Laura Cunliffe jailed for microwaving kitten to death

Laura Cunliffe jailed for microwaving kitten to death

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Image from Daily Mail
Image from Daily Mail

In the Daily Mail on Friday 21 February 2014, it was reported that unemployed Laura Cunliffe, 23 from Barnsley, pleaded guilty at Barnsley Magistrates’ Court to causing unnecessary suffering of an animal.

On 13 March 2014, she was sentenced to 14 weeks’ imprisonment.

The offence

Animal Welfare Act 2006 s 4 creates the offence of causing unnecessary suffering. It is a summary only offence meaning it can only be tried in a Magistrates’ Court. The maximum sentence is 6 months and/or a £20,000 fine.

Facts

The Mail’s article, which contains some disturbing pictures, can be seen here.

She had a 4 month old kitten – Mowgli.

Mowgli reportedly ‘attacked’ Ms Cunliffe’s goldfish. Ms Cunliffe then appears to have placed Mowgli into the microwave and set it to cook for 5 minutes.

Mowgli reportedly was still alive when Ms Cunliffe removed him from the microwave, but was struggling to breathe. Ms Cunliffe then took Mowgli to a relatives house. He died some 90 minutes after Ms Cunliffe removed him from the microwave.

RSPCA

The prosecution was brought by the RSPCA, who reportedly said: ‘The main reason the RSPCA took this case in order to achieve disqualifications in order to protect animals and prevent further suffer in the future.’

The deputy chief inspector said: ‘It is particularly horrendous because of the period of suffering for the kitten which would have been awful.’

She said that the exposure to the radiation in the microwave would have cooked the animal’s internal organs.

She said: ‘It is an horrific case in the fact that the death of the cat would have been prolonged and it is unimaginable what it would have gone through taking some time to die.

Mitigation

Prior to the sentencing hearing, her defence advocate reportedly said that Ms Cunliffe had suffered from psychosis and depression, having been detained under Mental Health legislation ‘several times’.

The BBC reported that in mitigation, her solicitor said that Ms Cunliffe had longstanding problems with psychotic depression and had been sectioned under the Mental Health Act 20 times.

Sentencing guidelines

There are guidelines which apply to this offence. See numbered page 22 [40 of the PDF]. There are three categories and arguably this offences does not neatly fall into any of them.

The bottom category describes ‘One impulsive act causing little or no injury’ which this is clearly not.

The middle category describes: Several incidents of deliberate ill-treatment/frightening animal(s); medium term neglect’ which doesn’t seem to fit either.

The top category describes: ‘Attempt to kill/torture; animal baiting/conducting or permitting cock-fighting etc.; prolonged neglect’ which on balance isn’t a perfect match either, as one presumes Ms Cunliffe pleaded guilty on the basis that she did not intend to kill or torture the animal.

Judge’s comments

The BBC reported: District Judge John Foster said “This was an act of utterly horrendous cruelty on your part on an animal that, as far as I could see, had come to trust you and rely on you.”

Sentence imposed

14 weeks’ imprisonment, and a disqualification from owning or keeping etc. animals, under Protection of Animals Act 1911 s 2, for life.

Comment

The starting point for the top category in the guidelines is 18 weeks. Ms Cunliffe pleaded guilty and so some credit (presumably 1/3) would have been given for that. Her mental health issues provide strong mitigation and so despite the seriousness of the offence, 14 weeks immediate custody appears to be over the top (even with the aggravating factor that the kitten died). Perhaps a suspended sentence might have been more appropriate and proportionate, considering Ms Cunliffe’s difficulties. It would appear that treatment, not abandonment, is what is required.

The disqualification order seems entirely appropriate.

10 COMMENTS

  1. With pleasure.

    The theory is that a suspended sentence is still a custodial sentence, but I used to do criminal defence work, a long, long time ago, and now I am a JP and in both capacities I know better.

    The customers of the criminal courts divide sentences into Going In and Not Going In, and you see the same relief on the face of a Defendant when you suspend a sentence as you do when you pass a non-custodial. And frankly they are right; custody is so much more severe than anything else we can do that they are right to classify a bender as on the good news side – even if we add unpaid work or a curfew or both.

