image captionPC Andrew Harper married his childhood sweetheart Lissie four weeks before he was killed
The sentences handed down to the killers of PC Andrew Harper have sparked much public debate and resulted in his widow and mother launching rival campaigns calling for tougher punishments for those who kill emergency services workers.
The 28-year-old policeman was dragged to his death by a getaway car along country lanes in Berkshire in August 2019. PC Harper had become entangled in a strap attached to the vehicle as he tried to deal with three quad bike thieves. He suffered injuries so catastrophic one of his colleagues could not recognise him.
Teenagers Henry Long, Albert Bowers and Jessie Cole were cleared of murder, and received sentences of between 13 and 16 years for PC Andrew Harper’s manslaughter.
Both campaign teams have met Home Secretary Priti Patel to discuss how their proposals could become law – but what are potential pitfalls?
What are the campaigns trying to achieve?
image captionLissie Harper believes the fact her husband’s killers were cleared of murder was a “despicable wrong for our country”
- The officer’s widow, Lissie Harper, is campaigning for Harper’s Law, which proposes a life sentence with a mandatory minimum term for an offender “guilty of killing an emergency services worker due to a criminal act… no ifs, no buts”. Mrs Harper, who is backed by the Police Federation of England and Wales, says she wants to “give our emergency services what they give to us, which is protection”. The campaign has suggested Harper’s Law might create a “separate conviction” or “new offence” to murder and manslaughter.
- PC Harper’s mother, Debbie Adlam, is campaigning for Andrew’s Law. Her campaign proposes that those convicted of manslaughter over the death of a blue-light worker while committing a crime should be jailed for a minimum of 20 years, with “no discount for age or early guilty plea”.
Mrs Harper, 29, believes she has seen at first hand how the judicial system is “broken” after being denied “real justice” over her husband’s death following a trial at the Old Bailey.
The Harper’s Law campaign, which is not seeking whole-life sentences, has yet to decide what the mandatory minimum term should be. Sgt Andy Fiddler, who is supporting the campaign, said the finer details were still to be thrashed out by lawyers and civil servants before the publication of a final draft.
“This is going to be a couple of years of really hard work, which is what we are willing to do,” said the officer, who has been meeting politicians with PC Harper’s widow.
Mrs Harper, from Wallingford in Oxfordshire, said she did not believe emergency workers were “more important”, but the new law would be directed at them because of the nature of their work and dangers they face.
image captionDebbie Adlam said the family “felt they had been punched” after hearing the killers’ sentences
Mrs Adlam’s Andrew’s Law campaign aims to close a “loophole”, she said, in cases where defendants plead guilty not out of remorse but because they have “no other option”.
In the case of her son’s killers, the sentencing judge Mr Justice Edis gave Long, the driver of the car, credit for his guilty plea to manslaughter. The judge also noted that the teenager would have received a longer sentence had he been older.
Andrew’s Law spokesman Radd Seiger told the BBC the campaign was considering its options as to whether it should continue to try to create new legislation, or go down the route of changing sentencing guidelines – an approach he said could provide faster results.
Mr Seiger said the campaign was “not trying to undo” the verdicts in the trial of PC Harper’s killers but was “looking forward, as we never want this to happen again”.
What are the current sentencing guidelines?
image captionThe Attorney General ruled that the sentences of Henry Long, Albert Bowers and Jessie Cole should be reviewed due to concerns the jail terms were “unduly lenient”
- Murder – defined as unlawfully killing someone with the intention to kill or to cause very serious harm – carries a mandatory life sentence. Those convicted of murder must serve a minimum term before they can considered for parole. The tariff, which is set by a judge in accordance with government guidelines, will depend on the circumstances of the case.
- Manslaughter is when the offender did not intend to kill but death results from an unlawful act or gross negligence. It can carry a wide range of sentences, from a life term down to a community order, again depending on the circumstances.
- The judge can take aggravating factors, such as killing a police officer in the line of duty, into account when deciding the tariff for murder or the sentence for manslaughter, but is also obliged to consider whether a guilty plea was made and the age of the defendant.
