Bereavement due to traumatic death

The court case

All criminal cases start in the Magistrates' court. Serious offences, such as murder, are passed on to the Crown Court, to be dealt with by a judge and jury.
The Witness Care Unit now has the duty to make bereaved families aware of the trial date. Witness Care Units are partnerships between the police and the crown prosecution service (CPS). In practice it may be decided locally that they will inform the Family Liaison Officer working with the family, who will explain the timetable and key dates. The CPS victim focus scheme, now operating nationally, ensures that the CPS will offer a meeting with the family.
In the past, communication sometimes broke down. Sarah wasn’t aware of when sentencing would take place, so the whole family missed the court case when the man who caused the crash that killed her husband was charged and convicted.
Most people had attended the court case, though a few had decided not to go or could not do so. Susanna’s brother was killed in Bali. Some of those involved were tried in Indonesia but she could not pay the cost of travel to attend. Some people had other reasons for not attending a trial.
The trial in the Crown Court begins with a hearing where the defendant pleads guilty or not guilty. If the plea is ‘not guilty’ the trial will be held later. After the evidence has been presented a jury must reach a verdict before the judge can pass sentence. Sentencing may take place on another occasion.
If the defendant pleads ‘guilty’ the trial may be over very quickly. The judge may pass sentence straight away. A few people had been surprised that the case was so short. Jayne travelled back from Italy for Jonathan’s court case. She wanted to represent Jonathan, and she hoped she would get his personal belongings back at the end of the case. She explained that Jonathan’s murder had been a huge event in her life and she had expected a longer trial. When she saw that the defendant was mentally ill, she realised that he was very vulnerable person so she didn't feel angry as she'd feared she would.
Some cases came to court only after long delays. After Steph died Martin had to wait a year for the trial. However, when the time came he was well prepared for what might happen and he was warned that the case might collapse.
Sometimes further delays occurred during the trial. For example, when the woman who killed Carole’s son was tried for murder, a re-trial was necessary because one juror failed to appear on the second day and was found to have ‘special needs’. David’s family also had to wait for a re-trial but this was because David’s other son met one of the defendants at the court door and chased him down the street. The police had to be called and the trial was postponed.
Although some people felt well prepared for the trial, others didn't and were shocked or surprised to hear certain details about the case. Some relatives saw objects, such as murder weapons, or CCTV images they had not expected to see. Julie described what happened when her sister’s ex-partner was tried for murder.
People described what happened when they got to court. Some found the court a cold place- one woman said that it had “no soul”, a place without emotion or love. Another found going to court stressful, she had to hang around for hours and no one told her what was going on. Some had hated sitting near the defendant’s family and friends. Michelle said that the court was a scary place but she wanted to go to court to see the person who had murdered her mother.   
Stephen’s brother had been killed by a drunk driver. He was prepared to give evidence in court but didn't have to because the defendant pleaded guilty. The case took only 10-15 minutes. Stephen was worried about possible friction between his family and the defendant’s family, and was glad to find that the families were kept apart. However, other aspects of the trial disappointed him.
Some families had worse experiences in court. Julie was furious when the defendant’s girlfriend waited for the judge to leave the court and then shouted comments across the room to the defendant. David and his family attended the initial court hearing and arrived to find barristers and solicitors joking and laughing, which was also upsetting. David felt that this showed a lack of respect for their dead son.

Linda and her family found themselves sitting very near the two defendants’ families, and had to put up with intimidating stares. They also had to listen while a defendant’s barrister portrayed Linda’s son as a bully with steroids and cannabis in his blood stream. The results of two blood tests had been muddled up which led to unfair accusations, which were later shown to be untrue.
A plea bargain is an agreement in a criminal case whereby the prosecutor offers the defendant the opportunity to plead guilty, usually to a lesser charge, or to the original criminal charge with a recommendation of a lighter than the maximum sentence. There isn’t an official ‘plea bargaining’ system as such in the UK. However, bereaved relatives may feel angry if they think that a criminal is getting away with a crime because of a deal made with the prosecutor.
Others felt that it was unfair that witnesses could give glowing references for defendants in court but were not allowed to praise the person who had died. They felt that there was an imbalance in favour of the accused and against the bereaved. People were also angry about acquittals or the length of the sentences given to those found guilty.
In the UK, people found guilty of a criminal offence may be given a determinate sentence, where the sentence has a defined length, or an indeterminate sentence (such as a life sentence) where the offender will be released only after serving a minimum prison term. After that, their release is decided by a body such as the Parole Board.
Murder is distinguished from manslaughter simply on the basis of what was intended. If the attacker intended death or serious injury the offence is murder, if the attacker did not intend death or serious injury (even if the attack itself was intentional) the offence is manslaughter. If a person is found guilty of murder, the judge must impose a mandatory life sentence. The offender must serve a minimum period in prison, which the judge sets and announces in court. He or she will only be released if the Parole Board agrees. The maximum sentence for manslaughter is life. However, the sentence can be significantly less, depending on the circumstances of the case.
In 1965 the Murder (Abolition of Death Penalty) Act suspended the death penalty for murder in the United Kingdom for 5 years. In December 1969, the House of Commons reaffirmed its decision that capital punishment for murder should be permanently abolished. However, many countries still execute those convicted of murder. Some family members felt that defendants had been given relatively light sentences but very few wanted a return to capital punishment, even when recently bereaved. Some of the relatives of those involved in the Bali bombing opposed the death penalty, which applied in Bali where the case was heard.

Last reviewed May 2019.

Last updated October 2011.


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