Father jailed for manslaughter of 3 month-old-child

Facts

Stephen Coukham, of Truro, Cornwall, aged 21, denied murder but admitted manslaughter; he killed his 3-month-old son, Tyrone, by shaking or throwing him. He was aged 18 at the time.

Coukham gave conflicting accounts of when Tyrone had been ill and initially claimed that the child had slipped through his hands.

The Guardian reported: A postmortem found that the baby suffered a “devastating, unsurvivable head injury”. Experts suggested shaking was the most likely cause of death and said there were other internal injuries that may have been caused before the day Tyrone died.

A health worker who visited the family said she had witnessed Coukham “rough handling” the baby, pulling him up by his arms as a two-week-old. But GPs and health professionals said they had had no cause for concern over the baby’s treatment.

Judge’s comments

Mrs Justice Sharp told him: “The precise sequence of events that led to Tyrone’s death will never be known. But you lost your temper because he was crying or wouldn’t stop crying.

“Then in a fit of temper you shook him hard, or threw him down on a soft surface, actions that were likely to cause him harm.”

The judge said she was confident that until the attack in July 2010 Coukham had been a caring parent, and that he had not intended to cause serious harm to his son.

“This crime is, in a real sense, a tragedy for all concerned. For Tyrone, whose life was cut short so young, for Kerry and Tyrone’s wider family, but also for you because you will have to live with the knowledge of what you did for the rest of your life,” she said.

Sentence and comment

Mrs Justice Sharp sentenced Coukham to 3 years and 8 months. As usual, there are no sentencing remarks available.

We know that Coukham pleaded. On the basis that he was given full credit for his plea, the Judge started at around 5½ years. Without a detailed factual background, it is difficult to accurately assess the sentence, however, we are able to ascertain the following:

  • There was an absence of intention to cause Tyrone serious harm,
  • Tyrone was not mistreated or abused,
  • Coukham’s action was (most likely) out of frustration at Tyrone continually crying,

In light of those features, his culpability is somewhat reduced. In mitigation, there is the emotional trauma that the incident will have caused Coukham, his young age and the (probable) irreparable damage it will have done to his relationship with his partner. There is also the issue of good character, which we have no information on.

Sentences for manslaughter vary wildly and for causing the death of a child (charged under Domestic Violence Crime and Victim’s Act 2004 s 5) recent sentences have ranged from 2 years up to 9 years. There is a clear link between the offence of causing the death of a child and manslaughter and the courts treat case law in one as instructive in the other.

R v Burridge 2011 EWCA Crim 2847 saw a father convicted of murder (substituted for manslaughter on appeal) where his 8 week old son had stopped breathing, suffered bleeding on the brain and rib injuries, and subsequently died. It was held that the injuries were caused by the father in a temper and under stress. He received 10 years.

In absence of further detail, it is difficult to go beyond saying that 3 years 8 months is certainly not outside the range of sentences that could be expected for the offence – in fact some may consider it lenient. Of course it is not possible to accurately assess the sentence without the fullest information.

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