On 30th September 2021, police officer Wayne Couzens was sentenced to a whole life order (WLO) for the abduction, rape, and murder of Sarah Everard. The order means that Couzens will spend the rest of his life in prison, with no chance of release. WLOs are extremely rare and are reserved for crimes of such exceptionally high seriousness that no other punishment would suffice. The Sentencing Code gives a list of offences which would normally meet this criterion.
These offences are set out in paragraph 2(2) of Schedule 21:
The murder of two or more persons, involving a substantial degree of premeditation, abduction of the victim, or sexual or sadistic conduct.
The murder of a child if involving abduction or sexual or sadistic motivation.
The murder of a police or prison officer in the course of duty.
A murder done for the purpose of advancing a political, religious, racial or ideological cause.
A murder by an offender previously convicted of murder.
So how was Couzens sentenced to a WLO where his crimes did not fall into any of the above categories? Lord Justice Fulford’s reasoning was that he was able to hand down a WLO because the overriding question is whether the offence was one of ‘exceptionally high seriousness’. Fulford LJ stressed that this was a ‘new category’ of exceptionally serious case, which would not have been in the minds of lawmakers as they drew up the Sentencing Code. His crimes and the use of the abuse of his role and power as a police officer, meant that his crimes offended the very basis of our society. There were very specific aspects of this horrific case that meant the courts were able to pass the most extreme sentence.
Fulford LJ rested his primary reasoning upon the societal impact of Sarah Everard’s murder. Couzens had misused the powers of ‘coercion and control’ afforded to the police. These unique powers are justified only by the fact that police are expected to act in the exclusive public interest. Couzens had thus irretrievably undermined public trust in the police to such an extent that Fulford LJ likened his crimes to those committed to advance a political, religious, racial or ideological cause. Thomas Mair, who murdered MP Jo Cox in 2016, was sentenced to a whole life order on this basis.
The central point, stated Fulford LJ, was that Couzens had used his role as a police officer to facilitate the commission of the offence. Had Couzens not used his warrant card and made a purported arrest, regardless of his profession, he would not have received a whole life order. It was this aspect of the case that was most harmful to public relations with the police, and has prompted the Metropolitan Police to issue controversial guidance on what to do if approached by a lone police officer.
In addition to the coercive use of Couzens’ police powers, Fulford LJ also noted the presence of serious aggravating features. These are the specific facts of the case that increase the offender’s culpability or indicate a greater level of harm caused. Where there is a starting point for the term of sentence, these factors would justify a sentence at the higher end of the guidelines. In Couzens’ case, they intensified the need to hand down a WLO. These features included:
The significant level of premeditation
Serious sexual misconduct
Significant mental and physical suffering inflicted
The attempt to conceal and destroy the victim’s body.
In the final points of his judgement, Fulford LJ also drew upon Couzens’ exacerbation of the insecurity faced by women walking alone at night. This was compounded by Couzens’ complete lack of genuine remorse and contrition. These features excluded any possible argument from the defence for leniency, and further substantiated the imposition of the exceptional WLO.
The Sentencing Guidelines make clear that a guilty plea should be a consideration made by the court in deciding whether to make a whole life order. It could be that a guilty plea tips the offender into a ‘borderline case’, which should be met with a determinate minimum term rather than a WLO. Fulford LJ asserted that he took this into account, but that ultimately the exceptionally high seriousness of the crimes necessitated a WLO. For a whole life order, there can be no reduction in term for a guilty plea, as would be the case for a determinate sentence.
Lord Justice Fulford’s ‘new category’ could open the door to further WLOs being imposed in murder cases with a high degree of influence on public feeling, and the ‘fundamental underpinnings of our democratic way of life’. This would be an expansion beyond the current list, which largely treats ‘seriousness’ as synonymous with culpability.
We could also see the Sentencing Code further amended to include murder committed by misuse of public power in the categories that will attract a WLO, akin to the 2015 amendment of the list to include the murder of a police officer in the course of duty.
What remains beyond doubt, is that significant action needs to be taken to address the public anxiety and suspicion toward the police that appalling crimes committed by Couzens under the guise of being a policy officer have given rise to.