"Skullcracker" wins sentence appeal against life sentence for armed robbery

"Skullcracker" wins sentence appeal against life sentence for armed robbery

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On 27 November 2014, Michael Wheatley – dubbed the “skull cracker” – won his appeal against sentence imposed for armed robbery imposed in May. Further details are available here, but in essence:

  • 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 his sentence at an open prison and whilst on day release, failed to return – thereby being unlawfully at large.
  • Went to west London and committed another armed robbery of a bank, making off with £18,000.

Sentence

He received a life sentence. Because of the way in which the legislation operates, there were in fact two routes to arriving at that result, both of which should have been applied: the judge should have considered that Wheatley was “dangerous” under the CJA 2003 and imposed a discretionary life sentence under s.225, and then went on to consider that the automatic life sentence under s.224A also applied. The minimum term was set at 10 years.

Appeal

The Court of Appeal reduced the minimum term from 10 years down to 8 years. Why?

Well funnily enough, there was a very similar case to this heard in the Court of Appeal not so long ago; R. v Curwen [2014] EWCA Crim 1046. The judgment rather amusingly begins “What do you do with someone who keeps committing armed robberies even after receiving life sentences for them?”

Mr Curwen – a convicted armed robber – had escaped from custody and committed a serious of armed robberies of a similar kind to those for which he was currently imprisoned. The sentencing judge imposed a life sentence (again, under ss.224A and 225) and set the tariff at 10 years.

Curwen challenged the length of the tariff, and the court said that because the robberies (although not the worst of their kind) were committed by someone with a history of committing armed robberies, and were committed by a prisoner on the run, they were exceptionally serious and the minimum term could not be less than that imposed for his first set of life sentences. The result was that the minimum term would be reduced to 8 years.

Back to the skull cracker – Mr Justice Cranston said “This was a very serious offence and the fact that it occurred when the appellant was on day release must clearly be a matter for public concern”. The minimum term was reduced from – you guessed it – 10 years to 8 years.

Comment

Was that correct? Well the transcript hasn’t been published yet and so we don’t know all the details or the reasoning for the reduction, however, we can work out that the “notional sentence” (that is the sentence the court would have imposed if it wasn’t imposing a life sentence) was 24 years: 8 years x 2 (to account for the nature of the life sentence and the release provisions) + 50% (to account for the 1/3 credit for a guilty plea) = 24 years, which is undoubtedly a very long time for a single armed robbery (albeit that there were some very significant aggravating features). We don’t know the length of Wheatley’s previous life sentences but we can assume that the notional sentence was less than 24 years.

We may revisit this once the transcript is published.

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