On 25 April 2017, Denver Beddows, 95, was given a two year suspended prison sentence for attempting to murder his wife in an act of mercy. This case illustrates the way in which judges are afforded the significant latitude in sentencing even in the most serious cases.
Mr Beddows’ wife, to whom he had been married for 65 years, repeatedly asked him to kill her so that she would not die in a care home. She had been involved in a car accident nine months previously, which led to an increased anxiety in her mental state and for which she was prescribed medication. On 4 February this year he finally acceded to his wife’s wish. Mr Beddows first attempted to kill his wife by hitting her with a ceramic pan before repeatedly striking her on the head with a hammer, causing multiple open skull fractures.
When speaking to the police, Mr Beddows said “…My wife was going mad. I tried to kill her – why didn’t she die?” and “...I would happily be a murderer – please tell me I killed her”.
The evidence from news reports shows that the Crown Prosecution Service clearly had enough evidence for a realistic prospect of a conviction, thereby satisfying the first stage of the Full Code Test for Crown Prosecutors. However, some may query whether it was in the public interest to prosecute a 95 year old man, with a long history of depression and suffering from a form of post-traumatic amnesia, for finally submitting to his wife’s repeated requests to kill her.
Under the Full Code Test, the age of a defendant is only a specific consideration in deciding the public interest if the defendant is under the age of 18 (see paragraph 4.12d). Recent cases, such as Ralph Clarke – a 101 year old man sentenced to 13 years imprisonment for historic sex offences – demonstrate that old age will not prevent individuals from being prosecuted. Health issues (both mental and physical) should be a relevant factor when considering the public interest in prosecuting an individual, but old age alone should not prevent anyone from being brought to justice.
A more important consideration is the seriousness of the offence. Unlike murder, where the prosecution only has to prove intent to cause grievous bodily harm, attempted murder requires proof of intent to kill. The Full Code Test states at paragraph 4.12a “The more serious the offence, the more likely it is that a prosecution is required”. Arguably, at least in terms of the mental element, attempted murder is more serious than murder itself. People’s lives are considered sacrosanct and no matter the motive behind someone attempting to end a life, such behaviour should not be condoned. Therefore, it is unquestionably in the public interest to prosecute this offence.
Given the seriousness of the offence committed, a two-year suspended sentence may appear very lenient. However, the sentencing guidelines on attempted murder are not intended to apply where there was “a genuine belief that the murder would have been an act of mercy” (see Section A, paragraph 10). This allowed the judge to move away from the inflexible application of the guidelines, which provide for a maximum sentence of life imprisonment and a range of 6-35 years’ imprisonment for attempted murder.
It is at this stage of the criminal justice system that the judge can take into account mitigating factors, such as Mr Beddows’ age, his remorse, that he only acceded after weeks of repetitive requests and that he himself had been suffering from depression and a form of post-traumatic amnesia. Fortunately, Mrs Beddows was making a significant recovery, had forgiven him and wanted to be reunited with him, all of which were taken into consideration. Finally, Mr Beddows would have been eligible to receive credit of up to one-third off his sentence for pleading guilty.
Whilst tragic, this story provides a measure of solace. It shows that there is room for compassion within the criminal justice system and that it is not always a blunt tool. This outcome was in the best interests of all parties. If Mr Beddows had been sent to prison there is the possibility that his wife’s fear of going to a care home would have been realised. Furthermore, the message to the public is that it is protected by the knowledge that an attempt to take a life, even if the motive is mercy, will be prosecuted.