A judge has failed to treat the murder of a disabled man who was imprisoned and tortured to death by his killer as a disability hate crime, raising fresh concerns about flawed legislation that is supposed to ensure higher sentences for such offences.
Newcastle Crown Court heard during an eight-week trial how James Wheatley, 29, of Studdon Walk, Kenton Bar, Newcastle, repeatedly kicked, punched and stamped on Lee Irving in attacks that took place over nine days, leaving him with multiple broken bones and other injuries.
Irving (pictured), 24, who had learning difficulties, thought Wheatley was his friend and was living in his house at the time of the attacks.
But Wheatley and his co-defendants targeted Irving for his money and possessions, with Wheatley signing him up to online banking so he could empty his account.
After the final attack that led to his death, Irving’s body was taken on a pushchair through a housing estate and dumped on a patch of grass near the A1.
Gerry Wareham, chief crown prosecutor for the north-east, said after the trial that Wheatley had “exploited the friendship of Lee Irving in the worst way imaginable”.
He said: “Lee only wanted friendship but, instead, became the target of Wheatley’s aggression.
“After the attacks on Lee Irving, the defendants made every effort to hide what they had done: sedating and imprisoning him in their home, moving his body after death and removing key evidence.
“Even those defendants not directly involved in the attacks would have recognised that the extent of his injuries required immediate medical attention. Not one of them tried to assist Lee or to prevent further injury to him.”
Wheatley was found guilty on Friday (2 December) of murder, and sentenced to life in prison, where he will have to serve a minimum of 23 years.
But the offences Wheatley committed were not treated as hate crimes by the judge, Mr Justice Soole, under section 146 of the Criminal Justice Act.
If they had been, he would have had to serve at least 30 years in prison.
Three other defendants – Wheatley’s mother Julie Mills, 52, girlfriend Nicole Lawrence, 22, and lodger Barry Imray, 35 – were convicted of conspiring to pervert the course of justice, as was Wheatley, and of causing or allowing the death of a vulnerable adult, and all three were jailed.
Both Northumbria police and the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) had treated Irving’s death as a hate crime, but Mr Justice Soole, in sentencing Wheatley, decided there was not enough evidence to prove the killing was motivated by disability-related hostility.
Lee Irving’s death now becomes the latest in a lengthy line of brutal crimes in which disabled people have been targeted because of their impairment, but which have not been acknowledged as disability hate crimes because of the flawed criminal justice system.
One of them was the murder of Brent Martin, another man with learning difficulties, who was killed in nearby Sunderland by three young men who took turns to see which of them could knock him out for a £5 bet.
But his killing in 2007 was never treated as a disability hate crime by Northumbria police, the same force that investigated Lee Irving’s death, or by the courts.
In July this year, CPS was criticised for failing to treat as a disability hate crime a case in which a man with learning difficulties was forced to live in a shed for 35 years, and work for a pittance, and was beaten if he failed to work hard enough.
And last year, the criminal justice system was again criticised after a court failed to treat the brutal murder of Peter Hedley as a disability hate crime, when again the judge merely took account of Hedley’s “vulnerability” in sentencing.
The failure to sentence Lee Irving’s murderer under disability hate crime legislation will provide further fuel for disabled campaigners who have been pushing the government for years to ensure that it takes the issue seriously.
Northumbria police had failed to comment by noon today (8 December).
But a CPS spokesman confirmed that its lawyers had treated Lee Irving’s murder as a disability hate crime.
He said in a statement: “We always apply to increase sentences where disability is an aggravating factor but ultimately it is the court’s decision.
“The proportion of sentence uplifts applied in 2015-16 was the highest it has ever been and we are working with the judiciary and the courts in support of their consistent application.”
CPS said that where there was not enough evidence of disability hostility for a section 146 uplift, but disability was a factor in another way – such as the victim’s perceived “vulnerability” – it can present evidence to the court of these other “aggravating” factors that can increase the seriousness of the offence and the sentence.
A public consultation on CPS’s policy on prosecuting crimes against disabled people is due to end on 9 January 2017.