Neutral Citation No. [2007] NILST 10




Tariff certified by the Secretary of State under Life Sentences (NI) Order 2001 on 19-01-07.











Ruling by Kerr LCJ









1. On 20 November 2000, just as his trial for the murder, abduction, rape and buggery of Julie Hamill was due to commence, the prisoner, Alastair Clifford Leighton, asked to be re-arraigned and pleaded guilty to all those charges.  He had pleaded not guilty when he had originally been arraigned on 15 September 2000.  At the time that she was murdered, Ms Hamill was twenty eight years old.  The prisoner was thirty-four.  He was sentenced by McCollum LJ to life imprisonment for the murder of Ms Hamill and to concurrent terms of imprisonment of nine years’ imprisonment for abduction and twelve years on each of the offences of rape and buggery.  He has been in custody since 10 February 2000.


2. Although the prisoner was offered the opportunity to make oral representations through legal advisers on the tariff to be set under article 11 of the Life Sentences (NI) Order 2001, he elected to have this determined on the papers.  The tariff represents the appropriate sentence for retribution and deterrence and is the length of time the prisoner will serve before his case is sent to the Life Sentence Review Commissioners who will assess suitability for release on the basis of risk.


Factual background


3. At approximately 10pm on 2 February 2000, Julie Hamill and her friend Nuala Brady went to the Harbour Bar in Portrush.  About a half an hour later, they shared a taxi to Kelly’s night club with two men they had met in the public house.  When they arrived at Kelly’s, the two young women separated from the men and went to order a drink at the bar in an area of the club known as the ‘Gods’.  They sat at a tall table a short distance from the entrance to the ‘Gods’ and this became their base for the evening.  At various times they were separated from each other such as when Ms Brady went to the dance floor or when she left the bar to telephone her boyfriend.  Between 1am and 1.30am she noticed that Ms Hamill was no longer standing in the vicinity of the table that had been their base.  At 1.40am when the band stopped playing, Ms Brady had still not found Ms Hamill.  Eventually she was asked to leave by one of the doormen. She then went to Ms Hamill’s flat and found that she had not returned home.


4. At 6am on 3 February 2000, Mr Maurice Quinn left his house to go for a walk on the beach at Portstewart.  At approximately 6.40am he saw a naked body lying face down on the beach. A knife with the blade broken off 1.5 inches from the hilt was found approximately twenty five feet from the body. At 11.31am the body was transported from the beach to Antrim Area Hospital and at 1.45pm it was identified as Julie Hamill.


5. On Friday 4 February 2000, Mr Cyril Hall discovered a pair of black ladies shoes lying on the grass verge on Islandtasserty Road, Portrush, several miles from where Ms Hamill’s body had been found.  In the same area, a number of items of clothing were found lying on a bank that led into a small stream. Some of the clothes were in the stream. All the items of clothing and the shoes were identified as belonging to Julie Hamill.


6. Four video tapes of the events outside Kelly’s nightclub on the evening of 2 February 2000 were handed over to the police on 3 February and 4 February 2000.   In these a man could be seen carrying a woman from the night club through the exit from the ‘Gods’ at approximately 1.45am.  Initially one of the doormen helped the man to carry the woman.  At the steps outside another man took over from the doorman.  Both men carried the woman, each holding her under her arms and legs.  They took her away in the direction of the car park.  A number of different witnesses described the woman being carried out of the club, as follows: - “appeared to be unconscious”, “very drunk”, “lifeless”, “totally unconscious or bordering on it”, “she was legless” and “totally out of it”. From the video evidence, witnesses identified the woman as Julie Hamill and the man who had carried her from the club as Alastair Leighton.


Police interviews with the prisoner


7. In the early morning of 10 February 2000, police officers went to the prisoner’s parents’ house with the intention of arresting him for the murder of Julie Hamill.   They did not find the prisoner there or at his girlfriend’s house but were then informed that he was in the inquiry office of Coleraine Police Station with his father.  On arrival at the station, Detective Sergeant Logan approached Alastair Leighton and arrested him for involvement in the murder of Julie Hamill. The prisoner was cautioned and made no reply.


