlier this year).
After Ms Savage’s conviction, Ms Shipman set up Facebook and email accounts in the name of the main victims of Mr Savage. She then created a string of fabricated messages between herself and the two women. The gist of these were to suggest that the two woman had made up false allegations against Mr Savage.
After a period of time, Ms Shipman took them to the police in September 2010. The two women were arrested and interviewed, being kept in custody for 5-7 hours. It then took ‘some months’ before ‘elementary checks’ of their computers reveled the truth.
It then took 2½ years for Ms Shipman to be investigated and charged. The Court noted that they “have received no explanation from the prosecution as to why that was the case, notwithstanding the questions from the single judge. We assume, therefore, that there is no good explanation. It means that the appellant had this offence hanging over her for a very prolonged period, when she knew that she had no defence and that she would be going to prison.”
Ms Shipman pleaded guilty at the earliest opportunity.
The Court of appeal noted that Perverting was a very serious offence, that attracts a prison sentence unless there are wholly exceptional circumstances (and there were none here).
The fact that the two women exposed to the risk of a wrongful prosecution is an aggravating feature. More than that, the sentencing judge decided that Ms Shipman was intending that they be prosecuted to a conviction, another aggravating feature. Lastly by way of aggravation, the offences with which Mr Savage was convicted of were extremely serious.
On the other hand, the behaviour of Ms Shipman, whilst calculated, was “bound to lead nowhere“. She was a vulnerable young woman of good character who had accepted responsibility straight away. Mr Savage was the driving force behind the offending. The length of the delay, unexplained, was a further matter of mitigation.
In those circumstances, the Court of Appeal decided that the appropriate sentence was 30 months after a trial and therefore reduced the sentence to 20 months to reflect the credit for the plea of guilty.
Each case should be decided on its facts is a general rule, but all the more so in cases of Perverting the Course of Justice. It seems to me that the Court of Appeal were right to reduce the sentence in all the circumstances. 20 months is still a very long sentence and sends out a clear message that as a society we do not approve of the behaviour that Ms Shipman engaged in.
From a lawyers point of view, there are four further points of note :
(1) As was pointed out on criminalsolicitor.net, why did it take the police ‘some months’ (it seems it was four) to ascertain that Ms Shipman’s allegations were false? It seems that both victims said in their police interview that this was a fabrication. The fabrication was discovered by “elementary checks” on the computers, and given that both women who did not appear to be friends, were saying the same thing, could this have been done more quickly ?
(2) Similarly with Ms Shipman – this would not have been in any way a particularly complex investigation – certainly nothing requiring 2½. Why did it proceed in such a leisurely pace? We looked recently at the question of whether the police abuse bail. It is not clear when Ms Shipman was arrested, but shouldn’t this have come to Court far earlier?
(3) We haven’t looked in the blog at the issue of retention of DNA and fingerprinting, but the issues have been well canvassed in the press. Here, two women were attacked and raped. After that, they were then the victims of an attempt to ‘fit them up’. Neither had been in trouble before. Because they were arrested, their DNA and fingerprints are on the national database.
This is a good example of why a blanket policy of retention of an individual’s personal data is wrong. I hope that the police have apologised to them and, as a symbolic gesture, agree to wipe their DNA and fingerprints from the database.
(4) Whilst I agree that this was never going to lead to a successful prosecution of the two women, I don’t think we should be too glib about the chances of success. The fact that there were two people of good character targeted by the same method, and the very low sophistication, does not mean that in another case things would end so happily.
Particularly with the current approach of the police (less investigation than there used to be) and the CPS (minimalist disclosure and inadequate forensic reports), in a case where someone had been in trouble before and the evidence against them appeared to be strong (which, on the face of it, it was against the two victims in this case), there are plenty of occasions where a defendant would, wrongly, plead guilty.
This is more likely to happen if someone’s fingerprint or DNA were to be planted (pretty easy to do). Faced with such seemingly incontrovertible forensic evidence, many people who have been inside the system before would plead guilty rather than face a trial that, on the face of it, seemed hopeless. That is a sobering thought and this case is a salutary reminder to all of us that things aren’t always what they seem.