Friday, September 27, 2013

A question of Self Defence

The idea for this blog was sparked by Cara’s blog of last week.  The debate about self defence, the right to protect your property against threat/perceived threat has been raging on for a long time now so I thought you might be interested in this case.
The story, at first glance  is simple. At the age 35 Anthony Martin inherited a remote farmhouse from his uncle. In 1999 Martin ( then 55) shot dead an intruder. He claimed he had been burgled ten times before at a financial cost of over £6000. He had complained at length about the theft and the lack of police action so he armed himself with a pump action shotgun and on the night of 20th August 1999 the inevitable happened.

                                                             Tony Martin

Brendon Fearon (29) and Fred Barras (16) broke into the property. Martin claims he woke up at the sound of a window being broken and discharged his birdshot loaded shotgun. He said he was shooting in the pitch dark and down the stairwell, the weapon was discharged three times, once when the intruders were on the stairwell and twice more as they tried to get out the window of a downstairs room. Both received gunshot wounds to the legs but Barras was also fatally shot in the back. He died at the scene.
So far it is tragic,  but deeper investigation suggests that something else might have been going on. 
 Fred Barras

The police are not sure that the farmhouse had been burgled so many times. Martin’s gun was illegal. He had had his licence revoked in 1994 after he caught a man scrumping for apples, chased him and shot a hole in the back of his car. Forensic tests show that Martin could not have been on the stairs shooting downwards, but that he was standing on the level in the doorway already downstairs when he fired the shots. The prosecution suggested he was lying in wait for the burglars and opened fire for retribution for previous break-ins at his house.
                                                  The farm, locally known as Bleak House

On 10 January 2000, Fearon and Darren Bark  ( the 33 year old getaway driver )admitted to conspiracy to burgle. Fearon was sentenced to 36 months in prison, and Bark to 30 months (with an additional 12 months arising from previous offences). Fearon was released on 10 August 2001.
Fred Barras, the dead youth, aged 16, had already a lengthy criminal record, arrested 29 times.
Then on 23rd August 1999, Martin was charged with the murder of Barras and the attempted murder of Fearon. I think it is fair to say there was a groundswell of public support for him at that time.
Self defence in English law permits one person to kill another only if the person uses no more than "reasonable force". The jury has to decide whether or not an unreasonable amount of force was used. The jury can  return a manslaughter verdict if they think the accused "did not intend to kill or cause serious bodily harm". Which brings into question what Martin’s mind set actually was. If the intruders were already fleeing – that is not self defence. Martin was found Martin guilty of murder by a 10 to 2 majority and was sentenced to life, with a recommended minimum term to serve of 9 years.
He appealed and his appeal was considered in October 2001. They argued that Martin had fired in his own defence but that was rejected by the Appeal Court. They also submitted evidence that Martin was suffering from paranoid personality disorder and depression. He was paranoid about anyone intruding into his home. This submission was accepted by the Court of Appeal and the murder conviction was replaced by manslaughter (5 years) and the sentence for wounding Fearon was reduced from ten years to three years. These sentences were concurrent.
Then the story takes another twist. Martin was eligible for parole in January 2003 but the Parole Board rejected his application stating that Martin was "a very dangerous man" who may still believe his action had been right.
Martin appealed to the High Court but the decision was upheld. They feared that in the same situation he would do the same thing again. On 28 July 2003, Martin was released after serving three years of his five-year sentence, the maximum period for which he could be held following good behaviour.
And what of the intruders? In 2003, Fearon received, an estimated £5,000 of legal aid to sue Martin for loss of earnings due to the injuries he had sustained. Then he was photographed cycling and climbing with ease so the argument was that Fearon had been exaggerating his injuries.  While that case was pending, Fearon was recalled to jail after being charged with the theft of a vehicle while on probation on a conviction for dealing heroin.  Nice guy. Fearon later dropped the case when Martin agreed to drop a counter-claim. 
By now tens of thousands of pounds of public money had been spent on the case. Reports then appeared that a £60 000 bounty had been placed on Martin's head by Fearon and friends of  Barras. In October 2003, a tabloid paid Martin  £125,000 for an exclusive interview on his release from prison. The Press  Complaints commission ruled the payment was justified and in the public interest because Martin "had a unique insight into an issue of great public concern".
The bit that is unsettling is that on his release Martin appeared on the platform of  UKIP (the UK independence party) as the guest-of-honour. Martin said himself that he had attended meetings of the National Front in Norfolk, and later went on to endorse the British National Party.
Fearon and Barras were of Romany blood.
It does raise the question, does the perception of the threat vary with the prejudices of the 'victim'? And is that a defence?  One would hope not.

Caro GB 27th September 2013


  1. In the United States the self-defense plea varies from state to state, running from no need to retreat to no lethal force unless you're practically certain you will die if you don't. Florida's recent "Trayvon Martin" case is the most recent example of just how broad it can be in some jurisdictions. As for your penultimate sentence, I'm afraid that does play a part in far too many folks' thinking. Everywhere.

  2. Who says, "Crime doesn't pay?"

    As for self-defense, when an attacker turns and runs away, it's no longer self-defense, it's revenge. But 'justice' is just a word, and it's rarely just. Which is probably why so many people enjoy reading books where the bad guys usually get their just desserts...

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