8. Over 10 and 11 February 2000 there were a number of police interviews with the prisoner.  In an interview that took place on 10 February 2000 between 1.14pm and 1.55pm, he stated that he had arrived at Kelly’s night club with a friend at approximately 11pm on 2 February.  At the end of the night he had helped a girl out of the club and then gave her a lift in his car to Portrush where he had left her off.  This is the relevant passage from his account: -


“So I was coming down the stairs into Gods and at the bottom of the stairs this girl bumped into me and I said sorry and she said sorry and then she said are you going into the town and I said yes. I says are you looking for a lift, she says aye. She looked to have a bit of drink in her and ah I says well if you’re going come on now ‘cos I lost my mate and I’m going looking for him and she said that’s ok, but when she took a step she seemed to stagger a bit and I said are you all right and that she said naw, can you give me a hand so I gave her a hand and then walking out to the door, just as she got nearer the door she sorta fell a bit and there was some fella gave me a hand wi’ her out to the car. I dropped her off in Portrush so I did”.


9. The prisoner told the interviewing officers that he had dropped the girl off just past a petrol station in Portrush as she had said that she was going to be sick. After leaving her there, he had driven around Portrush and stopped at a chip shop and there bought chips and a burger which he ate in his car. He then gave an account of having gone to his friend’s house because he had not been able to find him at the end of the night in Kelly’s.  After that he drove past his girlfriend’s house.  He had just split up with her a short time previously.  He wanted to see if she was still awake.  When he saw there was no light on in her house he decided to go home to his parents’ house.  He claimed that he did not go back to look for the girl that he had given a lift to earlier.


10. In an interview on 10 February 2000 from 3.20pm to 4.10pm, the prisoner was asked why he murdered Julie Hamill. On three occasions, the prisoner denied killing her, saying, “I didn’t do it”, “I didn’t kill the girl” and “I never done it”. During a further interview later on the same day, he repeated the story about having helped a girl out of the nightclub and being assisted by another man to carry her to his car.  He then let her out of his car at a petrol filling station because she said she was going to be sick. The prisoner denied leaving the woman dead on Portstewart strand and, on two occasions, he denied strangling her. He continued to repeatedly deny having killed the victim throughout further interviews on that date.


11. After the interviewing officers told the prisoner that Julie Hamill was the subject of a savage beating about the face, that she had been stabbed around the neck and in a certain part of her upper body more than once and that she died of strangulation, the prisoner again denied touching her or killing her. The interviewing officers then informed the prisoner that Julie Hamill was raped and that she had been buggered as traces of semen were found in her anal passage. They explained to the prisoner how forensic evidence could connect a person with a rape and, consequently in this case, the murder.  The prisoner was reminded that they had taken a swab from his mouth to check his DNA against the swabs taken from the victim’s body but the prisoner still did not make an admission of guilt.


12. Ultimately, after further questioning the prisoner admitted murdering Julie Hamill.  He said that after she had been placed in the car, she was “lying out for the count” across the back seat.  The prisoner then got in the car and drove the victim to the White Rocks, Portrush.  He told the interviewing officers how he had sex with the victim as she lay across the back seat of the car.  He told the interviewing officers that he had penetrated both the victim’s vagina and anus and that there was no reaction from the victim while he was doing this to her.  The prisoner denied that, after raping the victim, he decided to kill her.  When asked why he did decide to kill her, the prisoner replied, “I don’t know what came over me”.


13. In an interview on 11 February 2000 the prisoner said that at the White Rocks the victim was breathing but “seemed out of it” and wasn’t resisting him when he had sex with her. The prisoner denied beating her or choking her before having sex with her. In an interview on 11 February 2000 from 11.53am to 12.08am, it was put to the prisoner that the victim’s blood alcohol content was three times over the legal limit but that it was hard to believe she did not come around if she had been raped and buggered. The prisoner said, “Well she didn’t come round”. The police suggested to the prisoner that if the victim was unconscious throughout this she wouldn’t have been able to identify him so it seemed unnecessary and cruel to kill her.


14. After having sexually assaulted Ms Hamill the prisoner left the White Rocks and drove into Portrush to the chip shop.  He recounted how he then ate a burger and chips while the victim was still lying motionless across the back seat of the car. When asked about the callousness of going to get food and eating it in the car while his victim was still lying on the back seat, he said, “I don’t know what was going through my head”.  It was pointed out that it would be strange to leave the victim in the car while he went for chips as she could come round at any time and try to escape or call for help. He replied, “I dunno what was going through my head” and then said, “I don’t even know why I done it”.


