Bentley Huggins was sentenced on Monday to life imprisonment for stabbing his wife, Desirie Thomas, to death. He received a 20 year tariff.
The murder occurred at the couple’s home in, in Woolwich, south-east London, late in the evening on 22 December 2011. Evidence at trial suggested that the couple, who had been married since 2010 and had a daughter together, were experiencing difficulties in the relationship. It is believed that Ms Thomas wanted a divorce. In order for Mr Huggins to remain in the UK independently, having emigrated from St Kitts, he needed to be married for a period of 24 months. The couple had been married for 22 months at the time of Ms Thomas’s death.
At his trial, held earlier this year at the Old Bailey, Mr Huggins represented himself. At present it is not clear why this was the case. He admitted stabbing Ms Thomas ten times in the head and neck, severing her jugular vein and causing her death. However he pleaded not guilty on the basis that his actions were in self-defence. The jury rejected his defence, finding him guilty of murder.
Having been convicted, Mr Huggins instructed Garry Green of Tooks Chambers to represent him at sentence.
The sentencing judge, HHJ Morris QC, set a minimum tariff of 20 years before Huggins will be eligible for release. In sentencing, HHJ Morris stated:
“this was a savage and sustained attack. You had been violent to your wife before. You convinced yourself that you were a slave or second class citizen, and that your wife would receive better treatment from the courts.”
To reach that 20 year tariff, HHJ Morris took a starting point of 15 years, and increased that term to 20 years due to the aggravating features of the offence. These aggravating features may have included the fact that a weapon was used and that there appeared to be a degree of premeditation, or planning.
CPS guidance on sentencing in murder cases can be found here.
This case raises an interesting point about those accused of criminal offences representing themselves at trial. Those of us who frequent the Magistrates’ Courts sometimes come across this, often in trials where the individual accused is not eligible for legal aid. Minor traffic cases are a common example; legal aid is denied as the accused is not at risk of being imprisoned. This case is very far removed from that situation. Here Mr Huggins was charged with arguably the most serious offence on the statute books, yet he chose to represent himself. Why he did so remains a mystery. Presumably he would have been well aware that should he be found guilty he would receive a life sentence, with a starting-point tariff of 15, 25 or 30 years in prison. It raises the question as to whether, when charged with a serious offence carrying a term of life imprisonment, an accused should be permitted to represent himself at trial. As the law stands, legal representation cannot be forced upon an accused. But is representing yourself in a murder trial not akin to attempting to perform a surgical operation on yourself? Lawyers are trained to represent individuals accused of crimes. They are familiar with the court process and with the law. They are trained advocates. The average defendant is not. Whilst this may cause less difficulty in the Magistrates’ Court, where the court clerk can ensure the needs of the defendant are met, how are we to tackle the case in the Crown Court? Unrepresented defendants in the Crown Court are not commonplace. In fact, they are almost unheard of. The trial process is not equipped to assist them and the judge cannot be seen to be assisting a defendant who is without representation; arguably this would give a potentially false impression to the jury. With all the pitfalls that unrepresented defendants face, can we ensure a fair trial under Article 6 of the ECHR when the accused is unrepresented in the Crown Court?