What do legal experts think about the campaigns?
image captionThe Secret Barrister is an author and commentator on the judicial system
Law blogger and author the Secret Barrister says the “primary problem” with Harper’s Law is that “it would remove the vital distinction between murder and manslaughter”.
The criminal barrister told the BBC they had “every sympathy for the Harper family”, but did not believe their campaigns would improve the law.
“My worry is that this case was unusual for a number of reasons, and unusual cases are rarely a sensible starting point for changing the law,” they said.
The Secret Barrister said introducing mandatory life sentences for manslaughter would “erase” a “critical distinction” with murder cases.
“It would be manifestly unfair to treat somebody who, say, pushes a police officer and causes them to fall and sustain a fatal injury, as equally culpable as somebody who sets out to kill or seriously injure,” they added.
They said treating all defendants “exactly the same will guarantee injustice”.
image captionPC Harper married his childhood sweetheart Lissie in July of last year
Regarding the changes proposed by the Andrew’s Law campaign to remove credit for guilty pleas, the Secret Barrister warned credit was an “essential to the just operation of our system”.
They said it was a “basic matter of fairness” that someone who admits their guilt is “distinguished” from someone who refuses, and added that removing credit would “simply mean that nobody pleads guilty”.
“They will feel that they might as well spin the wheel on a trial and hope for a sympathetic jury. This not only prolongs the suffering of families affected, but inevitably risks guilty defendants, who would have pleaded guilty, being acquitted.”
The Secret Barrister accepted however that there “may well be an argument” for reviewing the existing sentencing guidelines for manslaughter, to provide a “presumption” that the killing of an emergency worker would fall into the highest category of culpability.
image captionAlistair Parker believes changing the law based on a single case could lead to injustice
Alistair Parker, a solicitor for the Brett Wilson law firm, said the idea of Harper’s Law sounded “superficially attractive” but warned it could be “draconian”.
He said the “two elements” of Harper’s Law that concerned him were the “automatic nature” of any sentence and the “lack of assessment of culpability, which is a big problem”.
He added: “The danger is that today’s popular campaign becomes tomorrow’s miscarriage and burning injustice, because of the unforeseen people getting caught in it.”
What potential scenarios concern the legal experts?
image captionThe Harper’s Law campaign has seen widespread support among the public, with more than 725,000 people signing a petition in support of it
Examples Mr Parker gave to demonstrate the potential pitfalls of changes to the law include:
- A student who, while drunk and celebrating her exams, throws a bottle out of a window which falls five storeys into a crowd and kills an on-duty paramedic. She would face a life sentence under Harper’s Law, or a minimum of 20 years under Andrew’s Law. If the bottle had hit a non-emergency worker, the sentence for manslaughter would be 10 years or lower based on current guidelines.
- A father driving his child to school gets distracted at the wheel and hits and kills an on-duty emergency worker. Under the Road Traffic Act, the maximum sentence would be in the region of five years, he said.
“What you will get is huge disparities in sentencing where there was no ill will towards the emergency worker,” Mr Parker said.
“I can sound terribly pedantic in these things but that is the problem when you bring in automatic sentences: you have then got to think, well what about that scenario? Because sooner or later they will come up. That’s the nature of it.”
What happens next?
image captionMrs Harper was joined by Sgt Andy Fiddler (right) as she spoke to Justice Secretary Robert Buckland and Home Secretary Priti Patel
Both Mrs Harper and Mrs Adlam have received cross-party support, with the home secretary stating she would work with PC Harper’s colleagues and family to “find a way if we want to change laws”.
Martin Hewitt, the National Police Chiefs Council chair, stopped short of saying he backed Harper’s Law, but said emergency service workers “deserve the full protection of the criminal justice system” and he supports “Lissie in driving the consideration on how best this can be achieved”.
A Harper’s Law campaign spokesman said the team was working with civil servants to “look at how it would work, as clearly an accident is an accident”.
As the debate over changes to the law continues, the Court of Appeal is soon to rule on whether the prison terms handed to PC Harper’s killers were unduly lenient.
Whatever the result of these proceedings, the campaigns of PC Harper’s loved ones will march on, with the officer’s widow vowing to “keep the pressure on those in power” to make change happen.