15. He told the interviewing officers that he then drove to Portstewart strand. He drove out onto the sand where he removed the remainder of the victim’s clothes, pulled her out of the car, trailed her face up by her feet down the beach to the sea until she was in water one foot deep. The prisoner told the interviewing officers that he put the victim in the water thinking that the tide might take her out and then he said, “I just don’t know what was going through my head”. He explained that he had taken an old fishing knife out of the car and brought it with him onto the beach. When he had pulled the victim down the beach to the sea, he pushed the knife down into her throat.  The blade broke and the prisoner threw the knife into the sea. He said that he may have stabbed her in the throat twice. When asked why he stuck the knife in the victim’s throat, the prisoner replied, “I dunno, I dunno what came over me”. Detective Constable Hall asked the prisoner if it was the case that at this stage he realised he had had sex with somebody without their consent and was scared of being caught and the prisoner replied, “I think so”.


16. The prisoner described how he placed the victim face down in the water. He told the interviewers that she did not struggle.  The only noise she made was to moan while lying in the water.  He told the police officers that he then started stamping on the right side of her head. When asked why he did this, the prisoner replied, “Dunno” and then said, “I really don’t know”. He told them that he had no plan and said, “I dunno what came over me”. When asked if he intended to kill the victim, the prisoner replied that he must have done.  The interviewing officers asked him what reason he had for killing the victim and he said, “I dunno”. In a later interview he was asked if at some stage during the night he formed the intention to kill the victim and the prisoner admitted, “Yes but I didn’t know what was going through my head at the time”. The prisoner told the interviewing officers that he had been on the beach for approximately an hour with the victim until she had stopped moaning. He was asked if he kept stamping on the victim’s head for so long to ensure that she would be dead and he replied, “I suppose it is”. He was asked if he was satisfied or if he then assumed she was dead and the prisoner answered, “I just assumed”.


17. After killing Ms Hamill the prisoner got back in his car and drove off the beach.  He made his way to a point near the end of the Islandtasserty Road where he dumped the victim’s clothes by placing them in a hole in the hedge. Then he drove home arriving there at approximately 4am.  He said that his mother was awake and he tried to conceal from her that his clothes were wet. She asked what had kept him and he told her he had lost his friend. The prisoner told the interviewing officers that he dumped his own clothes in a skip the next day at Loguestown Industrial Estate. He cleaned his car on the Saturday after the murder.


18. When asked by the interviewing officers about how he felt the next day, the prisoner said, “Bad”. The officers informed the prisoner that there was a lot of manhandling of the victim’s throat but the prisoner denied doing this saying, “I can’t remember, I just mind kicking away”. The interviewing officers explained that the damage to the victim’s throat is what killed her but the prisoner said, “I can’t remember grabbing her around the neck. I can’t remember”. The prisoner said he might have stamped on or kicked the victim’s neck but could not remember holding his foot down on her neck. However, when asked by the police if this was a possibility, the prisoner did admit that it was possible he held his foot down on her neck. The police questioned the prisoner about cuts on the victim’s left hand and asked him if she was ever trying to fend off the knife. The prisoner replied, “Naw she never moved”.


19. In the course of an interview on 11 February 2000, the prisoner’s solicitor stated that he had been very emotionally upset over the past few days and that he had had bouts of crying which showed an element of remorse.  The police agreed with this.  When the interviewing officers asked the prisoner if he was sorry for what he had done, the prisoner replied, “Yes, really sorry”. When asked what he could do to improve the situation the prisoner said, “What could I do to improve this?”


Report of Autopsy


20. Dr Alastair Bentley, Deputy State Pathologist for Northern Ireland, conducted a post-mortem examination of the body of Ms Hamill at Antrim Area Hospital on 3 February 2000. These are the conclusions that he reached: -


“1. Julie Hamill died as a result of external compression of the neck, that is strangulation.


