by Dr Elizabeth Yardley, Director of the Centre of Applied Criminology at Birmingham City University

This week a woman was sentenced to three-and-a-half years in prison for killing a man charged with sexually assaulting young boys on the east London estate where they lived. Sarah Sands, 32, carried out the killing within weeks of hearing that her 77-year-old neighbour, Michael Pleasted, had been released on bail ahead of his trial for molesting three young boys.

There will be surprise amongst some at what would appear to be a relatively ‘short’ sentence. However, that act of homicide  – taking someone’s life – can attract a range of legal penalties depending upon what type of homicide it is. The most well-known forms are murder and manslaughter.

Sarah Sands was cleared of the murder of Michael Pleasted in July and instead convicted of manslaughter – for which the Crown Prosecution Service sentencing guidelines differ.

The particular offence in Sarah Sands case is that of manslaughter on the grounds of loss of control. This concerns ‘voluntary manslaughter’ which essentially means that someone intended to cause death or serious injury to their victim but under circumstances that the law in this country considers as mitigating or lessening the severity of the offence.

The Judge will consider many things when deciding the sentence, which will include the nature and intensity of the loss of control, the factors around the provocation that led to it, whether that provocation had built up over a period of time and how the offender acted after the crime  – so were they quick to come forward and own up to it or did they try to conceal it?

The Judge will take a ‘starting point’ for the sentence  – which in this case was seven years, then consider whether there are aggravating factors – in others words factors that justify lengthening the sentence, or mitigating factors – factors that justify reducing the sentence. Mitigating factors include:

  • The offender was acting to protect someone else;
  • The offence was spontaneous, with a lack of premeditation;
  • There was evidence that the victim presented an ongoing danger to the offender or to someone else;
  • Actual – or reasonably anticipated – violence from the victim.

So whilst some will interpret this sentence as ‘You get a lighter sentence for killing a paedophile than someone who isn’t a paedophile’ – the decision making around this sentence was not as simple as this. It’s about the wider contextual factors around the homicide – what had happened leading up to the homicide and how did the events play out? This is not carte blanche for vigilantes and it shouldn’t be interpreted as such.

However, given the highly emotive topic of paedophilia and the strength of feeling against individuals convicted of these offences, this sentence was never going to pass quietly. The Judge emphasised that Sarah Sands had lost control rather than deliberately set out on a vigilante mission to rid the world of a paedophile. I fear that this will become lost and Sands – who has expressed remorse for her crime and appears to have conducted herself with dignity throughout the legal process, will be unwittingly labelled as a folk hero.

We shouldn’t turn this woman into a poster girl for paedophile hunters but use her case to strengthen calls for reforms to the systems that are supposed to safeguard children. Individuals like Pleasted are still slipping through the cracks. The safeguarding bucket still has holes in it so let’s put our efforts into convincing our lawmakers to tighten up this system.

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Dr Elizabeth Yardley

Dr Elizabeth Yardley

Reader in Criminology and Director of the Centre for Applied Criminology at Birmingham City University.