Throwing Away The Key

No. 46 of #50cases.

How long is a lifetime? 50, 60, 70 years? However long, it’s a long time time to lock someone up and throw away the key. This is what four men, Douglas Vinter, Jeremy Bamber and Peter Moore faced when convicted of murder. They were each convicted of terrible and gruesome murders. The problem wasn’t that they were locked away. It was that, however long they remained in prison, there was no possibility of release. There was no hope.

The three men were given “whole life tariffs”. A judge can give them if someone has committed a very serious crime. The men were concerned that they would never get a chance to review their sentence or have any prospect of release. Ever. Because under the whole life orders someone can only be released if they are terminally ill and about to die or are seriously physically incapacitated. In reality, they would never be given any chance to live their lives outside of the prison walls.

So they took their case to the European Court of Human Rights. They argued that their rights against being inhumanely treated were being violated. In 2013, the court agreed. The judges said prison was about punishment but also about rehabilitation. There must be good reasons behind a person’s imprisonment. They said that being able to review this is important as these reasons may very well change over a person’s lifetime. So, the UK couldn’t justify throwing away the key.

This case didn’t mean that judges had to stop using whole life tariffs. Afterwards, the European Court confirmed they could still impose them. A prisoner’s chance of being released at some point in the future was still tiny. But they had to be given a glimmer of hope.

This story is a short summary of a legal decision. You can read the full text here

Media Coverage of this story