2. On the front of the neck there were a large number of abrasions (grazes). Under the skin, within the front and at the sides of the neck there were multiple bruises of the muscles and other soft tissues. These indicate that external pressure had been exerted on the front of the neck. There was no discrete band of injury to suggest that a ligature had been used. The multiplicity and distribution of bruising of the tissues under the skin are in keeping with pressure being exerted by a hand, that is manual strangulation. The presence of such extensive abrasion of the skin is a somewhat unusual feature. Some of the linear abrasions could have been caused by fingernails, either the assailant’s or the victim’s, digging into the skin. Also abrasions could have been caused by the application of the roughened palm of a hand.


3. Strangulation by whatever means exerts pressure on the many important structures of the neck. In particular the blood vessels can be compressed, interrupting the flow of blood to and from the brain. As a consequence unconsciousness can occur in a matter of seconds, however it is impossible to say after what period of time death occurred. The presence of bruises within the neck indicate that death was not instantaneous, as bruising can only occur while the heart is beating. The fact that pressure must have been sustained for a period of time is confirmed by the presence of petechial haemorrhages on the membranous covering (conjunctivae) of the eyes, the inner aspects of the lips and on the covering (mucosa) of the throat (pharynx). Petechial haemorrhages are pinpoint areas of bleeding due to increased pressure of blood within the veins of the head which cannot drain, in this instance due to pressure on the neck.


4. On the left side of the neck there were two superficial stab wounds, one passing steeply upwards and one passing steeply downwards. These did not breach any major blood vessels or any other important structures and would not have contributed to death.


5. On the front and both sides of the face there were a number of blunt force injuries, mainly bruises. These were consistent with multiple blows that could have been inflicted by punching, kicking, stamping or the use of a blunt weapon. There were no underlying injuries of the facial bones, skull or brain and it is unlikely that they contributed to death.


6. There were a number of injuries on the left hand. On the back of the hand there was a large bruise. While this is a non-specific injury, the possibility that this was a defensive injury, sustained while Julie Hamill tried to protect herself from blows, cannot be excluded. In addition there were three small incised wounds (cuts inflicted by a sharp weapon) on the hand. These are consistent with defensive injuries, being sustained while she tried to protect herself from an assault with a sharp weapon.


7. There were no injuries of the external genitalia, vagina or anus. This, however, does not preclude intercourse before or after death.


8. From the findings at autopsy it was not possible to say over what period of time the assault took place. Also it was not possible to say how many assailants were involved, however all the injuries could have been inflicted by one individual.


9. Natural disease played no part in the fatal sequence.


10. Toxicological analysis of samples of blood and urine taken at autopsy revealed high concentrations of alcohol.  The concentration in the blood lay at a level over three times greater than the legal limit for driving and is likely to have produced a marked degree of intoxication. Toxicological analyses excluded the presence of common drugs.


11. The findings at autopsy and on laboratory investigations showed no evidence of drowning”.


Personal background of the offender


21. The prisoner was born in Ballymoney and is an only child.  He has worked as a factory worker and in various labouring jobs.  At the time of the murder he was working as a farm labourer. He married in 1986 and has one son from that marriage.  He and his wife divorced in 1994.  The prisoner had a partner in February 2000 but that liaison has now ended. In the course of the plea in mitigation this was described as “a stormy relationship”.


22. The NIO papers included a psychiatric report from Doctor Bownes. This report had been requested by the prisoner’s solicitors.  Dr Bownes had examined him at HMP Maghaberry on 27 February 2003. His report contained the following conclusions: -


·        there was no evidence of abnormality of the prisoner’s mood or functioning such as would suggest that he had committed the offences as a result of a reactive depressive order, acute stress disorder or any classifiable mental illness.  His capacity to exercise judgment and control over his actions at the material time was not impaired.


·        the prisoner did not suffer from any organic mental disorder due to brain disease, damage or dysfunction or from any physical disease.


·        the prisoner had ‘neurotic’ tendencies and long-standing, personality based difficulties in dealing with stress and in coping with unpleasant personal feelings such as worry, unhappiness and frustration.


·        at the material time the prisoner was not intoxicated with alcohol to such a level that he might not have been consciously aware of his actions.  It was possible that his alcohol consumption had intensified negative mood swings, lowering self-control and impairing coping strategies.


