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Last Updated: Friday, 6 August, 2004, 17:14 GMT 18:14 UK
How do you grade murder?
Judge's gavel
Murder is murder, or is it?
If the Law Commission had its way there would be different categories of murder to reflect the seriousness of the killing, and no more mandatory life sentences.

But how do you grade murder?

Following the commission's report campaigners said it was wrong to treat some killings as less serious than others.

Support After Murder and Manslaughter spokeswoman Rose Dixon said: "The effects on families of losing somebody through murder are horrific.

"We are thinking too much about the perpetrator. We worry so much about their human rights but what about the human rights of the bereaved family?"

Early release

But should someone like domestic violence victim Kiranjit Ahluwalia, who killed her husband after a decade of abuse, be seen in law as the same as a brutal killer like Lee Holbrook, who was jailed earlier this week?

Mrs Ahluwalia suffered 10 years of violence, sexual abuse and humiliation at the hands of her husband Deepak.

After two suicide bids and failed attempts to run away she set fire to his bedclothes while he slept.

Ten days later he died of his injuries and Mrs Ahluwalia was charged with murder and convicted.

A key reason for the failure of her plea of provocation, which would have reduced the crime to manslaughter, was the time that had elapsed between her husband's last attack on her and her retaliation.

After an appeal and retrial three years later she was convicted of manslaughter, sentenced to the time served already and released.

But her original sentence - a mandatory one of life - was the same as that handed down to bus driver Lee Holbrook, recently convicted of strangling a teenage passenger who refused to have sex with him.

There are two sorts of murder now - some cases are clearly murder, others are only manslaughter
Vera Baird

The 39-year-old murdered Alicia Eborne, 18, in November but was told by the judge he could be released within 11 years and three months.

Added to the debate is the fact that there's a strong difference of opinion between the general public and the legal profession on the issue, Daily Telegraph legal editor Joshua Rosenberg told BBC News 24.

While the public on the whole support the view that "all murder is dreadful", lawyers tend to argue for more flexibility in the law, he said.

"There is a difference between shooting three unarmed policement and a [mercy killing]," he added.

That there are many different ways of classifying types of murder around the world shows there is no simple answer to distinguishing between, say, a mercy killing and a cold-blooded assassination.

Viewers of American "cop shows" will be familiar with the US system's categorisations of murder in the first and second degrees.

First degree murder requires proof of pre-meditation while second degree murder falls between first degree murder and manslaughter.

In Denmark, there are four types of murder - general, child killing, mercy killing and genocide, which carry sentences ranging from five years to life.

Voluntary homicide in Luxembourg requires an intention to kill, while there is a separate charge of assassination for pre-meditated murder.

'Life for a life?'

In France, "general murder" is intentional but the life sentence is not mandatory, while the more serious charge of aggravated murder does mean life for the person convicted.

And in Spain murder is classed as a killing motivated by money or treachery, and is carried out using poison, explosives or brutality. A conviction of the crime can mean up to 30 years in prison.

The system also has a lesser charge of homicide, which carries sentences of up to 20 years.

Labour MP Vera Baird, who is also a barrister, said while she agreed with the commission's view that the law on murder was "a mess" it was important to recognise England and Wales already had grades of killing that were dealt with differently.

Kiranjit Ahluwalia
Kiranjit Ahluwalia won an award for breaking domestic violence taboos

"There are two sorts of murder now.

"Some cases are clearly murder, others are only manslaughter because, for instance, if a person has been provoked by something said or done by the victim into losing their self control, they can plead that as a partial excuse and reduce their conviction to manslaughter."

She said the Law Commission wanted the system to be more open about the reality of "life for a life" sentences, as in many cases a far shorter sentence is actually served.

"The sense of it is that more crimes perhaps should go into a higher category but that within that broader category the judge should have some discretion about whether he has to call it life when in truth it's only going to be 10 years."

The judge should be able to say "this was a domestic violence killing by a woman who had suffered a lot and struck back, and that's nothing like as bad as a killing in a shotgun robbery and so let me give her only this number of years and not have to automatically to give her life," she said.


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