The case of Sergeant Al Blackman (known throughout the legal proceedings as ‘Marine A’) was sentenced today for the murder of an Afghan insurgent.
Understandably, this case attracted a large amount of media interest. The facts are well known and won’t be repeated here (see the link above for more details). It also presents an incredibly difficult sentencing exercise (see Josuha Rozenberg’s analysis in the Guardian).
The actual sentence is fixed by law – life imprisonment. The difficult part is in setting the tariff. We have a factsheet looking at the setting of a tariff for a life sentence.
On the face of it, as a murder with a firearm of a vulnerable person would attract a starting point of 30 years. However, the fact that this was a lawfully held firearm used by a soldier on active duty surely makes a difference.
There had been much discussion as to what the appropriate tariff should be, ranging from 8-10 years (Dan’s guess, amongst others) up to 25 years.
We are interested in what our readers think about the tariff imposed – is it too high? Too low?
The sentencing remarks are here and are well worth a read – it’s a good example of how to explain the issues clearly so that people can understand them.
The ‘headline figure’ is 10 years – this is the tariff that has been set, the minimum period of time before he can be considered for release.
Our initial reaction is that, as the sentencing remarks show, this is a fair and humane way of balancing the different factors and achieving a just result in the circumstances of a case that was “unique and unprecedented in recent history“.
The facts and particularly circumstances of the case were set out. The defence had suggested that ‘Schedule 21’ – the written guidelines given by Parliament to Judges that list the relevant starting points depending on the type of murder that it is, did not apply. This was not accepted by the Court-Martial who decided that the law says that they had to start there.
They then rejected that the case should start at 30 years (due to the use of a firearm) on the basis that this is a completely different situation. This is surely right. For this reason, the appropriate starting point is 15 years. There was, of course, no credit for a plea of guilty.
The following were the aggravating features:
- a ‘particularly vulnerable’ victim
- the potential increase in risk to the British forces in Afghanistan as a result of this
- abuse of a position of trust to cover up the murder
These are to be balanced against the mitigating features:
- Provocation (in the sense of the cumulative effect of the experiences that he had been through)
- the element of combat stress
- personal circumstances (good character and other matters).
The board also stated that there was a need for a deterrent sentence to be passed to send out the message that this sort of behaviour. This was achieved by the sentence of life imprisonment itself, so it could be set aside in the setting of a minimum term (this is an interesting point which seems correct, although it may feature as an argument for the prosecution if there is an AG reference).
At that point, having reminded themselves that setting a tariff is not a mathematical exercise, and that the mitigating features outweighed the aggravating, concluded that the proper tariff was one of 10 years.
This will undoubtedly cause controversy. It may well (hopefully) reignite the debate as to whether the mandatory life sentence for murder is necessary in modern society.
We would expect that there will be calls for a pardon to be issued to remit some or all of the penalty. See here for details of how pardons work. It is possible for a pardon to be limited to quashing the life sentence and replacing it with a fixed period of imprisonment.
It is likely that there will be an appeal by Mr Blackman – it is such an unusual case that he would get permission and it is right for the Court of Appeal to consider the case. It is also a case where, looking at the guidelines, a significantly higher tariff could have been passed (as many expected). For that reason, this may be one of the extremely rare cases where there could be an appeal against sentence and an Attorney-General’s reference. Certainly one to watch…