On 20th January 2013 Anwar Rosser went to a friends house after being out drinking. He asked to stay the night, which he was allowed to. During the night, he murdered Riley Turner, the four year old son of his friends. Having pleaded guilty, he was sentenced on 13th February 2014 to life imprisonment, with life here meaning life.
The murder was brutal. Full details are set out in the sentencing remarks which make for horrible reading. The Judge was satisfied that the murder was ‘sadistic’ (and there is a strong suggestion of a sexual motive), which is hard to argue with. Mr Rosser was arrested the next day.
The Judge was bound to give a life sentence, the question would be what the tariff would be (see here for our factsheet). As this was a murder of a child for a sadistic motive, the starting point was a whole life tariff.
The Judge set out four aggravating factors:
- the sexual motive
- breach of trust (he was invited to stay the night)
- previous convictions
The Judge notes that the 4th factor is much less serious than the others, which is clearly right. In fact, it appears that his convictions were all for very minor offences and so should probably have been discounted. This can be seen by the fact that a caution for ABH in 1996. The facts are not known but are presumably unusual as the Judge said “How such a serious offence could merit just a caution I do not understand“. An ABH is certainly not always serious. Also, given that Mr Rosser would have been only 15 at the time, a caution may not have been at all inappropriate.
The Judge lists various factors that are put forward as mitigating features, but then effectively discounts them. There was some (but very little) mitigation to be had from his personality disorder and his remorse.
Mr Rosser pleaded guilty which would attract credit (apart from the whole life tariff), but the Judge did say that he was caught ‘red handed’.
In light of everything the Judge said that there was no reason to step back from the starting point of a whole life tariff.
This was a brutal murder and if whole life tariffs are lawful (see below) then it is hard to see it did not merit one. I would question the importance of the aggravating features in assessing whether a whole life tariff is imposed, because it is generally those aggravating features that lead to the case being put into the whole life bracket in the first place.
Leaving aside my own views on whole life tariffs, it seems to me that given everything (especially the guilty plea) a long determinate tariff (around 35-40 years) would have been appropriate. I doubt that the Court of Appeal will touch this one though.
Why could this be the last whole life tariff?
Because of the cases currently going through the Court of Appeal concerning the compatibility of a whole life tariff with Art 3 ECHR. The judgment is due in a couple of weeks. My prediction is that whole life tariffs will be held to be lawful and so Mr Rosser’s sentence will stand.
The Judge decided to leave the question of the legality to the Court of Appeal, which seems to be a sensible one.
I would take issue with what he says (paras 40-41) that Vinter v UK was about “reviews rather than the legality of whole life orders as such” and that the “only permissible approach is to continue to apply the domestic law“. Vinter makes clear (see para 122) that it is about the exact sentence that was imposed here rather than with a review. My own view is that a Judge is not obliged to impose a sentence that is unlawful, but again, I can see the merit in leaving it until the Court of Appeal gives their judgment.
The Judge made some interesting comments about the delays in the case that had been caused by the delays in the preparation of expert reports. This had the effect of putting the trial back by many months which “caused real and unacceptable suffering to Riley Turner’s family“.
The Judge identified the cause of the delays as (possibly) being “that experts take on too much work and do not provide clear information as to what they can and cannot do within the relevant timescale.”
In this, he is probably right, but his remarks don’t tell the full story. As well as cutting legal aid, the Government have been cutting back on the funding for experts on legal aid. They have been repeatedly warned that one consequence would be that many experts would simply stop doing legal aid work as it was not profitable. I don’t know if that was the problem in this case, but it may well be another example of the MoJ’s chickens coming home to roost.