23. Dr Bownes could find no evidence suggesting that the prisoner was suffering from any condition that gave rise to “an inevitable ongoing risk of aggressive, sexually offensive and socially inappropriate behaviours on his release”.  He felt that the prisoner had taken the ‘first steps’ in addressing one of the important components of his behaviour that culminated in the killing of Ms Hamill.  The exact prognosis regarding future risk of further offensive behaviour generally and regarding women in particular was uncertain




24. The prisoner has a number of previous convictions of a relatively trivial nature.  They consist of five road traffic offences, four theft offences and one offence of criminal damage.


Representations of the victim’s family


25. The victim’s mother and her three brothers have submitted representations. Mrs Christine Hamill stated that she could never hope to mention all the little things which the bereaved family had to deal with on a daily basis.  She said: -


“When [the prisoner] took my daughter’s life he changed all our lives irrevocably.  Nothing will be the same again, ever.  He has robbed us of all feeling and joy in life, we just go through the motions daily hoping that if we do this or if we do that things will get back to normal but we know deep down, that things in our lives will never be ‘normal’ again”.


26. Julie was the eldest child and the only daughter of the family.  Mrs Hamill described her as the ‘hub’ of their family and said that without her there was a ‘dark empty feeling that never goes away’.  She explained that her husband retired from work as he could not cope with meeting people and was in a state of shock for many months as, indeed were the other members of the family.  He would not talk about Julie’s death.  Her husband’s leaving work has had a financial impact on the family and they do not now go out as they used to.  They do not have the same confidence as before and only felt safe at home.  


27. Mrs Hamill stated that she had become very ill after Julie’s death and was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.  She believed, although it had not been proved, that shock and stress aggravated dormant cells and that Alastair Leighton had played a large part in her illness.  In relation to the prisoner Mrs Hamill said: -


“Leighton was sentenced on four counts and showed no remorse at all. He planned it well and left her body on the beach to be washed out to sea and only by the grace of God and an early morning jogger was she brought home to us again. To think he could do such evil things to an innocent girl and then go and eat fish and chips before he disposed of her body is impossible to take in to this very day.”


28. Martin Hamill, one of the victim’s brothers, wrote that his life had changed forever after Julie’s death. He described his special relationship with his sister and the loss he now felt: -


“Julie was three years older than me, as my only sister inevitably we had a special relationship. Even today I often find my first reaction to many of the events in my life both big and small, is to share them with Julie.  I cannot describe the sorrow that comes with the realisation that this is not possible, and she is gone forever”.


29. He reflected on the events that his sister had missed and the unfairness of this: -


“Julie will never now get married, she didn’t live to share the joy of her brother’s wedding, she didn’t live to see the birth of her first niece. There is so much more she will not see and we will not get to share. The injustice of this is hard to bear”.


30. Mr Hamill explained that he had been working abroad at the time Julie was murdered.  After her death he had remained living in Northern Ireland and this had given rise to difficulties in relation to his employment: -


“I was working abroad at the time Julie was murdered and did not return afterwards. I have indefinitely postponed my lifelong ambition to work abroad [in order] to be close to my family. I found it difficult to settle on my return to work (in home UK office). I had particular problems relating to my colleagues who were aware of the circumstances of Julie’s death. I left my job last year to start anew at another company. I have suffered a range of physical symptoms related to stress following Julies murder. These have included chest pains, muscle spasms, nightmares, insomnia and depression”.


31. Dr Gregory Hamill, another brother, explained how his life had changed completely and how he suffered grief and a sense of loss every day since his sister’s death.  He described how the murder of his sister had affected him and his parents: -


“Panic with every late night phone call, every time my wife is home later than expected or out of the blue at work I feel I need to check up on her and the baby’s whereabouts. Always double checking, always carrying a mobile phone, don’t go anywhere alone – we have lost the right to do every day things without the worry that evil can strike again.


My children will never know an aunt. Can I really give them the same freedom as other kids?


My parents have lost independence and any confidence to leave home and enjoy life. My mother’s health has declined sharply and in each member of my family I see degrees of insomnia, anxiety and depression as a result of this crime. I know this because of my occupation and I go through it myself”.


32. Dr Hamill had been working in Australia when Julie was murdered but now felt he must be close to home to be able to support and spend time with his parents and brothers. He wrote about the grief and anxiety of the process in setting a tariff for the prisoner: -


“To see the grief and anxiety provoked by such a process as this, and to contemplate a future when the murderer returns to the community, I know this will be intensified ten fold when that day comes to be”.


