The murder of Danny O’Shea in east London last week has highlighted one particularly divisive issue – when can you classify a murder as racially aggravated?
There have been questions – particularly from what you might call ‘right wing organisations’ such as the BNP – as to what exactly distinguishes the murder of a black victim by a gang of white attackers from the murder of a white victim by a gang of black attackers.
While the mother of Danny O’Shea has explicitly stated that her son’s killing was not a racist murder, it is suggested that the mainstream media are all too happy to leap in with the term when whites are responsible. Similarly, it is claimed, they are often happy to use the term ‘honour killing’ when its application to a particular case is debatable.
Aside from whether this is an issue of ‘disingenuous language‘ used by the media, there is specific guidance on what does or doesn’t amount to racial aggravation. Namely that:
a) at the time of the offence (or shortly before or after), the offender demonstrates to the victim hostility based on the victim’s membership (or presumed membership) of a racial or religious group, or
b) the offence is motivated wholly or partly by hostility towards members of a racial or religious group based on their membership (or presumed membership) of that group.
Demonstrating hostility is not defined by the Act. The ordinary dictionary definition of hostile includes simply being “unfriendly”. Proving this limb of the offence requires evidence of words or actions which show hostility toward the victim. However, this hostility may be totally unconnected with the “basic” offence which may have been committed for other, non-racially or religiously motivated reasons. For example, an assault which takes place because of an argument over a parking place, but where the offender then utters racial abuse to the victim of the assault would come within the scope of this part of section 28.
If a murder is found to be racially aggravated then the starting point for the minimum term to be served in prison as part of a life sentence is 30 years. This places it on the same level as aggravation based on religious or sexual orientation.
In practice, it usually requires strong racist language to be used in the course of the attack. The police have not revealed any detailed information about what was said or done during the attack on Danny O’Shea, and (more to the point) have in fact stated that ‘there is nothing to suggest Danny’s murder is racially aggravated‘.
This could change. Or it could not. Speculation on the limited facts available, in a bid to put forward a particular political point of view, is not particularly helpful given that the investigation is ongoing. An 18 year-old man is dead and the priority is to ensure his killer or killers are brought to justice.
• List of deaths with a known or suspected racial element since 1991, compiled by the Institute of Race Relations
• Racial murders: Nearly half the victims are white – Guardian article from 2009 on Home Office figures