    So to have given this defendant an SSO would have been to say that what she did was not among those offences so serious as to merit the big one. But it was.

    I don’t buy the nonsense about animal rights; animals don’t have rights. But we have duties to them, one of which is not to do what this defendant did. Whatever her difficulties, if she is fit to be at large at all she is under an obligation not to do that, and to breach it in such an appalling way crosses any realistic custody threshold; and I don’t mean the artificial threshold which treats a bender as if it were custody, I mean the line which Ms C will understand which does not.

    It’s all very sad, but sending anyone down is unpleasant. I have pronounced sentence of immediate imprisonment in cases where I regretted the need far more than I would have done had I been in the Chair in this case.

    • Thanks. I think your points proceed on two misapprehensions.

      Of course a suspended sentence is a custodial sentence. Your view that defendants divide sentences into ‘going in’ and ‘not going in’ is common sense; most do not want to go inside. A suspended sentence obviously falls into the latter description and so when handed a suspended, the relief on the face of the defendant is likely to be the same as if they had been given a community order or other non-custodial punishment. Don’t let that fool you into thinking that the initial relief of not going inside demonstrates that a suspended sentence has no ‘bite’, and that it doesnt hang over the defendant forcing many to comply. They can – and are – activated on breaches and for further offences, as you well know.

      Secondly, in relation to Ms Cunliffe, you said giving her a suspended would have been to say that what she did was not among those offences so serious as to merit custody. This is to misunderstand the nature of a suspended sentence. Step one is to decide whether the custody threshold is passed. Step 2, if yes, determine the appropriate length. Step 3, can the sentence be suspended?

      So you see that to impose a suspended sentence, the court has to first determine that the offence is in fact serious enough to warrant custody. They they have to go on to see if there are conditions present which make it appropriate to suspend the sentence. Here, without any detailed knowledge of the mental health issues, I can only say that perhaps a suspended would have been more appropriate. At the very least, the DJ should have considered it.

      One problem is that society – judges, JPs, and probably many solicitors and barristers – view custody as the default sentencing option and in so doing treat all defendants the same. Plainly that is not appropriate – custody will be much harder on some, but unpaid work will be harder on others.

  2. I am trying to be polite but I really disagree with your view. A suspended sentence in no way can be seem as comparable and as the other poster pointed out, if they are well enough to be allowed in society they are well enough to go to prison.
    Prison is there for deterrence and punishment for crossing laws society has set to continue functioning. Rehabilitation is there as well but not at the expense of the first two.

    • Thanks for your comment.

      With regard to the order in which the judge approaches the issue of a custodial sentence (suspended or not), it isn’t my view, it is the effect of the law. I am not saying they are comparable, but they are both custodial sentences. The difference is the presence of some factor(s) which enables the court to avoid the loss of liberty.

      As for your comment ‘if they are well enough to be allowed in society they are well enough to go to prison’, I think that misunderstands the aims of sentencing. Custody should not be the default response. Each case is to be dealt with on it’s individual facts.

      As for the aims of sentencing, none are put ahead of any of the others. The judge must decide the appropriate sentence in each case. In this case, if indeed Ms Cunliffe is mentally ill to the point that she ‘does not know what is going on’ (as was alleged), then I would question the deterrent effect any sentence could have. Moreover, if her mental illness is a contributing factor to the offence, her culpability is reduced (when compared with someone committing the same offence without the presence of a mental illness) and so she is entitled to some reduction for that.

      It isn’t as straightforward as it seems.

  3. No sentence which does not involve immediate custody is anything like as severe as one that does; wee all know that including the offenders. Most of them don’t look to the future (that’s what gets them into trouble) and as long as they aren’t going downstairs, now that’s a result.

    Custody is never the default option – not for the sort of offences for which magistrates sentence; it is the last resort. Only to be used when justified and unavoidable, which it was here.

  4. I agree with the sentence given the range available. This was a disgusting crime and a custodial sentence is precisely what was required. Now that she is in the care of the state – perhaps some attention can be paid to her mental health issues.

    In my view the sentences available for animal welfare crimes are far too lenient.

    It is difficult to comprehend the suffering this animal endured. It would have suffered profoundly painful internal injuries – a monstrous act.

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