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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:  MTS/ 826/2004)

Royal Courts of Justice
Strand, London, WC2A 2LL

28 July 2005

Before :


Between :



(Transcript of the Handed Down Judgment )

As Approved by the Court

Crown copyright©







1. Scott Cunningham was convicted of murder unanimously by a jury.  He was also convicted of four offences of actual bodily harm in relation to the same victim, his daughter Shannon.  Under the then regime, as the trial judge, I recommended the applicant serve a minimum term of 20 years.  The case was not referred to the Lord Chief Justice and no term has been set by the Secretary of State for the Home Office.  No representations have been made that a term of 20 years is excessive.  I have not been asked for an oral hearing nor do I consider one appropriate.  I have not received any representations from the defence, but I have received a victim impact statement from the baby’s mother dated 7th October 2004.  She has been severely affected not only by the loss of her child, but by the way in which the defendant has behaved towards her

2. Shannon Cunningham was a premature baby.  She lived and was cared for by her mother Shelley Wright and her father at the home of Mr and Mrs Cunningham senior.  The defendant gave the mother instructions on how to look after the baby and took a very active role in the baby’s care himself.  His parents described him as a devoted father.

3. When the baby was just a few weeks old she suffered a bruise to her mouth.  The defendant claimed this was an accident.  He deliberately tried to draw attention to the injury when the baby was in the cars of the mother.

4. The baby then suffered a bruise to her cheek, when in the care of the defendant, which he also claimed was an accident.  However, when the mother returned home, she discovered the baby was naked except for her nappy, her head was sticky and her dirty clothes had been put out with the rubbish.  The defendant smelled of alcohol.  Unfortunately, the defendant thought nothing of drinking heavily when the baby was in his care.

5. The baby also suffered two large bruises to her back which the defendant claimed had been caused when she was chocking and he had tried to help her breathe.  The mother who was in another room at the time heard what she described as two loud thuds at the time the injuries were inflicted upon the tiny baby.

6. These incidents of bruising were the subject of the first three counts of assault occasioning actual bodily harm.

7. When the baby died at just 3 months old, the doctors discovered evidence of further old injuries, namely metaphyseal “fractures” to the ends of her limbs.  According to the expert evidence, these indicated that the baby’s limbs had been grabbed, pulled and or twisted or that the baby had been violently shaken.  Although there had been effectively only one offence on the indictment of which the defendant was convicted reflecting these injuries, the jury’s verdict meant that the defendant had caused “fractures” of this kind on at least two occasions, possibly more.

8. The post mortem revealed a possible episode of shaking 48-72 hours before the baby died.  There was no count on the indictment to reflect this.

9. During the time these various injuries were inflicted, the defendant was often on the Internet researching “shaken baby syndrome” and asking his mother if she thought Shelley might be abusing the child.  On the jury’s verdict, therefore, there was a degree of planning on the part of this defendant.  He was plainly aware of what he was doing to the baby but failed to seek help.

10. On the night of 16th/17th October 2002 the defendant woke Shelley asking her “What have you done?” Beside her, carefully positioned, lay the baby, dreadfully and fatally injured.  A major assault had taken place in the kitchen; there was blood on the units, the floor and the ceiling.  Shannon’s head was staved in.  Her skull was extensively fractured.  The experts said these were the worst injuries they had ever seen.  There were also fractures to her jaw, collarbone, and several ribs.  The experts agreed the most likely cause of the head injuries was stamping on the baby’s head.  The defendant had a blood alcohol level of 200 milligrams (on a limit for driving of 80 milligrams).

11. The only issue before he jury was for them to decide who was responsible for the injuries.  The defendant did all he could to lay the blame on Shelley accusing her of being a poor and inadequate mother.

12. In my observations at the time of trial I refer to the fact that the defendant stage-managed the scene so that he could persuade people Shelley was responsible for all the baby’s injuries.  The prosecution described him, in my judgment rightly, as a “control freak”.  He reacted very strangely to fatherhood and to the death of his baby.  At one point in his evidence, the found what he had to say so chilling they asked if the defendant had seen a psychiatrist.  A Dr Alcock has examined the defendant and found nothing to suggest any mental disorder but the doctor has described the defendant’s depression following the death of his twin brother.  Given the defendant’s attitude at trial, it goes without saying that I detected no remorse.

13. This was not the case of a parent lacking in sleep, driven to despair by a baby’s crying, with nowhere to turn, who resorts to a sudden short-lived bout of violence.  This defendant had a comfortable home, the constant support of his parents and a number of people ready and willing to help look after the baby.  The only mitigation, therefore, appears to be the loss of his brother an the effect upon him and the fact that he is still a relatively young man.  The aggravating features include the fact that this was the most dreadful assault upon a very tiny baby in the defendant’s care and that this was the culmination of a series of assaults upon her.  She must have suffered considerably during her short life and the final sustained assault.  Given the nature of the assault he must have intended to kill the child.  Knowing what he had done the applicant did his very best to pass the blame to the mother of the child thereby adding immeasurably to her grief.

14. I am satisfied that , if one took into account the provisions of Schedule 21 of the Criminal Justice Act 2004, the appropriate starting point  would be one of 15 years.  This was, however, an offence committed in October 2002 and the relevant guidance to setting the minimum term is to be derived from the practice statement handed down on 31st May 2002.  The starting point for this offence according to that statement is one of 15/16 years, involving the murder of a child.

15. I am satisfied, having reviewed the facts and having borne in mind the practice of the Secretary of State for the Home Department at the time the offence was committed, that a term of 20 years is appropriate and I so order.  From that term is to be deducted the period of 3 months and 16 days during which the defendant was in custody before trial.

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