Michael Wheatley – the Skullcracker – pleaded guilty to robbery, possession of a firearm and being unlawfully at large on 7 May.
On 29 May, he was sentenced to life imprisonment with a minimum period of 10 years.
Wheatley was in prison for numerous armed robberies. He was on day release and failed to return. Predictably, he went and robbed a bank (£18,000) and was subsequently caught in east London.
As has been widely publicised, he had extensive previous. He had 23 previous convictions for robbery, two for attempted robbery and 18 for related firearms offences.
In 2002, he was given 13 life sentences for bank robberies.
He was serving a life sentence at an open prison when he failed to return from day release.
The BBC reported that ‘He had gone on the run twice in the past and each time staged a series of violent robberies before being caught and re-jailed.’
So a straightforward life sentence? Er, not quite.
Wheatley was sentenced for the robbery and the related firearm counts. There are four types of life sentence in England and Wales:
1) Mandatory life (murder cases only)
2) Discretionary life (where the offender is ‘dangerous’)
3) Discretionary life (where the offender is not ‘dangerous’)
4) Automatic life (where the offender has particular previous convictions)
So which applies here?
Considering his previous convictions, it is undoubted that Wheatley is ‘dangerous’ within the meaning of the Criminal Justice Act 2003 which provides the power to imprison someone for life.
But also, due to his previous convictions, automatic life (also known as ‘two strikes life’) also applies. Here’s why:
a) At the time of the new offence, Wheatley has a previous conviction (more than one actually) for armed robbery – this is a requirement under CJA 2003 Sch 15B
b) The sentence(s) received a custodial term of either 10 years + or a life sentence
c) He now, after 3 December 2012 (because that is when the automatic life sentence was available from) has another conviction for a CJA 2003 Sch 15B offence – armed robbery
d) The sentence for the new offence is worth 10 years + or life
We don’t have a transcript so it may be that the Judge got it bang on. But what should have happened? The Judge should have considered dangerousness and recorded that Wheatley was dangerous and therefore was receiving a life sentence under those provisions. He should then have considered automatic life and recorded that Wheatley was also subject to those provisions.
The Judge should probably have made an order for Wheatley to pay £120 victim surcharge, although due to sloppy legistlative drafting this is not entirely clear.
A point of note
The way in which the automatic life sentence works means that in very rare cases, someone could receive a life sentence for an offence which does not carry life as its maximum. Here’s why:
The list of offences in Sch 15B contains offences which do not carry life as a maximum – making etc. indecent images of children (10 years) for example. If a person had a conviction for rape (max sentence life) and received 12 years, and then subsequently was convicted of the indecent images offence, and would (but for the automatic life provisions) receive the maximum 10 year sentence, automatic life would apply and they would be in line for a life sentence, even though the new offence a) wasn’t ‘worth’ a life sentence and b) the maximum sentence for the new offence wasn’t life imprisonment.
So why doesn’t life mean life?
We had a look at this issue previously, here. In essence, the ‘life’ in life sentence refers not to the imprisonment, but the sentence as a whole, being made up of a custodial term, and the life licence which the offender is subject to upon his or her release.