On 10 March 2016, the BBC covered the sentencing of Claire Darbyshire, following her conviction for murder.
Claire, 36, acted as full-time carer for her father, Brian, who suffered from MS. Both lived what was described as a “reclusive” lifestyle with Claire seemingly finding increasingly difficult to cope with the role of caring for her father.
Claire gave evidence that she had entered into a suicide pact with her father, however the jury appear to have rejected her evidence – and in doing so found her guilty of murder, as opposed to the alternatives of manslaughter and assisting suicide.
Having previously discussed ending his life, Brian and his daughter Claire unsuccessfully took a drug overdose. Subsequently, Claire smothered Brian with a pillow. She left notes by his bed which, according to the Mail, read:
‘If it was an animal then you would stop its suffering, but when it comes to a member of your own species, you want to prolong the suffering as long as possible.
‘We have the cheek to call ourselves “civilised”. Don’t waste your time looking for me.’
‘Dad couldn’t go on any more being bedbound. He asked me to help him end it. Now I have to end it too as my action is claimed as a crime.
‘If it was an animal then you would stop its suffering, but when it comes to a member of your own species you want to prolong the suffering as long as possible.
‘We have the cheek to call ourselves civilised. Don’t waste your time looking for me. My phone call to the district nurse was my last action.’
As regular readers of the blog will know, the only possible sentence for murder is life imprisonment. The question, as always, is how long the minimum term will be, or whether the case calls for a whole life order.
The Recorder of London, HHJ Hilliard QC, imposed a four-year minimum term. That means that Claire will be eligible for release after four years, however it will be for the Parole Board to determine whether or not it is safe to release her at that point.
The decision, it appears, was based on Claire’s belief that she was acting in mercy; this operating as a significant mitigating factor.
Murder cases involving mercy are always very difficult sentencing exercises. On the one hand there is the fact that a person has taken someone’s life – deliberately; on the other, there is the fact that it was done as an act of kindness to alleviate suffering or to carry out the wishes of a person unable to take their own life.
No prison sentence can properly reflect the loss of life of course. But this case demonstrates just how wide the range of sentences for murder in such cases can stretch. That said, this is certainly at the lower end of the scale of what we would have expected, however the judge had the benefit of hearing all the facts established at trial and had the opportunity to see Claire give evidence. Other sentences in (broadly) similar situations has seen sentences of 5 and 7 years.
Will there be an Attorney General’s reference on the basis that the sentence is unduly lenient? That depends on a member of the public making a complaint to the AG, or the AG taking it up himself. If so, we would anticipate the case would get leave and go before the full court just by virtue of the nature and difficulty of the sentencing exercise.
The Court of Appeal have recognised that mercy should season justice. We’ll have to wait and see if they consider this to be too far.