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Minimum terms

High Court setting of minimum terms for mandatory life sentences under the Criminal Justice Act 2003

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Case No:  MTR/1046/2004
Neutral Citation Number:  [2008] EWHC 703 (QB)

Royal Courts of Justice
Strand, London, WC2A 2LL

15 May 2008

Before :


Between :

The Queen

- and -

Christopher Alan Hackett

Approved Judgment




1. On 21 May 1998 at Preston Crown Court, the defendant, Christopher Hackett, was sentenced to life imprisonment for the murder of Hannah McKie.   He had pleaded not guilty.   In addition, he was sentenced to two concurrent terms of 7 years’ imprisonment for two offences of cruelty to Hannah, who was 14 months old at the time.   He had pleaded guilty to these offences.   The trial judge, Moses J, recommended that he should serve 14 years in custody before his release on licence could be considered.   The Lord Chief Justice, Lord Bingham of Cornhill, made the same recommendation.   However, when the Home Secretary came to consider the minimum period which the defendant should serve before he could be released on licence, he decided on a minimum period of 17 years’ imprisonment.  
2. Schedule 22 to the Criminal Justice Act 2003 (“the Act”) came into force on 18 December 2003.   Since then, the defendant has applied to the High Court, pursuant to para. 3 of Schedule 22 to the Act, for the period set by the Home Secretary to be reviewed.   Para. 12(1) of Schedule 22 to the Act requires me to give the reasons for such order as I make in ordinary language.  
The facts
3. At the time of Hannah’s death, the defendant was 26 years old.   He was living with Hannah’s mother, Naomi McKie, who was then 18 years old.   The defendant was not Hannah’s father.   Naomi was described by witnesses as having been a good mother before she met the defendant, but the quality of her care for Hannah deteriorated during her relationship with him.   The trial judge said that he was violent to her, probably because of obsessional jealousy.  
4. Hannah died on Thursday 21 August 1997.   On the previous Sunday, she had been severely scalded while the defendant had been giving her a shower.   It was never clear whether he had scalded her deliberately.   Neither the defendant nor Naomi thought of getting any treatment for Hannah, even though the scalding was, to use the judge’s words, “serious and agonising”.   The only thing which was done to help Hannah was that she was given a cold bath on the Monday evening, but that could only have added to her pain.  
5. The defendant was a lorry driver.   On the Monday, he had taken Naomi and Hannah with him on one of his trips returning home that evening.   He did the same on the Tuesday and the Wednesday, staying away overnight and keeping Naomi and Hannah in the cab with him.   They all returned on the Wednesday evening.   The judge said that Hannah must have been suffering “unimaginable agony” by then, and the defendant gave her another cold bath.   When she climbed out of the bath, he flung her back in.   She climbed out again, and this time the defendant shook her violently.   As a result, Hannah suffered brain damage from which she died the following day.   In addition to the scalding and the brain damage, she was found to have about 90 separate bruises of various ages.   The pathologist described this as one of the worst cases he had seen.  
6. The defendant denied that the scalding of Hannah had been deliberate, or that he had caused all her bruising.   Indeed, he originally denied having caused Hannah’s death.   However, shortly before the trial, he admitted that he had shaken Hannah, and that it was that which had caused her death.   His defence at the trial was that he had not intended either to kill her or to cause her really serious injury.   By its verdict, the jury must be taken to have concluded that at the very least the defendant intended to cause Hannah really serious injury.   There was no psychiatric explanation for the defendant’s conduct.   Instead, a psychiatric report on him attributed his behaviour towards Hannah to anger and frustration, which itself was a product – in part at least – of his obsessive jealousy over Naomi.
The appropriate minimum term
7. The minimum term which the defendant should serve must reflect the seriousness of his offence.   That involves choosing the appropriate starting point, and then taking into account any aggravating or mitigating factors to the extent that they were not allowed for in the choice of the appropriate starting point.  
8. Under the current law as set out in Schedule 21 to the Act, the choice of the appropriate starting point is limited to a whole life order, 30 years or 15 years.   All murders involve the tragic loss of life, but Hannah’s murder did not come within any of the examples given in Schedule 21 to the Act of cases for which either a whole life order or a starting point of 30 years would normally be appropriate.   The appropriate starting point for the minimum term in the defendant’s case is therefore 15 years.   However, whatever the minimum term which would now be set under the current law, the minimum term which I must set may not be any longer than the minimum set by the Home Secretary.
9. The factors which aggravated the defendant’s murder of Hannah were the facts that (a) Hannah was particularly vulnerable because of her age, (b) the defendant was in effect in a position of trust and abused that trust by treating her in the way he did, and (c) his shaking of Hannah which caused her fatal brain damage was the culmination of a long period of abuse.   To that extent, some of the aggravating factors referred to in para. 10 of Schedule 21 to the Act were present in this case.   On the other hand, it does not look as if the defendant actually intended to kill Hannah, and the act which actually caused her death was unlikely to have been premeditated.   To that extent, some of the mitigating factors referred to in para. 11 of Schedule 21 to the Act were present as well.  
10. In the reasons which the Secretary of State gave the defendant for departing from the recommendations of the trial judge and the Lord Chief Justice, the Secretary of State was prepared to proceed on the assumption that the scalding of Hannah had not been deliberate.   However, the Secretary of State attached weight to her very young age and helplessness, as well as what he described as the defendant’s “horrific and sustained cruelty” to Hannah by his “callous disregard for her agony – which would have been plain to see – over a period of two to three days”.   The Secretary of State also attached weight to the fact that the defendant had shaken Hannah “so violently that she suffered brain damage from which she died shortly afterwards”.   In fact, although the shaking of Hannah was unquestionably sufficiently violent to cause brain damage, the brain damage was not itself an indication of the degree of violence which had been used.   And although the shaking of Hannah had to be seen in the context of the cruelty which preceded it, it is important to remember that that cruelty was catered for in the two charges of cruelty for which the defendant received separate, albeit concurrent, sentences.   Indeed, the judge noted that it was the defendant’s “sustained cruelty” to Hannah which “was, perhaps, more shocking than the act of killing which involved violent shaking for a short period”.  
11. For these reasons, I do not regard the features which the Secretary of State gave for departing from the recommendations of the trial judge and the Lord Chief Justice as being features which aggravated the defendant’s murder of Hannah over and above those which the trial judge and the Lord Chief Justice would have allowed for.   However, since the minimum term which I must set must take into account the seriousness of the defendant’s offences in the light of the general principles of the current law as set out in Schedule 21 to the Act, I have concluded that the appropriate minimum term to set in the defendant’s case is 15 years’ imprisonment.   From that term must be deducted the 8 months and 26 days which the defendant spent on remand in custody prior to sentence.  
12. I therefore order that the early release provisions in sections 28(5)-(8) of the Crime (Sentence) Act 1997 apply to the defendant as soon as he has served 14 years 4 months and 4 days of his sentence.   That is the minimum term which I set for his case.  

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