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Unequal before the law

Disability hate crimes mostly attract lighter sentences than others. Katharine Quarmby asks why

In 2005, Paul Taylor, 20, and Michael Barton, 17, were sentenced for murdering black teenager Antony Walker. They received sentences of 23 years and eight months and 17 years and eight months respectively. Mr Justice Leveson, handing down the sentence, said: “There is no difference between people of different races, each trying to live out their lives in peace. In spite of your youth, deterrent sentences are vital.”

In June 2006 two men – Thomas Pickford, 26, and Scott Walker, 33 – were sentenced for the vicious homophobic murder of Jody Dobrowski. Their 28 year sentences were increased, under section 146 of the Criminal Justice Act, to reflect the way in which the killing was aggravated by homophobia. It was the first time that an aggravated sentence (because of evidence of homophobic bias) had been passed in a murder or manslaughter case. Judge Brian Barker said in court that the pair had only one intention when they went to the common: "homophobic thuggery".

The Senten­cing Advisory Panel and the Senten­cing Guide­­lines Council issue advice to judges on length of sent­ence for all crimes. For murder, the middle starting point is 12 years and the lower starting point is eight-to-nine years. The higher starting point is 15-16 years where the victim is in a particularly vulnerable position or for murders involving gratuitous violence or sadism. The minimum term could be significantly higher for those involving several aggravating factors. Sentences for racially-aggravated murders automatically attract stiffer sentences. The Jody Dobrowski case is also seen as setting a precedent for stiffer sentences for homophobic murders. But when Disability Now analysed murders motivated by disability hatred, we found that those sentences were, on the whole, far lower. We looked at some prominent cases of so-called “racially-aggravated” murder. In almost all cases, those responsible received sentences of above 20 years and a number above 25 years (see box, page 32). The judges also mentioned that race was a factor in the assault in every case. Such sentencing and comments give a clear sense of how the criminal justice system, quite rightly, views the gravity of racially-motivated crime.

We also looked at the sentences given to those responsible for the murder of eight disabled men: Rikki Judkins, Sean Miles, Steven Hoskin, Barrie-John Horrell, Colin Greenwood, Keith Philpott, Albert Adams and Brent Martin. In almost all cases, the sentences were far lower – and none of the cases was treated as motivated by disability hatred. Prosecutors did not call for disability hate to be mentioned as an aggravating factor in any of the attacks. The judges, therefore, did not mention it during sentencing.

In the case of Brent Martin, who was kicked, punched and beaten to death for a £5 bet, the ringleader, William Hughes, 22, was sentenced to at least 22 years and Marcus Miller, 16, and Stephen Bonallie, 17, received sentences of 15 and 18 years respectively. But the judge did not refer to the crime as aggravated by hatred of Mr Martin’s disability, which could have increased the sentences yet further.

Simon Unsworth, 20, and Aaron Singh, 17, who robbed and murdered Rikki Judkins, were given sentences of 18 years and 15 years respectively.

Edward Doyle, 34, Terry McMaster, 24, and Karen Feathers, 35, were given sentences of just 17, 15 and 14 years in jail. They had falsely accused Sean Miles of being a paedophile and had kidnapped him, stabbed him and then allowed him to drown.

Sarah Bullock, 17, and her boyfriend Darren Stewart, 30, were jailed for 10 years and 25 years respectively for the murder of Steven Hoskin. Bullock had stamped on Mr Hoskins’s hands, causing him to fall 100ft from a railway viaduct to his death.

Cousins Lee Davies, 28, and Brett Davies, 23, were ordered by Judge Christopher Pitchford to serve sentences of 18-and-a-half years and 17 years respectively for the murder of Barrie-John Horrell.

In the murder of Colin Greenwood, who was kicked to death, one 15-year-old and one 14-year-old were sentenced to a minimum of 12-and-a-half years for the murder.

In the case of Keith Philpott, who was falsely accused of being a paedophile, disembowelled and stabbed to death, Sean Swindon, 25, and Michael Peart, 22, had their sentences set at 20 and 15 years respectively. The Court of Appeal then raised their sentences to 28 years and 22 years respectively because of the sadism in the case – but not because of hate crime.

