Marine A – Sergeant Blackman – sentenced to Life Imprisonment

In setting Sergeant Blackman’s minimum term, what principles must the court consider?

Background

The case of Sergeant Al Blackman (known throughout the legal proceedings as ‘Marine A’) was sentenced today for the murder of an Afghan insurgent.

Understandably, this case attracted a large amount of media interest. The facts are well known and won’t be repeated here (see the link above for more details). It also presents an incredibly difficult sentencing exercise (see Josuha Rozenberg’s analysis in the Guardian).

The actual sentence is fixed by law – life imprisonment. The difficult part is in setting the tariff. We have a factsheet looking at the setting of a tariff for a life sentence.

On the face of it, as a murder with a firearm of a vulnerable person would attract a starting point of 30 years. However, the fact that this was a lawfully held firearm used by a soldier on active duty surely makes a difference.

There had been much discussion as to what the appropriate tariff should be, ranging from 8-10 years (Dan’s guess, amongst others) up to 25 years.

We are interested in what our readers think about the tariff imposed – is it too high? Too low?

Sentence

The sentencing remarks are here and are well worth a read – it’s a good example of how to explain the issues clearly so that people can understand them.

The ‘headline figure’ is 10 years – this is the tariff that has been set, the minimum period of time before he can be considered for release.

Our initial reaction is that, as the sentencing remarks show, this is a fair and humane way of balancing the different factors and achieving a just result in the circumstances of a case that was “unique and unprecedented in recent history“.

The facts and particularly circumstances of the case were set out. The defence had suggested that ‘Schedule 21’ – the written guidelines given by Parliament to Judges that list the relevant starting points depending on the type of murder that it is, did not apply. This was not accepted by the Court-Martial who decided that the law says that they had to start there.

They then rejected that the case should start at 30 years (due to the use of a firearm) on the basis that this is a completely different situation. This is surely right. For this reason, the appropriate starting point is 15 years. There was, of course, no credit for a plea of guilty.

The following were the aggravating features:

  • a ‘particularly vulnerable’ victim
  • the potential increase in risk to the British forces in Afghanistan as a result of this
  • abuse of a position of trust to cover up the murder

These are to be balanced against the mitigating features:

  • Provocation (in the sense of the cumulative effect of the experiences that he had been through)
  • the element of combat stress
  • personal circumstances (good character and other matters).

The board also stated that there was a need for a deterrent sentence to be passed to send out the message that this sort of behaviour. This was achieved by the sentence of life imprisonment itself, so it could be set aside in the setting of a minimum term (this is an interesting point which seems correct, although it may feature as an argument for the prosecution if there is an AG reference).

At that point, having reminded themselves that setting a tariff is not a mathematical exercise, and that the mitigating features outweighed the aggravating, concluded that the proper tariff was one of 10 years.

 

Comment

This will undoubtedly cause controversy. It may well (hopefully) reignite the debate as to whether the mandatory life sentence for murder is necessary in modern society.

We would expect that there will be calls for a pardon to be issued to remit some or all of the penalty. See here for details of how pardons work. It is possible for a pardon to be limited to quashing the life sentence and replacing it with a fixed period of imprisonment.

It is likely that there will be an appeal by Mr Blackman – it is such an unusual case that he would get permission and it is right for the Court of Appeal to consider the case. It is also a case where, looking at the guidelines, a significantly higher tariff could have been passed (as many expected). For that reason, this may be one of the extremely rare cases where there could be an appeal against sentence and an Attorney-General’s reference. Certainly one to watch…

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About Dan Bunting

I'm a lawyer who works for myself. Legal geek, maths freak, general dullard and jack of all trades. Here’s a few views on law and occasional musings on life. Usual caveats about not relying on anything I say etc applies.

14 thoughts on “Marine A – Sergeant Blackman – sentenced to Life Imprisonment

  1. Neil

    A very well written judgement, and seems to have matched what most commentators (including Dan) seemed to state would be the result. Hard to argue with 15 year starting point, and some well reasoned mitigation

    Out of interest, can this case be referred to the AG for undue leniency?

    Reply
    1. Will T

      My understanding is it could be, under Armed Forces Act 2006 s273.