33. Another brother, Eamonn Hamill, described in his written representation how, before his sister’s death, he had his own house in Belfast, enjoyed fun and independence, an active social life and had many friends.  After her murder his life changed dramatically: -


“I no longer enjoy meeting new people as I feel I can only trust those who are closest to me.  After Julie’s death I moved back home to be near my family.  Julie was the ‘go between’ in our family so we were all left feeling isolated as well as devastated by her death.  Julie’s death affected my mother and father so badly I was concerned both for their mental as well as their physical well being.  My father had to consequently close his business as he could no longer handle interacting with the public, one year later my mother got cancer and two years on is critically ill.  It is a well known fact that depression when fighting [cancer] can have severe consequences – I have no doubt that my mother’s is a direct consequence of Leighton’s actions.


I used to enjoy a good night’s sleep however since Julie’s death and since the day in court I listened to details of what Leighton subjected Julie to before and whilst he murdered her, I have never slept properly since due to nightmares in which I depict scenes of her death and am unable to help her. At the time of Julie’s death I gave up advancement courses I was doing in work, my career suffered because of this and it is only now that I have enough motivation to think of going back”.


34. Mr Hamill said that his whole family had been devastated by Julie’s death.  They took some comfort from the fact that the prisoner would spend many years to come in jail.


Representations of the prisoner’s solicitors


35. The prisoner’s solicitors submitted representations on his behalf in the form of an opinion from counsel.  It made the following points: -


“1. The defendant co-operated with the police in that he admitted murdering the deceased in interview.  He denied the buggery charge.


2. Although initially pleading not guilty to all counts at arraignment he subsequently pleaded guilty to all counts prior to the commencement of the trial. This was after consultation with legal advisors.


3. He pleaded guilty to the buggery charge despite practically no evidence of this charge on the papers. This plea together with the other pleas obviously saved not only a full trial but also saved the family of the deceased what could only have been a very traumatic experience.


4. Although there was a question, mainly in the media that the defendant administered drugs to the deceased prior to abduction this was denied and more importantly there was no evidence whatsoever to support this.


5. The defendant expressed remorse for his actions and indeed still is ‘riddled with deep’ remorse. (see letter attached)


6. The defendant is making every effort in prison not only to help, improve and sort himself out but to improve his literacy level – see various certificates attached.


7. The defendant has been working hard for charity whilst in prison e.g. Northern Ireland Hospice.


8. All in all the defendant is working hard in prison to pay his debt to the family of the deceased, the public generally and his own family”.


Representations of the prisoner


36. A letter from the prisoner accompanied the written representations prepared by his legal advisers.  In it he expressed deep remorse and apologised to the victim’s family: -


“I am left with the task of preparing this letter to you in the hope you will take into account the circumstances surrounding my crime.  Firstly I am riddled with deep remorse as I never set out to kill anyone or for that matter harm the victim in any way.  On that fatal night I had consumed a considerable amount of alcohol and met the victim at a local night club.  I cannot honestly remember the exact circumstances surrounding her death but, I will never forget what has been done.  I can fully understand how the family of the victim feels as I would feel exactly the same if a member of my family was taken from me.  Words could not describe how I feel for committing this awful crime and I cannot excuse my actions in February 2000.  I will do everything in my power to ensure I am constantly reminded of what I done and I will carry this burden for the rest of my life.  I wish to extend my sincere remorse to the victim’s family and apologise for taking their daughter away from them”.


37. The prisoner also described how he was addressing his offending behaviour: -


“I hope someday I will be able to leave prison having learnt a valuable lesson about life itself and that would be never to offend against anyone regardless of the circumstances.  At present I am addressing my offending behaviour by actively taking part in various vocational programmes and also maintaining contact closely with the probation service.  In time I shall endeavour to find avenues to explain exactly why I lost complete control on that fatal night back in February 2000.  Once again I can only live with what I have done and hope someday I will be forgiven for my awful actions….”



