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September 14, 2009

UK gives life with parole for terrorists convicted of airline bomb plot

This new CNN article, which reports on three high-profile terror defendants getting sentenced in London, provides an interesting point of comparison concerning life sentences in the US and other parts of the world.  First, here are the basics:

Three men convicted of plotting to bomb planes flying from London to North America with liquid explosives hidden in soft drink bottles were ordered imprisoned for life, a judge announced Monday.

The men were arrested in August 2006 on suspicion of plotting to blow up planes with liquid explosives hidden in soft-drink bottles. The plot led to immediate restrictions on liquids that passengers are allowed to carry onboard aircraft, resulting in today's rules that allow only small amounts to be carried in resealable clear plastic bags.

The judge, Justice Richard Henriques, called the plot "the most grave and wicked conspiracy ever proven within this jurisdiction." "The plot would have succeeded but for intervention of police and security services," he said, rejecting a defense argument that the men would have failed to get the chemistry right and actually blow up planes.

The ringleader, Abdulla Ahmed Ali, 28, must serve at least 40 years before he is eligible for parole, the judge said. He is "likely to remain a serious danger to the public for a long time," the judge, Justice Henriques, said. "You are a driven and determined extremist with boundless energy."...

A second plotter, Assad Sarwar, 29, must serve a minimum of 36 years before he is eligible for parole. Henriques gave him a lesser sentence on the grounds that he was not the ringleader of the plot and not involved in recruiting other people for it.  The third man convicted of the plot, Tanvir Hussain, 28, must serve at least 32 years, the judge said, calling him "no mere footsoldier."...

British prosecutors called the plot "calculated and sophisticated" and said it could have killed hundreds or even thousands of people.

So, let's review the stories of life sentencing in the UK and the US in light of this case another set of high-profile cases:

In the UK today, a "driven and determined extremist with boundless energy," who was the ring-leader of "the most grave and wicked conspiracy ever proven," which could have killed thousands of people, is sentence to life with parole eligibility.   

Meanwhile, in the US in two months, the Supreme Court will consider the constitutionality of Florida's decision to send two juvenile defendants, one of who was involve in a rape at age 13, the other committed armed robberies at 16 and 17, to life without parole eligibility.   

Putting these stories together raises an important and controversial constitutional question: should the fact that even the most extreme terrorists do not get LWOP sentences in other parts of the world have any bearing on whether juve LWOP sentences for non-homicide crimes in the US constitutes "cruel and unusual punishment" prohibited by the Eighth Amendment?

September 14, 2009 at 12:30 PM | Permalink


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Such lenient sentencing practices are probably why the UK has a higher crime rate and a higher recidivism rate than the United States.

Oh, wait...

Posted by: CN | Sep 14, 2009 3:10:38 PM

So because the UK does something stupid, we have to follow suit? I must have missed that day in my Con Law class.

Posted by: federalist | Sep 14, 2009 3:46:34 PM

From a constitutional standpoint, no. Simply because the UK decides to do something does not show anything with respect to the "evolving standards of decency." Kennedy's legal Frankenstein, I would think, only applies if the world as a whole started moving towards such inane sentences.

I do have some sympathy for the two armed robbers (none for the rapist--I know he was 13 at the time, but I assume his victim was close to that as well), but I can't imagine that the constitution compels them to be eligible for parole, at least not at the present time.

Posted by: Res ipsa | Sep 14, 2009 4:13:53 PM

Doug, you mentioned interest in supporting crime victims. That is a noble and worthwhile goal. Maybe crime victims who are not as punitive as Kent and federalist would like us to believe need a voice. What do they really want? In the two case before SCOTUS, will the victims settle for nothing less than LWOP? Is the voice of victims even considered? Maybe they want LWOP, maybe not.

There are probably countless victims that don't want to be used by politicians and don't agree with some of the laws used in their name. Maybe you could start a fair and balanced crime victims group. Call it Crime Victims Who Respect Order and the Constitution or
CVWROC or "Crime Victims Who Rock."

When Wendy Murphy uses the analogy of the Rodney King riot as an example of an acceptable people's form of law and order, it is time for some balance.

Posted by: George | Sep 14, 2009 5:01:10 PM

What goes on in other countries is irrelevant. If other countries want to coddle their criminal that is there business. In this country I want to see criminals punished.

Posted by: jim | Sep 14, 2009 5:32:34 PM

How do you determine what is "cruel and unusual?" A relevant inquiry is what other countries do. It's not the end-all and be-all, but yes, it is most cerainly a relevant factor.

Posted by: DEJ | Sep 14, 2009 6:58:04 PM

federalist, as res ipsa points out, CN is making a policy argument, not a constitutional one. The difference between what one "should" do and what the law requires is kind of a big deal.

DEJ, there's considerable debate over that. "Cruel and unusual" is a phrase written in the late eighteenth century and ratified by the states in 1791. It's debatable whether the meaning of "cruel" or "unusual" should change with the passage of time. ("unusual," yes, as that's an empirical term, but not "cruel" as that's a moral term). But even if it should, why should the practices of other countries matter? You say that the practices of other countries shouldn't be the "end-all and be-all," but why should it matter at all in interpreting a phrase in the U.S. Constitution? England and Iran aren't parties to the constitution, and the voters who ratified the 8th Amendment certainly didn't think they were agreeing to be bound or even influenced by "world opinion" in that regard.

And if you think other countries' practices matter, which countries? Under some countries' laws, stoning and gang rape are acceptable punishments for certain crimes.

Posted by: anonymous | Sep 14, 2009 7:36:21 PM

We should take other nations' good ideas and avoid their bad ones. Good and bad can be determined by outcomes.

England has lost 1000's of its citizens to terrorism over the past century. They negotiate with terrorist organizations. They do not believe in all out annihilation of the adversary.

They also have a big government culture. And, terrorists generate massive government make work from start to finish.

If the US wants this outcome, let it follow the sentencing practices of England.

Posted by: Supremacy Claus | Sep 14, 2009 8:39:31 PM

What's good for the goose is good for the gander. If what is considered a "reasonable expectation of privacy" by society under the Fourth Amendment is going to change with the times, enjoy your big cup of "evolving standards of decency" under the Eighth Amendment, as well.

Posted by: Mark#1 | Sep 15, 2009 2:15:15 AM

British authorities ruling Palestine hanged several members of the underground Zionist Irgun organization in the 1940s following their conviction on charge of bombing and other violent attacks. Menachem Begin, former Irgun leader and later Prime Minister of Israel, reportedly told a former British Government minister that the executions had “galvanized” his group, which subsequently hanged several British soldier in retaliation. Menachem Begin said the hangings “got us the recruits that we wanted, and made us more efficient and dedicated to the cause ... you were not sentencing our terrorists to death, you were sentencing a lot of your own people, and we decided how many”
From Amnesty International “When the State Kills”, 1989 ACT 51/07/1989 p. 19

Posted by: claudio giusti, italia | Sep 15, 2009 11:25:25 AM

I think this is not as straight forward a decision as one may think.

Posted by: law recruitment | May 20, 2010 3:46:44 AM

I think its always worth staying open minded and considering why other countries have the sentencing policies they do and always checking them against your own. It is very dangerous to stay in one entrenched position and never consider the alternatives.

Posted by: Legal Recruitment Agencies Manchester | Jan 12, 2011 11:49:51 AM

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