NI Court of Appeal: 24-year murder sentence was ‘generous’ for unremorseful violent abuser
Northern Ireland’s Court of Appeal has dismissed all grounds of appeal against a 24-year murder sentence.
About this case:
- Citation: NICA 3
- Court:NI Court of Appeal
- Judge:Mrs Justice Keegan
The court found that this sentence was neither excessive nor unlawful and a three-year reduction following a late-stage guilty plea was sufficient, if not “generous”.
The applicant’s renewed application for leave to appeal related to a 21-year minimum sentence following his late plea of guilty to a single count of murder. Alice Morrow was murdered by the applicant in March 2019. Police found her lying on the bedroom floor, naked and lifeless, with multiple injuries.
She was 53 years old when she died. A post-mortem examination revealed that she had suffered a blunt force assault. She also suffered no fewer than 71 single or groups of injury. Her body showed extensive bruising, rib fractures and asphyxiation marks. It also noted that Ms Morrow was frail, underweight and slightly built.
The applicant was arraigned and pleaded not guilty to her murder. Their relationship had lasted approximately 11 years and had been marked by domestic violence, as had many of the applicant’s past relationships.
He was interviewed eight times, which often included a denial of responsibility or even presence at the scene at the relevant time.
Following his guilty plea, he continued denying the offence. He told the interviewing probation officer that he woke up in bed beside the deceased and that she did not appear to be breathing. He stated that he may have harmed the victim when completing CPR, or may have accidentally caused the death.
A life sentence was imposed and the trial judge sentenced the applicant to 24 years’ imprisonment, with a reduction of three years due to his eventual guilty plea.
The grounds of appeal
The basis of the appeal was essentially that the judge erred in law when determining the appropriate sentence prior to adjustment for a plea, with the ultimate sentence being manifestly excessive.
The applicant was critical of the judge’s starting point in sentencing and argued that it was arrived at by double-counting. He also criticised the sentencing in terms of the explanation of how the 24 years’ point was reached prior to reduction for the plea. He also attempted to compare his sentence with other cases.
In assessing the sentencing exercise carried out by the trial judge, the court noted that he adopted a staged approach, which included the choice of the higher starting point, and the variation of this starting point by factors relating both to the offence and the offender. The court found no error in this methodology.
In considering the higher starting point for sentencing in this case, the trial judge considered, inter alia, that the victim was vulnerable; there was evidence of gratuitous violence; and there were extensive and multiple injuries inflicted on the victim before death.
Again, here the court found that the selection of the higher starting point was inevitable and entirely correct.
Following the Practice Statement on sentencing, the judge considered the applicant’s history of domestic violence as a relevant factor. The use of this as an aggravating feature in addition to having established the higher starting point was found to be “entirely correct”. This factor did not, on the face of it, duplicate any of the features chosen in setting the starting point.
In this case the domestic violence was over years and against different partners at a significant level. This represented significant aggravation which had to be reflected in an increase in sentence beyond the starting point. There was no double-counting.
A second aggravating factor endorsed by the court was the judge’s assessment of the applicant’s actions after he killed Ms Marrow. He deliberately chose not to summon medical help when this would have been critical. He then “engaged in a cynical pretence that he was a grieving partner to direct attention away from himself”.
The trial judge then considered mitigation. The only available mitigation related to the late plea of guilty, which was not a “timely plea” as described in the Practice Statement. The court was satisfied that the sentence was transparent, noting: “Judges do not have to explain what each factor represents in terms of years but rather reach an overall view which meets the gravity of the offence.”
The court rejected that the applicant’s arguments that his mental health or alleged lack of premeditation should have been considered as mitigating factors, This was a case marked by “gratuitous violence to a vulnerable victim and an indifference as to whether or not a victim dies” so any argument for mitigation had no traction.
In fact, the court found that the judge was “rather generous” in the application of the reduction, given the applicant’s overall lack of remorse or empathy. Further, the applicant’s plea was late and offered little comfort and vindication to the victim’s family.
The judge was entitled to reflect these qualifications to any reduction in the guilty plea. A reduction in the minimum term of approximately 13 per cent in the case was “well within the discretion allowed to a trial judge in a murder case of this nature. We see no basis for interfering with that assessment”.
Ultimately the court found no merit in any of the grounds of appeal. The sentence imposed was neither wrong in principle nor manifestly excessive. Rather, it reflected the serious nature of the offence which involved violence against a vulnerable woman by a historic domestic abuser.
As such, the appeal was dismissed.