      While this may not be a popular opinion, it seems somewhat lenient to me, and quite possibly unduly so. But I haven’t heard the evidence – that’s what the court-martial did. It seems a difficult case in that the CJA 2003 system of starting points really isn’t cut out for. It’s a difficult decision either way.

      Reply
  2. George Bremer

    The barbarities of war are not committed by abnormal men in normal circumstances rather by normal men in abnormal circumstances. I cannot believe any other army in the world would have prosecuted so publically. This should have been dealt with within the army where a reprimand would have been more than sufficient. A friend of mine reminded me of rule 565 of the army code. It is the calibre of the round the government issue to kill enemies of the Queen

    Reply
    1. STEPHEN CHIPPENDALE

      it is a disgusting decision ,taliban fighters do not stick to laws,they have utter contempt for us, and yet this judge treats them as normal people.it is war we are fighting not a bun fight the man should be given a madeal not jailed.the world has gone mad when decisions like this are allowed to stand,FREE THE MAN AS SOON AS LEGALLY POSSIBLE.

      Reply
  3. duncanheenan

    This case represents a failure in Sgt. Blackmsan’s training. A Marine’s training takes a normal person and gives them the ability and the willingness to kill, which is no small thing. It involves changing their character and early socialisation in many cases, and pumping up elements of aggression, group bonding and so on. Then they are expected to turn that aggression on and off in seconds in the heat of battle. If Sgt. Blackman had shot the Taliban enemy a few minutes earlier in the firefight he would have been praised, not imprisoned.
    I am not saying that what he did was right, just that it is understandable, and if his training failed, then the Government, who trained him, have to bear some of the responsibility for that. A lenient sentence would reflect that. In that respect it doesn’t look lenient to me, especially when set against the verdicts & sentence passed on the Para Lee Clegg for a comparable incident in Northern Ireland.
    This case will have had a very demotivating effect on a lot of service personnel who will be asking “are we paid to fight wars with our hands tied behind our backs?” Soldiers are trained to be soldiers, not lawyers.

    Reply
  4. Brian Thomas

    Dear Sir or Madam or to whom it may concern, I am writing (something I have never done before despite my young age of 71 years ) to say how APPALLED I am that a man who is a serving member of our Armed Forces should be jailed for 10 years. Surely he is a man of the utmost integrity and honesty and does not deserve in my view to be deprived of a)his livihood and b) his FREEDOM .i would certainly not condemn a man who in the heat of battle felt like killing an opponent and as he said it was something that he would have done to either or else all three of the men involved in this incident had the boots been on other feet ..I would like to add that I was looking for a site onto which I could add my name as a PROTESTER AGAINST THIS MANS SENTENCE. Yours faithfully and loyally Brian Thomas

    Reply
      1. stephen chippendale

        place your self in his situation,attacked by they do not know whom or when,mates killed in a savage manner,intense pressure,you sat at your computer in the comfort of your home and you are appalled,swap places and see how you would cope ,appalled indeed.

  5. Andrew

    It was not in the heat of battle and that is the point. If the insurgent had been a member of an organised army he would have been a POW – as it is he was an unarmed civilian and not a danger to any member of the Forces.

    it is sad, of course, but it is a matter of pride that the killing was not hushed up, not dealt with by way of reprimand, properly investigated and properly prosecuted. I regard the sentence as lenient but not unduly so and I hope that there is no A-G’s reference or that if there is it fails. I cannot see that any appeal by the Defendant against sentence can succeed.

    Reply
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  7. The Moles

    Having had four of my family in the Royal Marines,I understand the stress, and have visually seen the stress on them after service in Afghanistan, particularly on two members who Had lost comrades in action. Their personalities have changed. I debriefed them, and was shocked on the conditions they lived in, and the stress of going out on foot patrol. Whether they would walk back, or come back on a stretcher. That was a daily occurrence.
    In most cases you do not come face to face with the enemy, and when you do, revenge can rear its head. Under these conditions how can anyone condemn Sgt Blackman.
    He was fully trained to kill or be killed, and I would not be surprised that this has happened, We know he broke the Geneva convention (to an enemy that does not uphold it ) it was a military matter that should not have been made public, causing great distress to his family, which I understand. He needed professional help. From an old soldier and grandparent.

    Reply
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