Two people involved in the brutal murder of a disabled man who was imprisoned and tortured to death have had their sentences increased by the court of appeal.
Julie Mills and Nicole Lawrence were originally sentenced at Newcastle Crown Court last year after being convicted of involvement in the death of Lee Irving (pictured).
He had been repeatedly kicked, punched and stamped on by James Wheatley, in attacks that took place over nine days, leaving him with multiple broken bones and other injuries.
After he died, his body was taken on a pushchair through a housing estate and dumped on a patch of grass near the A1 in Kenton Bar, Newcastle.
The court of appeal decided this week that the prison sentences of eight years and four years handed to Mills and Lawrence were too low, and resentenced Mills, Wheatley’s mother, to 10 years in prison, and Lawrence, his girlfriend, to seven years.
Wheatley did not have his life sentence for murder – of which he will serve at least 23 years – challenged, while the court of appeal decided not to increase the three-year sentence handed to Wheatley’s lodger, Barry Imray.
Mills, Lawrence and Imray were all convicted last year of causing or allowing the death of a vulnerable adult, and of conspiracy to pervert the course of justice.
But despite this week’s two successful sentencing appeals by solicitor general Robert Buckland, the case has yet again underlined the flaws within the criminal justice system and in legislation on disability hate crime.
Northumbria police and the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) had treated the death of Lee Irving as a disability hate crime, but the judge decided in sentencing last year that there was not enough evidence to prove that any of the offences were motivated by disability-related hostility, and instead set Wheatley’s sentence partly on the basis of Irving’s “vulnerability”.
Lee Irving’s aunt, Lisa, subsequently joined with the Disability Hate Crime Network (DHCN) to ask the attorney general to appeal the sentences on the grounds that the offences were disability hate crimes*.
She told Disability News Service last night (Wednesday) that Lee’s family “would like to reiterate our stance that it is patently obvious this is a disability hate crime.
“This is evident in the language used to describe Lee, as well as their ability to manipulate Lee.
“Someone without a disability would be able to spot the danger and remove themself from the situation. It is unsatisfactory that we still have to dispute this.”
CPS had also written to the attorney general to seek leave to appeal the sentences, on the grounds that they “did not adequately reflect the severity of their offending”.
But despite the CPS originally arguing that the murder was a disability hate crime, lawyers acting for solicitor general Robert Buckland did not make that argument in the court of appeal this week.
Stephen Brookes, a coordinator of the Disability Hate Crime Network, said the successful appeals were “some justice but late and too little”.
He said that the case showed yet again that disabled people were being “let down all too often by frankly appalling failures by the judiciary who take vulnerability as being the way to deal with such crimes”, which is “almost suggesting it’s their fault for being disabled”.
He said: “What a farce that once again we have to collectively ‘remind’ the criminal justice system that disability hate crime must not be downgraded or diluted by the word ‘vulnerability’.”
Buckland said in a statement: “This is a particularly sad case, where those around the victim who should have been protecting him were allowing him to live in a state of fear and violence.
“Vulnerable people should have the full protection of the law and those with disabilities should feel that crimes and violence of this nature will be taken very seriously.
“I welcome the decision of the court, and hope the increased sentences send a strong message that such crimes will not be tolerated.”
A spokeswoman for Buckland said that although he may have felt that the judge was wrong not to treat the offences as disability hate crimes, he did not have the evidence to show that this decision was so far outside the sentencing guidelines that it could be challenged in the court of appeal.
*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 2012 doubles to 30 years the starting point for sentences for disability hate crime murders