Matthew Scott

Should Lucy Letby have been allowed to miss her sentencing?

Credit: Getty Images

Until a few years ago I had never heard of a single case of a murderer declining to go into the dock to hear their sentence. I doubt whether any of them even realised that they had the choice. 

Yet in recent years, the word seems to have spread and something of a fashion has developed for them to stay in their cells and refuse to enter the court-room. 

It hardly surprising that many bereaved relatives are astonished and disgusted that such a thing is possible. 

Judges, including Mr Justice Goss at Lucy Letby’s sentencing hearing, have decided that they have no power to do anything but accept this state of affairs. They are probably right, although their view rests in part on a 1990 case which decided only that the judge had no power to order that an unconvicted defendant should be physically forced to return to the witness box after deciding that his cross-examination by a co-accused had become intolerable. 

Do we really want hearings with the defendant bound and gagged in the dock?

What the killers who have decided to stay away have in common – apart from convictions for the most heinous of murders – is that each of them have been facing either an inevitable whole life term, as in Letby’s case, or a life sentence with a minimum term so long that it is virtually a whole life equivalent.   

If you are an ‘ordinary’ murderer it is very stupid not to attend your sentencing. You can, with varying degrees of sincerity, express remorse for your actions. You can instruct your barrister to put forward mitigation that might reduce your minimum term by a year or two. Even if that is impossible, at least by turning up you do not run the risk of annoying the judge who has to sentence you.

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