Stuart Hazell was sentenced on 14th May 2013 for the murder of Tia Sharpe. This was after he dramatically changed his plea to guilty the day before.
The tariff was set at 38 years.
The Sentence Passed
The trial Judge adjourned the case overnight to consider his sentence. As the offence was murder, there was only one sentence that could be passed – that of life imprisonment, the only question was how long the tariff, the minimum period that has to be served before he could be considered for release, would be (or if the offence was such as to warrant a ‘whole life tariff’ so that Mr Hazell would never be released). The guidelines to Judges as to how to set a tariff can be found here.
The Starting Point
The question he had to consider was whether this was “the murder of a child if involving the abduction of the child or sexual or sadistic motivation” where the starting point would be a ‘whole life’ tariff or, whether there was ‘sexual conduct’ where the starting point would be 30 years. It was conceded by the defence lawyers that the case fell into at least the 30 year starting point.
We have the Judge’s sentencing remarks that set out clearly why the tariff was imposed.
Firstly, he identified that there was a sexual ‘element’ to the offence. This can be seen by the internet searches, the presence of sex toys and other evidence from which Mr Hazell accepted that “the only sensible conclusion which [the Judge] can draw is that there was sexual conduct of some kind between you and Tia at some point over the night 2nd and 3rd August“.
However, the Judge looked at all the circumstances and decided that he could not be sure (supposedly equivalent to the ‘old’ test of “beyond a reasonable doubt”) that there was a sexual motivation to the murder. For this reason, a whole life tariff was not appropriate.
The evidence did show that there was sexual conduct, hence the starting point of 30 years.
Why was the tariff 38 years?
Having established the starting point, it is necessary to look at the aggravating and mitigating features.
The Judge found that Tia was ‘vulnerable’ by virtue of her age, the degradation of taking her photograph and the concealment of the body. Additionally, Mr Hazell had various previous convictions (although nothing for this level of seriousness).
In mitigation, the Judge noted Mr Hazell’s horrific childhood and the fact that he did plead guilty (although this would only give a ‘modest’ reduction given the stage at which he pleaded guilty.
Clearly, the aggravating features outweighed the mitigating ones and the Judge therefore increased the tariff by 8 years (just over 20%) to reflect this.
It’s important to note that the guidelines are not fixed, in the sense that a Judge is not bound to follow the starting points in them and can deviate from them if the case demands it (Jones  EWCA Crim 3115).
Will there be an appeal?
Almost certainly. Not least because there’s very little risk in him appealing – he’s got nothing to lose.
Also, the position with when an offence is sexually motivated, or involving sexual conduct, is not clear.
What’s the difference between ‘sexual motivation’ and ‘sexual conduct’?
The starting point is a whole life tariff if :
- it is the murder of two or more adults AND it involves sexual conduct, or,
- it is the murder of a child involving sexual motivation
The starting point is 30 years if it is a murder involving sexual conduct.
Sexual Conduct is not defined and the Court of Appeal has not been consistent in what it means:
- AG Ref (no.149 of 2006 – R v Pollard) – Mr Pollard had sexual activity with his step-daughter shortly before strangling her. The Court stated ““There was quite clearly sexual activity at or immediately before this killing took place – It seems to us that in the absence of any material which could properly disassociate the killing from the sexual activity, the only proper inference which could be drawn from that finding of fact is that the two were connected. If they were connected, then it seems to us the situation can only sensibly be described as falling within” the 30 year starting point.
- R v Walker (2007) – Here, the Court concluded that the 30 year starting point was “intended to cover circumstances where the acts which resulted in the death of the victim were sexual in nature or accompanied by sexual activity that increased the ordeal of the victim or the depravity of the murder, or both” and, although Mr Walker had killed his victim shortly after having sex with her, in the absence of any link, the appropriate starting point was the 15 years one.
- AG Ref (nos. 25 & 26 of 2008 – R v Pollard) – Here, “Sexual conduct was the common thread running through the case from start to finish. The victim was driven to the place where she was murdered so that the two men could rape her” so a 30 year starting point was appropriate.
These pronouncements are not easy to reconcile.
In this case, the Judge said “I come back to the question of whether I can be sure that sexual motivation was involved in Tia’s murder. I have decided that I cannot. Sexual activity and conduct took place not long before her death, but in order for sexual motivation to be involved in her murder,there would need to be a closer connection than that. Shame and fear of what might happen if Tia talked are just two of the alternative possible motives behind her killing.”
The differences between the various starting points are huge and the application of them can cause injustice.
If a murder is sexually motivated, but does not include any sexual conduct then there is a whole life tariff if the victim is 17, but a 15 year (the lowest) starting point if the victim is 18. Does that make sense?
It may be that the answer is that Parliament treated ‘sexual conduct’ and ‘sexual motivation’ as being the same. That would appear to make sense as a way to read the section.
Of course, it could be said that what Mr Hazell did is so vile that one shouldn’t have any sympathy for him. But it’s not about having sympathy for a child killer, it’s about the law and ensuring that justice is done, and that involves treating people consistently and approaching things such as sentencing in a logical manner.