One punch manslaughter and ‘moral luck’

One punch manslaughter and ‘moral luck’

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(c) Liverpool Echo/BBC News

Earlier in the week, we received a request to take a look at the one punch manslaughter case of Richard Eveleigh.

Eveleigh, 63, and his friend, Paul Lightowler, 60 watched Liverpool’s Europa League final defeat at a venue in the city. Walking in the city after the match, the two fell out and Eveleigh punched Lightowler once to the face. Lightowler fell backwards and struck his head on the ground. He lost consciousness and subsequently died.

Eveleigh admitted unlawful act manslaughter and was sentenced to 28 months’ imprisonment. Lightowler’s family had made it known that they did not wish to see Eveleigh sent to prison.

The sentencing judge commented that he was  “no doubt devastated” and that “whilst it’s a grievous loss – it’s a loss for which you bear entire responsibility”.

Comment

Although the facts in the news report are sparse, there appears to be no issue as to whether or not Eveleigh is guilty. He punched the victim – an unlawful act – causing him to fall and strike his head resulting in his death.

These sorts of cases are always difficult to sentence. On the one hand, a man has died and that needs to be marked. On the other, there was no intention to cause any harm – the death of his friend would have left Mr Eveleigh distraught, and the victims ‘s family positively wanted a lenient sentence.

For that reason, these sorts of cases are very fact specific. Ten or twenty years ago it may be that Mr Eveleigh would have been given a suspended sentence. Nowadays this is less of an option (although there may well be an appeal here), and the sentence seems a fair one on the facts. Some judges would have given less, but sentencing is an art not a science.

Moral Luck

This case was mentioned to us in relation to the concept of moral luck. Moral luck refers to the concept of holding a moral agent responsible for the consequences of an action where they have no or incomplete control over it. This works both in relation to blame and praise. In this situation, of course the issue is holding Eveleigh responsible for the death of Lightowler in circumstances where the consequence is beyond his control.

There is much academic writing about moral luck (see here for a good starting point).

The criminal law is heavily focused upon the result of criminal actions – a single punch resulting in death is more blameworthy than a single punch result in a mere bruise.

Consider the situation where a driver, through momentary inattention, runs a red traffic light. In scenario A, the driver hits and kills a child who is crossing the road. In scenario B, there is no child crossing the road and the driver passes through the traffic lights without incident. Should the law treat scenario A different to scenario B?

This doesn’t impact upon conviction.

The way in which the law currently deals with this is through sentence; the sentence reflects the culpability of the offender and the harm caused. Eveleigh is culpable – that is not in question. But on the basis that he did not intend to cause death or serious injury, that the single punch would normally not result in anything more than a transient injury (if that). So Eveleigh’s sentence is less than it otherwise would be.

The law holds someone responsible for consequences that were never intended. Is that fair? We suspect most people would think so, at least as long as account is taken of what the actual intention was.

But, over to you – what do you think? How do you sentence a case where what is intended is so far from what occurs?

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Lyndon is the General Editor of Current Sentencing Practice and the Criminal Appeal Reports (Sentencing)

2 COMMENTS

  1. Whilst he was unlucky in the sense that his one punch action did result in his friends death, there is also the question of when or where does luck come into it. The question of moral luck really comes in at the consequences stage of the crime. Some would argue that he was unlucky that his friend died, others would say that his action in throwing a punch meant that he was not unlucky as the consequences of the action are unknown – bruise or death. For me he was unlucky in killing his friend, but the mere fact that he threw a punch deliberately at another person knowing that potential harm could result means that there has to be a punishment for what he did.
    I have written on here before of the case of one of my relatives which was punched and knocked to the ground hitting his head in an attack by a drug addict. He never regained consciousness and died the next day. The brain damage came from the kerb not the punch, but in both cases the punch thrown must have been of sufficient force to either knock them out immediately or render them deeply stunned so as not to protect their fall.
    My relatives attacker got three years so it chimes with this case, but I personally would have given him much more due to the fact that it was also a robbery for money. However it would seem that in both cases the judge thought them both unlucky, and in my case the judge actually said this in sentencing.
    Unlucky…morally maybe, but ultimately he threw the punch so he is responsible.

  2. Really important point that you raised about moral luck. I am currently an A Level Law student evaluating the law on homicide, in both murder and manslaughter the question of whether unlucky defendants should be sentenced similarly to those who fully intend to kill their victims is a hard one to answer but even when it is answered it is even harder to implement into legislation without being confusing to lay people.

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