19th October 2016 would have been the 98th birthday of the former judge Sir Leslie Boreham. As the son of a former chief constable it was perhaps inevitable that he would work in a legal capacity and in 1965 he was appointed Queen’s Counsel, where friends knew him as ‘a gentle and courteous silk of the old school’. He served the profession diligently, eventually becoming a judge and having a number of high-profile cases coming before him. In 1981 he was instrumental in convincing the attorney general Sir Michael Havers that Peter Sutcliffe was deceiving doctors and Sutcliffe should not be able to use a defence of diminished responsibility for his crimes. As a judge he was known to favour hard sentences, and Sutcliffe received 20 life sentences with a recommendation that he should serve at least 30 years.
Boreham was also known to be sympathetic to women. In 1972 he sentenced a man to 15 months for an indecent assault on a female acquaintance. Although the man claimed that he had perhaps misread the signs, Boreham said, “I cannot believe it takes 20 minutes for a man to understand that when a woman says no, it means no.” In 1974 he gave an abused wife a suspended sentence after she stabbed her violent husband to death with scissors, and in a 1986 civil case he awarded £96,000 to a woman whose breasts had been wrongly removed, stating that the loss was “difficult for a mere male” to comprehend.
His sympathy for the women who came before him and his insight into their issues – which, in the 70s in particular, could be said to be years ahead of his time – make it all the harder to understand why, in 1970, he knowingly allowed an innocent woman to go to prison where she would die in obscurity, having served a longer sentence than any woman in UK penal history save Myra Hindley.
Michael and Carole Hanson had been married for just eight months when they came before the notoriously strict Mr Justice Melford Stevenson in July 1970, charged with the vicious murder of 10 year old Christine Beck. She had been raped and then stabbed to death, and there were salacious whispers of a sadistic sex game gone wrong. Michael and Carole were jointly charged with Christine’s death. Both plead not guilty and both retained separate counsel.
Proceedings were four days old when Michael Hanson approached Leslie Boreham, who was his QC. Hanson admitted that his wife had nothing to do with the murder and that he alone had killed Christine Beck. He had implicated his wife solely out of selfishness and jealousy. If he were in prison, he explained, he thought his wife might ‘carry on with other men’. If she were in prison, she would have to stay faithful to him.
Although he admitted the crime to his counsel, Hanson refused to change his plea to guilty. Boreham never brought up Hanson’s confession and the jury never heard about it. Michael and Carole were both found guilty and Judge Stevenson recommended that they serve at least twenty years. An FoI request for the case papers was been denied after a 9-month decision period: “To release this information after such a prolonged period of time would have the same endangering effect on the mental health of the victim’s family as releasing it for the first time.” This is a fair point, but it does mean that we cannot scrutinise the evidence against Carole, or know what discussions were had and decisions were made in light of her husband’s admission that she was not involved. The decision has only prolonged the miscarriage of justice against Carole.
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“The tariff is the minimum period a life sentence prisoner must serve to meet the requirements of retribution and deterrence before being considered for release. After this minimum period has been served release will only take place where the prisoner is judged no longer a risk of harm to the public.” – Hilary Benn, 2002
The current laws around minimum terms – popularly known as tariffs – were defined in The Criminal Justice Act 2003. As outlined in the quote above, prisoners must serve this minimum term before being considered eligible for parole and the act contains sentencing guidelines for judges depending on the nature of the criminal act. Whilst judges are not bound by the guidelines, they must provide a commentary when they depart from them.
The 2003 act was introduced in response to a number of high-profile legal defeats for the government. Until November 2000, the Home Secretary retained the right to set the minimum term. In the case of child murderers Robert Thompson and Jon Venables, the trial judge set their sentence at eight years. Conscious of the public revulsion against them Home Secretary Michael Howard increased their minimum term to 15 years, a move described as “institutionalised vengeance [by] a politician playing to the gallery” by Lord Donaldson (the Home Secretary had accepted a petition signed by 280,000 readers of The Sun calling for a longer sentence). Howard, who liked to be seen as tough on crime and twice voted for the reintroduction of the death penalty in certain circumstances, saw his decision overturned by the House of Lords in 1997. Following this and similar cases that went all the way to the European Court of Human Rights only to be defeated, home secretaries lost that power and now only the Court of Appeal and Supreme Court have the power to extend a prisoner’s minimum term.
At the time of the Hanson’s trial, the current guidelines around minimum terms were not in operation and what there was operated in a looser fashion. In 1984, the guidelines around minimum terms were codified and at that point prisoners who were currently serving life sentences had their sentences reviewed.
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Following their guilty verdict and sentencing, Michael Hanson repeated his confession to Carole’s lawyers. They mounted an appeal against her conviction and lodged an application for a new trial. Both were heard by Lord Justice Widgery. Both were denied. Widgery said that if her husband’s confession had been “less eccentric” she may well have had a better outcome:
“She was unlucky, but ill luck does not itself justify a conclusion that the verdict was unsafe.”
Twenty years later, when asked why she had not been considered for parole once she was within three years of the original twenty year recommendation – the usual commencement for such considerations – had been reached, a Prison Service spokesperson replied that “it appears that a home secretary may well have reviewed the case and set a higher tariff.”
In January 1997, Michael Howard told the press that for some prisoners, life sentences would mean exactly that. Four days later, on February 2nd, Carole Hanson was found dead in the bath in the medical wing at Cookham Jail in Kent. The official verdict was natural causes, but a fellow inmate who called The Independent newspaper under condition of anonymity said that Carole killed herself over the prospect of never being allowed out of jail.
At present, those prisoners who have received a mandatory life sentence are usually freed after around fourteen years. For those who receive a non-mandatory life sentence, the time spent in prison has been declining and currently stands at just nine years. Carole Hanson was only 50 when she died, and had been in prison for 27 years.