It is a necessary evil that some very dangerous people have to be detained for public safety. That proviso apart, my general view is that the use of imprisonment, especially in its current form, should be kept to a minimum. I never thought I would go to the trouble of writing an article suggesting that a sentence is too lenient but sometimes the imbalance and hypocrisy in the justice system drives me to unexpected places.
I know of numerous cases where people are serving sentences of 20-30 years or more where violent acts may have stemmed from a loss of control, and many more where their involvement was at most peripheral in tragic joint enterprise cases. A great many murders, if not the majority, involve elements of ‘loss of control’ without any pre-meditation.
Sarah Sands, 32, was found guilty in September of the manslaughter of 77-year old Michael Pleasted. She was sentenced to three-and-a-half years in prison for killing Pleasted who was on bail awaiting trial accused of sexually assaulting young boys on the east London estate where they lived. Pleasted had previous convictions but was denying the offences. The judge claimed that the case was ‘truly exceptional’ and the result of a ‘loss of control’ and reduced the sentence from seven to three and a half years.
While I accept that I was not at the trial and have details only from press reports, I cannot help thinking there is something seriously wrong here – and the leniency of the sentence is by no means the worst aspect of it.
The manslaughter verdict, surprising in itself given the apparent circumstances (see below), has to be accepted, but how is the sentence acceptable by comparison to how others are treated? Let us look at this as any reasonable court should: what are the aggravating factors and what are the mitigating factors?
- Sarah Sands took a 12-inch knife from her home and went to Mr Pleasted’s flat to confront him. This is highly suggestive of premeditation, and penalties could exceed three and a half years for simply carrying such a weapon, let alone a premeditated threatening of an elderly man – even if it was not part of the plan to kill him.
- Mr Pleasted was stabbed eight times and bled to death.
- According to news reports, Sands described the killing as follows at the trial:
“I just had it (the knife) in my hand and I poked him with it in the front and that’s when we both realised at the same time what had happened and he grabbed me…He was frightening me and I pushed him away and I left. That was it.”
This description, given under oath, is entirely disingenuous. Pleasted was not “poked in the front”; he was stabbed eight times. This is indicative not of remorse but of making excuses for the killing.
- Sands made no attempt to get help for the victim but left him to bleed to death in his own home. She must have known that without immediate help he would die after eight stabbings with a 12-inch knife. This was a merciless killing.
- Pleasted was 77 years old, unarmed and against such a weapon in the hands of a violent 32-year old women constituted, sex offender or otherwise, a vulnerable and defenceless victim.
Mitigating factors – and I am afraid I cannot let these pass without comment
- According to press reports, Sands’ account was that she went to confront Pleasted at his flat. She said that she had no intention of harming him and had gone to convince him to admit to his offences in order to save his assumed victims the trauma of going to court. However – she said – Pleasted would not listen and smirked, claiming that the complainants were lying. Sands then – ‘in a fit of rage’ – stabbed Pleasted eight times. He crawled into his hallway where he bled to death.
- The judge apparently stated that, ‘This was a case in which the defendant promptly gave herself up to the police in a highly stressed state, never disputed responsibility for the killing as a matter of fact, did not take the opportunity to get rid of evidence and demonstrated remorse.’
Comment: Yes but the evidence was overwhelming – she was caught on CCTV going to the flat with the knife; there would have been little point in denying it.
- The judge emphasised the case was ‘unique’ as Sands had lost control rather than taken the law into her own hands and engaged in ‘vigilante conduct’.
Comment: There is nothing unique about killings that happen due to loss of control. What was exceptional, rather than unique, in this case was the substantial element of premeditation, the extreme brutality of the killing and callous failure to do anything other than leave the victim to bleed to death.
- Describing the case as ‘truly exceptional’, Judge Nicholas Cooke QC said he reduced her sentence from seven years because Sands is a single mother. He went on to stress that Sands could not be regarded as a ‘vigilante’. ‘There must never be the slightest encouragement for mob rule,’ he added.
Comment: I am led to wonder whether Judge Cooke puts out a plate of steak and gravy in the dog’s bowl and instructs his dog that this should not be seen as the slightest encouragement to have dinner
However it is not the leniency of the sentence that troubles me most and impels me to write about this case. Neither is it the generosity with which the jury, and more especially the Judge, have interpreted these events, nor even the frustration that must be felt by those serving decades in prison for their far less callous and un-premeditated ‘losses of control’.
What troubles me most are two other implications which are far more serious:
Firstly, it is trite under all the circumstances to say that this is not a green light for attacks on people accused of sex offences.
Let’s be blunt: the reason Sarah Sands was treated so leniently – the real ‘mitigating factor’ – is because Pleasted had been convicted previously and was accused of child sex offences, and by Sands’ own account he was killed because he denied it (what if on this occasion the accusations were false?). Most of the media seemed more concerned that Pleasted was allowed to be in the community than the fact that he had been mercilessly slaughtered. Had he been an elderly gentleman who upset her in some other way then I cannot believe the circumstances above would have been seen as anything other than aggravating in the extreme rather than mitigating in the ‘exceptional’. Vigilantism has no rule of law, no standard of proof, no protections for the innocent or the mistakenly identified, no sense of balance, justice, understanding or compassion. It puts everyone at risk including children who inevitably get hurt when mobs rule.
Secondly, the most astounding comments reported in the media about this case concern the safety of children. The BBC reported that:
‘Judge Nicholas Cooke QC said it was a ‘truly exceptional case’ as he reduced her sentence from seven years to three-and-a-half, taking into consideration her position as a single mother.’ (emphasis added)
Another report suggested she might be re-united with her family on release in 11 months’ time. The concern about sex offences is rightly about the protection of children, but is the concern about protecting children for real or is it just an excuse for the vilification of a certain type of offender? I can live with the CPS’s inexplicable failure to appeal the leniency of this sentence (apologies to the CPS if they are going to do this) but surely it cannot be seriously suggested for one moment that Sarah Sands will re-commence her role as the sole carer of five children.
The recent case of Karrissa Cox and Richard Carter saw a completely innocent couple cleared of any abuse of their children being told that their child could not be returned to them. That is utterly outrageous. However, even more outrageous is the suggestion that five children should be returned to the care of a dangerous killer prone apparently to the odd homicidal ‘loss of control’.
This would be a hypocrisy and irresponsibility of criminal proportions.
I trust I am wrong about this and that it could not happen but I will be writing to the Director of Children’s Services at Newham Borough Council for re-assurance that the world has not gone completely mad. Please do the same if you care about the safety of children.
Dr Dennis Eady is founder of South Wales Liberty (now South Wales Against Wrongful Conviction) and case consultant at Cardiff Law School Innocence Project