Aunt of disabled man tortured to death seeks hate crime sentence appeal

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The aunt of a disabled man who was imprisoned and tortured to death is asking the attorney general to appeal against the judge’s failure to treat his murder as a disability hate crime.

James Wheatley, 29, from Kenton Bar, Newcastle, repeatedly kicked, punched and stamped on Lee Irving (pictured) in attacks that took place over nine days, leaving him with multiple broken bones and other injuries.

After he died, Irving’s body was taken on a pushchair through a housing estate and dumped on a patch of grass near the A1.

Wheatley was found guilty of murder earlier this month, and was sentenced to life in prison, where he will have to serve at least 23 years.

Three other defendants – Wheatley’s mother Julie Mills, 52, girlfriend Nicole Lawrence, 22, and lodger Barry Imray, 35 – were also jailed for offences connected with Irving’s death, Mills to eight years, Lawrence to four years, and Imray to three.

But although Northumbria police and the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) treated Irving’s death as a hate crime, Mr Justice Soole, who sentenced the four, decided there was not enough evidence to prove that any of the offences were motivated by disability-related hostility.

Instead, he increased Wheatley’s sentence because of Irving’s “vulnerability”.

Lee’s aunt, Lisa Irving, told Disability News Service (DNS) this week that her nephew’s murder had left the family “traumatised” and with “little faith in society”.

She said the family “fully appreciated the verdicts” but were “devastated about the sentence and how the judge did not accept that it was a disability hate crime. How is it not?” 

She said the family were equally disturbed by the failings of social services and the police.

Newcastle City Council has launched a serious case review into the circumstances that led to her nephew’s death.

Lee Irving’s murder is just the latest in a long line of brutal killings that the criminal justice system has failed to treat as disability hate crimes, despite legislation intended to provide longer sentences in such circumstances.

They include the killings of Brent Martin, Peter Hedley, Albert Adams, Stephen Hoskin, Kevin Davies, Michael Gilbert… and now Lee Irving.

Section 146 of the Criminal Justice Act 2003 imposes a duty on the court to increase sentences for offences motivated by disability-related hostility, while the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act (LASPO) 2012 doubles to 30 years the starting point for sentences for disability hate crime murders. 

Lisa Irving is now working with members of the Disability Hate Crime Network (DHCN) to persuade the attorney general to appeal the sentence handed to Wheatley.

She also wants the offences committed by Mills and Lawrence to be treated as hate crimes, although she believes that Imray, who himself had learning difficulties, was probably a victim of disability hate crime himself and was forced by Wheatley to help him cover up his crimes.

The Disability Hate Crime Network has now written to the attorney general, the Tory MP Jeremy Wright, to ask him to seek a tougher sentence from the court of appeal.

The letter was written by Katharine Quarmby, on behalf of Lisa Irving and the network, and she told Wright that the police and CPS had “presented good evidence of disability hate targeting”.

Quarmby, one of the network’s coordinators, and the author of Scapegoat, a pioneering investigation into disability hate crime, told DNS that she was “disappointed” by the failure to increase the sentences for those involved in Lee Irving’s murder.

She said she was not aware of a single case in which the LASPO 30-year tariff had yet been used.

Quarmby said she welcomed apparent signs of progress in sentencing some lower-level disability hate crimes, but said this could be a sign that magistrates were starting to take the issue seriously, while judges were failing to do so.

But she added: “However, when very serious crimes such as murder are sentenced, there seems to be a block in sentencing them as disability hate crimes.

“The law, as it currently stands, could be said to be set up to fail – it has to be investigated, prosecuted and sentenced as a disability hate crime.

“If one person in that chain – investigating officer, CPS prosecutor or judge – fails to view the crime as disability-related, there is no sentence uplift.

“This fails the victim, the family and wider society.

“Sentencing such crimes as disability-related would send a strong ‘declaratory effect’ to society that we do not tolerate such crimes and they are sentenced accordingly.

“I would like to see a discussion of possible law reform, if the current law is not fit for purpose, which I feel it is no longer.”

Anne Novis, a DHCN coordinator who leads for Inclusion London on disability hate crime, added: “It is more than time now for all cases where if a person perceives their experience as disability hate crime, as well as police and CPS, then this should be treated as such by judges.

She said: “To repeatedly read of cases where this aspect is ignored, ruled irrelevant, and no enhanced sentencing re hate crime applied gives a message that we as disabled people do not experience hate crime, and that the perpetrators get away with a sentence far less than they should get.

“The message given is that our human rights as victims of crime are less than those of others. This is not acceptable and must be changed.

“Via Inclusion London and the DHCN we will campaign to see this does happen.”

Meanwhile, a third DHCN coordinator, Stephen Brookes, has written to the solicitor general, the Tory MP Robert Buckland, asking for a meeting to raise the network’s concerns about “the all too frequent failure of the court system (in particular the judiciary) to fully understand and implement appropriate sentences for cases of disability hostility”.

He welcomed Buckland’s work on encouraging the reporting of hate crime by disabled people, but added: “The successful work we have done along with police forces and CPS prosecutors in jointly pressing for disability hate crime to be treated as such has been thwarted in most cases by court decisions.”

He pointed to the Lee Irving case as an example of how, despite improved confidence in police forces and CPS, “we are facing a total and unacceptable brick wall in courts in that the judiciary only seem to consider vulnerability as a cause, which means that disability hate is often not considered as part of a sentence uplift”.

He told Buckland: “It is about time that judges were given some real awareness training in what… disability actually means, rather than categorising us all as poor vulnerable victims.”

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