Disabled Londoner Albert Adams was murdered by Jennifer Henry. She stabbed him repeatedly. She also called 999 and said that she had murdered a man who tried to rape her, describing Mr Adams as “a little spastic”. However, the murder was not treated as motivated by disability hatred. Henry was sentenced to just 14 years in jail.

Out of 17 murderers who carried out horrific attacks on eight disabled victims, just four were given sentences of over 20 years. By contrast, when we looked at five of the most horrific racist murders of the last few years, 10 out of the 13 responsible were sentenced to over 20 years (and five of them for 25 years or more).

Groups representing disabled people are concerned about our findings.

Julie Newman, who chairs the UK Disabled People’s Council, says: “The matter of sentencing for those who are convicted of disability hate crime will be of concern as long as there continues to be a difference between this and other forms of hate crime.”

Liz Sayce, chief executive of Radar, says: “These despicable crimes – up to and including murder – that are perpetrated against disabled people must be treated with exactly the same gravity as crimes motivated by racial or homophobic hatred. Only a consistent sentencing regime…will send that message.”

Robin van den Hende, from Voice UK, adds: “If the criminal justice system is to tackle disability hate crime then courts must increase sentences in all disablist crimes and clearly state when a disability hate crime has occurred. We would be deeply worried if murders motivated by disability hatred did not lead to a longer sentence.”

A spokesman for the Crown Prosecution Service said: “Sentencing is a matter for the judge in the case, not for the CPS, so we cannot comment on the sentence in specific cases. CPS lawyers can draw the judge’s attention to any evidence of hostility to disabled people or to the victim’s vulnerability but it is for the judge to decide on the sentence, based on the prosecution evidence and any mitigation by the defence.”

So why are disability hate crimes treated differently from others? First, police, prosecutors and judges seem to understand racially-motivated (and, to a lesser extent, homophobic) attacks better than they understand disablist attacks. Second, judges have been clearly instructed by the Sentencing Guidelines Council on how to treat racially-motivated attacks. Third, racially-motivated attacks, along with homophobic attacks, are more likely to be flagged as such by police officers and prosecutors, meaning that they attract media attention and a far higher sentence.

But there may be another reason – that disability hate crime differs from other sorts of hate crime and therefore may not be recognised as such.

We looked at the perpetrators of the disability-related murders listed above.

In almost every case, the hate crime perpetrators were young, white and poor. Most were male. All of these markers are similar to other forms of hate crime.

But there is one striking difference. Those responsible for six out of the eight murders of disabled people were described as “friends” of those they murdered. (This also holds true in the case of Kevin Davies, who was held captive by “friends” and died in their care, as did Raymond Atherton.) Only two were stranger attacks. By contrast, the five racially-motivated murders that we looked at were carried out by strangers, as was the horrific, homophobic murder of Jody Dobrowski – a pattern that holds across other hate crimes.

This finding has implications for police and prosecutors. Liz Sayce says: “Hate crime must be clearly understood to include deliberate targeting of people who won’t or can’t fight back – even when the motive for the crime is exploitation (under the guise of friendship) rather than overt hatred. This is an educational issue for the police and prosecutors.”

Racially motivated murders

Glasgow 2004
Imran Shahid, 29, Zeeshan Shahid, 28 and Mohammed Mushtaq, 27 , were found guilty of racially motivated murder and sentenced to 25, 22 and 23 years respectively.

Liverpool 2005
Paul Taylor, 20, and Michael Barton, 17, received sentences of at least 24 years and at least 18 years respectively in December 2005.

Birmingham 2005
Waqar Ahmed, 26, Azhil Khan, 23 and Afzal Khan, 22, were sentenced to a minimum of 25 years each for racially motivated murder in May 2006.

South Shields 2006
Scott Nicholas, 21, was sentenced to at least 22 years

Huddersfield 2006
Christopher Murphy and Michael Hand, both 19, were ordered to serve at least 25 and 21 years for the racially aggravated murder. Graeme Slavin, 18, and Steven Utley, 17, were given 17 year minimum terms.

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