Catrona MacLennan: Eleven years for wife murder? That's not enough

Gregory Meads was sentenced to 11 years for the murder of his wife, Helen. Photo / NZPA
Gregory Meads was sentenced to 11 years for the murder of his wife, Helen. Photo / NZPA

Why do men who kill their wives or partners receive such short jail sentences?

The Herald is this week highlighting New Zealand's shocking family violence problem. The ultimate outcome of some of that violence is the killing of women by their partners. But we don't treat this as an aggravating factor in our law.

Following the home invasion homicide of Beverly Bouma in 1998, there was a public outcry and Parliament moved to increase penalties for home invasion homicides. The Sentencing Act 2002 carried through that treatment of home invasions as an aggravating factor. Section 104 provides that a minimum period of 17 years' imprisonment for murder must be imposed in specified circumstances, unless it would be "manifestly unjust" to do so.

Those circumstances include calculated or premeditated planning; home invasions; or a "high level of brutality, cruelty, depravity or callousness".

This is problematic for domestic violence homicides. Our law continues to treat planning a homicide as an aggravating factor, but losing control and impulsively killing someone as less serious. This rewards loss of control by violent men, instead of punishing it.

It also means that domestic violence homicides often fall into the category of manslaughter, rather than murder. They are accordingly treated less seriously by the law.

Further, we do not treat domestic violence homicides as home invasions. Why not? English law refers to men thinking of their homes as their "castles". But, for women, the home is the most dangerous place. Why is it worse in law for a stranger to enter a home and kill someone, than it is for an intimate partner to do so?

In the following recent examples of sentences for domestic violence homicides, 11 years' jail seems to be the typical sentence.

In 2011, Gregory Meads was sentenced to 11 years for the murder of his wife, Helen. Justice Chris Allan said the case did not reach the threshold for a 17-year sentence as "it did not involve the high degree of brutality, depravity or callousness required to engage the provisions of s104(e)." Why is depriving children of their mother not treated as an aggravating factor in law? And why is killing women seeking to leave violent relationships not aggravating?

In 2015 Martin Schofield was sentenced to 11 years in prison for the murder of his partner Katrina Drummond by hitting her on the back of the head with a hammer at least seven times. She died at the scene and one of her daughters arrived home and found her body. Both Justice Kit Toogood and the Crown agreed the case did not meet the threshold for a 17-year minimum non-parole period. The judge said, "I have considered other cases involving multiple blows with a blunt weapon to the head where that standard has been met and I do not believe that your offending, although seriously violent, is comparable." Why is leaving your partner's body for her child to find not an aggravating factor?

Mandeep Singh was sentenced to 13 years' jail for the murder of his wife and a concurrent eight years for the attempted murder of her friend.

Jiwan Ram was sentenced to 11 years and five months' jail for the murder of his partner Bimla Wati.

Jesse Ferris-Bromley was in April sentenced to eight years' jail for the killing of his partner Virginia Ford, who was 20.

In 2007, Justice John Priestley sentenced Joseph Kengike to 10 years' jail for the manslaughter of his partner. Kengike stomped on Moana Kapua's chest so hard he left a footprint on her abdomen, strangled her, and severely beat her.

Justice Priestley highlighted our shocking domestic violence record and said, "Those are grim figures which in my view justify a significant loading of your sentence to reflect the purposes of denunciation and deterrence." However, the Court of Appeal overturned the domestic violence loading and reduced the sentence to eight years. The judges said they were not unsympathetic to the judge's view that domestic violence was a serious problem, but consistency of sentencing was important.

We need the following:

• A full review of sentences in domestic violence homicide cases to ascertain whether 11 years' jail is in fact the normal tariff and, if it is, an increase in penalties

• Reform of sentencing laws to make domestic violence an aggravating factor.

Catriona MacLennan is a barrister and journalist.

Debate on this article is now closed.

- NZ Herald

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