Orders of the Day — Crown Prosecution Service

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 7:34 pm on 12th January 1995.

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Photo of Gwyneth Dunwoody Gwyneth Dunwoody , Crewe and Nantwich 7:34 pm, 12th January 1995

One realises that justice is frequently portrayed in this country as blind. It is important, however, that it should not also be portrayed as deaf. This evening I want to raise the question of the identification of the general public with sentencing policy in the courts, particularly when horrendous and—one hopes—unique cases of murder are dealt with.

I should like to set out the circumstances in which the case of a constituent of mine, a Mr. Ryan Keen, was considered. A young and active man, he was well known in the town of Nantwich as a footballer. He was very popular and had worked extremely hard building up the local football team. Among the people connected with him were two men who chose, although they were 10 years older than him, to try to enter into a friendship with him. Those two men lured Ryan Keen first into a tour of various pubs and then to an address at which he was doused in paint stripper, whereupon lighted matches were thrown at him. The result was a horrific death involving 95 per cent. burns. I ask the House to consider the agony that that young man must have endured before he died.

I want to comment on some of the facts that were given during the trial because I think that they are relevant. Mr. Keen was said to have gone with the defendants to a pub where bar staff and customers alleged that they heard Card and Oliver, the two men initially charged with the murder, discussing setting someone alight. One witness said that as they were leaving the pub, Oliver told Card: I'll set light and don't you help. The consultant pathologist who gave evidence in the case said: Ryan had extensive burns covering 95 per cent. of the total area of his body. The only area not burned was his foot. There is no possibility of anyone surviving burns like that. He also gave evidence to the effect that Ryan suffered internal combustion, either by inhaling liquid which caught light inside him or by the fire passing down his throat. Traces of flammable liquid were found inside his stomach, an empty half-gallon bottle marked "white spirit" was found by the fire service officer on the floor and there was a powerful smell of the liquid in the house.

I give the House these horrendous details not out of any desire to shock but because, when dealing with such appalling cases, it is vital to understand the reactions of the public. In my constituency, a great deal of attention was paid to the case. The day-to-day evidence was reported in considerable detail. It was therefore a matter of shock when, after some days of evidence being heard, the charge was reduced from murder to one of manslaughter. There were press reports of a Crown Prosecution Service spokesman saying that there were no plans to appeal against the sentences.

The Minister will know that the sentences handed down, although commensurate with the charge of manslaughter, were fairly light—three and five years. The CPS spokesman was supposed to have said that they were about what you'd expect for manslaughter. I find it difficult to understand why the charge was changed in this way half way through the case. I am not a lawyer, but I understand that defendants frequently change their plea at the initial hearing. The strength of our jury system and its very foundation is that it should decide the facts of a case—whether defendants are guilty or not guilty.

The jury was not permitted to reach such a conclusion. I have to ask, therefore: was there a plea bargain? If some kind of arrangement was reached, on what basis was it made? I have looked carefully at the official definitions of murder and manslaughter to try to relate those charges to what happened in this trial. Indeed, I have tried very hard to understand exactly why the procedure went as it did.

I wrote to the Attorney-General, raising with him the conduct of the case. I hesitate to use the word "derisory", but the sentences were very light given the nature of the death. I asked whether there was any way in which the state would appeal against them and seek a rather more exemplary punishment for the two men concerned. He was courteous enough to send me a detailed reply, which set out not only the range of sentence appropriate in any case but the behaviour that the judge would normally be expected to follow and the conclusions that he reached. He said that the judge set out the factual basis on which he passed sentence … He found that Oliver conceived a plan to punish Ryan Keen … having lured him to Oliver's house on the pretext of taking part in some form of dare and there to frighten him or injure him but only to some limited extent. Frankly, if one douses a human being almost from head to toe in paint thinner then throws lighted matches at him, I find it difficult to understand that that is regarded as something that would not do irreparable harm. When I helped to run a general practice, we had an appalling death of someone who suffered the same degree of burns. The coroners court accepted that such a degree of burning could not be an accident. Therefore, both the parents and the neighbours of this boy find that initial fact very difficult to accept.

When I went further into the case, and even when I began to study the Attorney-General's letter closely, I found other things that I found difficult to understand. The Attorney-General said: I have also considered your concern regarding the acceptance of the pleas to manslaughter. As you are aware, Card and Oliver were initially tried for murder. It was only after the court and jury had heard the whole of the prosecution's case and after Oliver had given evidence that the trial judge asked to see all counsel in his chambers. I have to ask: why at that point? Why were the pleas not changed initially? Why was so much of the case allowed to proceed? Is it true that there was not enough time for the whole of the case to continue? If so, why was it not adjourned? It would certainly have been difficult and expensive, but it would not have been impossible.

Let me ask some other questions that concern me greatly. If the plea bargain took place half way through the hearing, by whom was the decision taken? Was an arrangement reached between the judiciary and those who were defending and prosecuting the case? Who investigated, and what were their conclusions? What reasons were given for the plea bargaining? Why did the Crown Prosecution Service agree to drop the case after four days of hearing evidence?

When one looks closely at the management of the case, one sees the difficulty that the general public has in accepting the decisions that were handed down in relation to the two men. Most people, on a commonsense basis, would have accepted that what the two men were being tried for—murder—was the charge that they should have faced. What most reasonable people would find difficult to accept—myself among them—is why the charge was reduced to manslaughter.

I worry that the system may be moving away from a decision of a jury towards some form of Americanisation. Plea bargaining major sentences according to a number of factors—which, in this case, were not made clear in court or to the family, who were devastated by the decision—is an exceedingly dangerous habit to form.

A jury was in court. It heard the evidence and it should have taken the decision. If there was to be a change of plea, why was it allowed at that stage in the case? If the executive are doing deals with the judiciary, we are getting into a very dangerous situation and one that will have a direct effect on what happens in our courts.

The CPS must have believed that the evidence to charge the defendants with murder was sufficient otherwise it would not, I presume, have brought the case. So what happened four days into the hearing to change its mind?

In some instances, that may be in the general public interest. In, for example, the Guinness case it may have been in the public interest to consolidate a number of charges and to go for only one charge, but that does not apply in this instance. I do not believe, given the rules, that there should be plea bargaining in a case of murder. A full explanation should be given and such decisions should not be taken between the judiciary and the executive in secret. In my view, the family has been the victim of a slide towards the Americanisation of the British system. If there was a problem, the case should have been adjourned. There is a proper procedure and we cannot allow this kind of thing to happen.

I know that if the House of Commons ever gave instructions to judges about the decisions that they should take in relation to cases we would be sliding down an exceedingly dangerous slope. I do not seek to do that, but I wonder whether Ministers understand that ordinary people, knowing that they have lost a very loved child—a fit 20-year-old—in a heinous attack by two fit 30-year-olds, want a sentence that reflects the appalling fate that befell their child or a clear demonstration of why the system has failed them. They do not accept that the sentences passed on the two men were in any way commensurate with the crime. They do not accept that what happened during the trial was a true reflection of justice. They do not accept that a better fist could not have been made either of explaining openly what was happening or at least seeking to justify it. If that is their view, I have to tell the Minister that it is also mine.

I am desperately unhappy about what happened in the case of Ryan Keen. It may indeed be too late to do anything about the sentences passed on those two young men, which may now be an accurate reflection of the final charge that they faced, but I must tell the Minister that there is a public interest in proper justice, in openness and in a belief that we have the jury system to deliver some decision. That did not happen and many, many people wonder why.