Practice Statement

38. In R v McCandless & others  [2004] NICA 1 the Court of Appeal held that the Practice Statement issued by Lord Woolf CJ and reported at [2002] 3 All ER 412 should be applied by sentencers in this jurisdiction who were required to fix tariffs under the 2001 Order.  The relevant parts of the Practice Statement for the purpose of this case are as follows: -


“The normal starting point of 12 years


10.       Cases falling within this starting point will normally involve the killing of an adult victim, arising from a quarrel or loss of temper between two people known to each other. It will not have the characteristics referred to in para 12. Exceptionally, the starting point may be reduced because of the sort of circumstances described in the next paragraph.


11.       The normal starting point can be reduced because the murder is one where the offender’s culpability is significantly reduced, for example, because: (a) the case came close to the borderline between murder and manslaughter; or (b) the offender suffered from mental disorder, or from a mental disability which lowered the degree of his criminal responsibility for the killing, although not affording a defence of diminished responsibility; or (c) the offender was provoked (in a non-technical sense), such as by prolonged and eventually unsupportable stress; or (d) the case involved an overreaction in self-defence; or (e) the offence was a mercy killing. These factors could justify a reduction to eight/nine years (equivalent to 16/18 years).


The higher starting point of 15/16 years


12.       The higher starting point will apply to cases where the offender’s culpability was exceptionally high or the victim was in a particularly vulnerable position. Such cases will be characterised by a feature which makes the crime especially serious, such as: (a) the killing was ‘professional’ or a contract killing; (b) the killing was politically motivated; (c) the killing was done for gain (in the course of a burglary, robbery etc.); (d) the killing was intended to defeat the ends of justice (as in the killing of a witness or potential witness); (e) the victim was providing a public service; (f) the victim was a child or was otherwise vulnerable; (g) the killing was racially aggravated; (h) the victim was deliberately targeted because of his or her religion or sexual orientation; (i) there was evidence of sadism, gratuitous violence or sexual maltreatment, humiliation or degradation of the victim before the killing; (j) extensive and/or multiple injuries were inflicted on the victim before death; (k) the offender committed multiple murders.


Variation of the starting point


13.       Whichever starting point is selected in a particular case, it may be appropriate for the trial judge to vary the starting point upwards or downwards, to take account of aggravating or mitigating factors, which relate to either the offence or the offender, in the particular case.


14.       Aggravating factors relating to the offence can include: (a) the fact that the killing was planned; (b) the use of a firearm; (c) arming with a weapon in advance; (d) concealment of the body, destruction of the crime scene and/or dismemberment of the body; (e) particularly in domestic violence cases, the fact that the murder was the culmination of cruel and violent behaviour by the offender over a period of time.


15.       Aggravating factors relating to the offender will include the offender’s previous record and failures to respond to previous sentences, to the extent that this is relevant to culpability rather than to risk.


16.       Mitigating factors relating to the offence will include: (a) an intention to cause grievous bodily harm, rather than to kill; (b) spontaneity and lack of pre-meditation.


17.       Mitigating factors relating to the offender may include: (a) the offender’s age; (b) clear evidence of remorse or contrition; (c) a timely plea of guilty.




Very serious cases


18.       A substantial upward adjustment may be appropriate in the most serious cases, for example, those involving a substantial number of murders, or if there are several factors identified as attracting the higher starting point present. In suitable cases, the result might even be a minimum term of 30 years (equivalent to 60 years) which would offer little or no hope of the offender’s eventual release. In cases of exceptional gravity, the judge, rather than setting a whole life minimum term, can state that there is no minimum period which could properly be set in that particular case.”




39. This is plainly not a lower starting point case.  It is, in my judgment, beyond question that the offender’s culpability was exceptionally high and his unfortunate victim was entirely vulnerable to his base and horrific attack on her.  Extensive, multiple injuries were inflicted on her and she was sexually maltreated in a most squalid, perverted and outrageous fashion.  I have no doubt that the prisoner killed Ms Hamill because he wanted to evade detection for his appalling sexual attack on her.  Each of those factors alone would justify the selection of the higher starting point category.


40. It has been observed recently (in the tariff ruling in the case of Martin Murphy) that “the circumstances in which a higher starting point will be justified are by no means exhaustively covered in the Practice Statement and the particular facts of each case must be carefully examined beyond their coincidence with those outlined in the Practice Statement in order to decide which starting point is appropriate”.  The callous exploitation by the prisoner of this unfortunate young woman’s condition for his own sexual gratification, his determination that she should not survive in case that she might identify him, his heartless behaviour after he had sexually assaulted her and before he killed her are all matters that would militate strongly towards the selection of a higher starting point.


