‘One Punch Manslaughters’

Blog Category: The Justice System

It seems like a rare event, a freak occurrence – an innocent person is hit with a single punch and falls back on to the pavement, striking their head hard on the ground. Tragically they suffer a fractured skull and brain damage and die within a few days despite advanced medical treatment.

That is exactly what happened to Ekram Haque, a 67 year-old retired care worker. He was minding his own business, waiting outside a mosque with his three year-old granddaughter, when he was knocked to the floor by a 16 year-old boy for ‘fun’.

It was not the first time Leon Elcock had attacked a stranger in a so-called ‘happy slap’ attack. Minutes earlier he and his friends had attacked two men in the same street. Luckily they survived despite suffering head injuries that required medical treatment.

Elcock did not intend to kill Mr Haque – but surely he must have realised the risk?

Sadly far too few people realise how common such deaths are on the streets of London. In 2008 there were at least six cases that could be described as ‘one punch manslaughters’.

In 2009 there were eight, including Ekram Haque. This is not an insignificant number, when you consider it amounts to nearly seven per cent of the total number of both murders and manslaughters that year.

One might think the victims of these attacks were all elderly or susceptible to head injuries. Not so in the case of Jade Defoe, the half-brother of England footballer Jermaine Defoe. Jade was knocked to the floor with a single punch and died four days later after suffering a fractured skull and brain damage.

The families of these victims naturally expect justice for their loved ones. They expect the offenders to be punished severely for taking a life so casually.

In almost every case they are disappointed. The two killers of Ekram Haque, Leon Elcock and Hamza Lyzai, 15, were jailed for four-and-a-half years and three-and-a-half years respectively. The killer of Jade Defoe was jailed for three years. They will all walk out of jail in roughly 18 months, having served half their sentences before being released on licence.

The public outcry following the Ekram Haque sentence was inevitable and the Attorney General is now to review the case with a view to possibly referring it to the Court of Appeal.

It was only in December 2009 that the Lord Chief Justice said that in future attention must be given to the ‘problem of gratuitous violence in city centres and the streets.’ Anyone watching the CCTV footage of the attack on Ekram Haque would have no doubt that this was gratuitous violence.

But is it possible to reflect the fact that death was caused by just a single blow? Can you put a value on a life?

In 2001 the Appeal court highlighted the factors which could increase the sentence for manslaughter: burglary, robbery, public concern and the need for deterrence, whether violence of any kind was intended and the extent to which risk of serious injury or death was apparent to the offender.

On the other hand, one guideline case used by defence lawyers is R v Furby from 2006, relating to death caused by a single punch from a man who was a friend of the victim and had no previous convictions. In his case the sentence on a guilty plea was just 12 months. Such low sentences take account of the fact that if the victim had not died the attacker would only be charged with assault occasioning actual bodily harm, when the maximum sentence is five years imprisonment.

The killers of Ekram Haque were originally charged with murder. The prosecution accepted a plea to manslaughter on the basis that only one blow was struck with a fist and there was no intention to cause ‘serious bodily harm’. This decision was criticised by Ekram Haque’s son, although it is likely any jury would have cleared the pair of murder on the basis of lack of intent.

Elcock and Lyzai had a history of violence and so might expect harsher sentences. But in their favour they were only 14 and 15 years old at the time of the attack and there was no robbery involved. As a result of their guilty plea and their young age their sentences would have been reduced by a third.

The result appears to be deeply unfair. A family have lost their beloved father and grandfather, while the two teenagers who hit him ‘for fun’ will walk out of prison before their 18th birthdays.

UPDATE: The Attorney General has decided the sentences were not ‘unduly lenient’ and will not be appealing to the High Court for an increase.

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Further reading: An article in the Barrister Magazine on how many one punch manslaughter cases are punishing defendants for ‘bad luck’

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