41. There is, in my judgment, little that can be offered by the prisoner in way of mitigation.  I find nothing in Dr Bownes’ report that could begin to diminish his culpability.  The personality traits that he has, the neurotic tendencies that he suffers from and the difficulties that he has in coping with stress, if they are related at all to the occurrence of these awful events (which is highly questionable), are not exceptional and can in no way lessen his responsibility for his terrible crimes.


42. He pleaded guilty but not at the first opportunity.  The Court of Appeal has made clear (in Attorney General’s reference No 1 of 2006) [2006] NICA 4) that full discount for a guilty plea cannot be obtained unless the defendant makes a clean breast of his involvement from the outset.  This the prisoner conspicuously failed to do.  His failure to acknowledge his guilt until faced with the inevitability of it being established speaks loudly on the question of his claimed remorse.  Although the police officers who interviewed the prisoner were disposed to accept that he was genuinely remorseful, this appears to have been a reaction to his weeping during interview.  I am less inclined to accept that this betokened genuine remorse.  As the Court of Appeal said in R v Ryan Quinn [2006] NICA 27 it is frequently difficult to distinguish authentic regret for one’s actions from unhappiness and distress for one’s plight as a result of those actions.  It is to be remembered that the prisoner had in earlier interviews brazenly denied his involvement in these dreadful events until it became clear that the DNA evidence would inevitably implicate him.  That evidence, of course, made his conviction of murder inevitable.  This is a further reason that he should not be entitled to a significant discount for his plea of guilty.  In R v Pollock [2005] NICA 43 the Court of Appeal said “the discount in cases where the offender has been caught red-handed should not generally be as great as in those cases where a workable defence is possible”. 


43. The murder of this young woman has brought untold grief to her family.  As the letters that they have submitted to the court graphically testify, their lives have been utterly devastated by her murder, especially the manner of it and the events that preceded it.  When fixing a tariff that has as one of its principal constituents the element of retribution, these submissions must weigh heavily.


44. I have concluded that this is a case in which paragraph 18 of the Practice Statement applies.  There are several factors present, any one of which would have attracted the higher starting point.  Having made due allowance for such limited mitigation as arises from the prisoner’s plea of guilty, I have decided that the appropriate minimum term in his case is one of twenty-five years.  This will include the time that he has spent on remand.














Ruling by Kerr LCJ









1. A ruling on the minimum term to be served by the prisoner was given on 26 October 2006.  On 28 November 2006 the prisoner’s solicitors submitted further representations on his behalf.  This ruling deals with those submissions.


The further representations


2. It was contended that insufficient account had been taken of the prisoner’s “early plea at the interview stage”.  This claim cannot be accepted.  The interviews of the prisoner are dealt with extensively in paragraphs 7 to 19 of the ruling.  At paragraph 42 this issue was fully explored.   The prisoner denied involvement in the murder and sexual assault of the deceased until he was confronted by the inevitability of being implicated by the DNA evidence.  Moreover, he did not finally plead guilty until his trial was about to begin.  On well established principles (which are discussed in the original ruling) he was not entitled to the maximum discount for his plea of guilty.  Due allowance was made for his plea, given its timing and his initial reaction to the charges.


3. It was asserted that the level of sentencing in the years 2000 and 2001 was significantly lower than the minimum term imposed in this case.  No evidence for this assertion has been provided beyond a reference to the minimum term imposed in the case of Trevor McCandless.  The decision of the Court of Appeal in R v McCandless & others [2004] NICA 1 was handed down on 9 January 2004.  The case of McCandless in particular has many characteristics which distinguish it substantially from the present case.  The Court of Appeal did not suggest that that case fell within the very serious category of case outlined in paragraph 18 of the Practice Statement.  In the present case, for the reasons given in the original ruling, this was clearly such a case.  It is to be noted that paragraph 18 contemplates the imposition of a minimum term of up to thirty years.




4. Having carefully reviewed the further submission made on behalf of the prisoner, I have concluded that no alteration to the minimum term of twenty five years is warranted and it is therefore confirmed.