By Orla Slattery, Lecturer, Nottingham Law School
Koci Selamaj was today sentenced to life imprisonment with a minimum term of 36 years for the murder of Sabina Nessa, a teacher, last September. The sentencing remarks of Mr Justice Sweeney are available here.
Selamaj’s minimum term has been set at 36 years, meaning he must serve 36 years imprisonment before he is eligible to have his release considered by the Parole Board. He will then only be released if the Parole Board is satisfied that his imprisonment is no longer necessary for the protection of the public.
The starting point for his sentence is the second most severe category available for murder, that is one of 30 years. Selamaj has not been given the most severe sentence, a Whole Life Order, as recently handed down to Wayne Couzens for the murder of Sarah Everard. In cases where a Whole Life Order is given, the offender will not be entitled to have release considered by the Parole Board.
How was the sentence determined?
Sentences for murder are set by statute and any offender convicted of murder will always receive a life sentence. The question is what ‘life’ means in relation to each case. Schedule 21 to the Sentencing Code is used to determine what the term should be.
Selamaj was sentenced in accordance with paragraph 3 to Schedule 21, reserved for cases that do not fall into the ‘Whole Life Order’ category but where seriousness, in relation to the other offences of murder, remains ‘particularly high’. This sets a starting point of a 30 year minimum term. The prosecution submitted that the murder involved sexual conduct, and therefore as set out by paragraph 3(2)(e) as one that the Parliament envisioned as being of ‘particularly high’ seriousness. Selamaj, who refused to attend the hearing, was said to accept that the offence was sexually motivated through his defence advocate. The court indicated that even without his acceptance, the circumstances were such that it would be considered that the murder involved sexual conduct, given his actions in the hours before the murder, and the circumstances of the offence including the removal of Sabina Nessa’s underwear and tights, which were never recovered.
This led Mr Justice Sweeney to conclude that the statutory starting point of 30 years was appropriate.
Why not a Whole Life Order?
Whole life orders are reserved for those where the seriousness of the offence is considered to be ‘exceptionally high’ in relation to other murders, in accordance with paragraph 2(1)(a) of the Schedule. The Schedule, at paragraph 2(2) goes on to set out what such offences may be, namely:
the murder of two or more people where there has been premeditation or significant planning, sexual or sadistic motivation or an abduction;
a sexually motivated murder of a child;
the murder of a Police of Prison Officer in the course of their duty;
a murder committed to advance a political, religious, racial or ideological cause; or
where there is a previous conviction for murder.
It should be noted that this is not an exhaustive list, and the legislation is phrased such that the words ‘normally fall’ are used. Couzens did not fit within any of the above categories, but the court felt that the murder of an individual following abduction by a police officer purporting to be acting in his duty was exceptionally high, and a corollary to the murder of an officer on duty themselves. The actions of Selamaj however, appear to sit within the circumstances at paragraph 3 as stated above, which Parliament intended would attract a starting point of 30 years.
Why was he sentenced to more than the 30 year starting point?
The above categories exist to allow a ‘starting point’ to be determined, it is recognised that offences will necessarily be more complex and there is leeway for the sentence to be increased or reduced as appropriate. Schedule 21 lists aggravating features at paragraph 9, which increase the seriousness of the offence, three of which were found to be present in this case namely:
A significant degree of planning and premeditation, although Selamaj did not have a particular person in mind, it was clear from his actions that he had intended to carry out an attack of this nature;
The targeting of a vulnerable individual, in this case a lone female at night, especially in the aftermath of the Sarah Everard murder; and
The attempted concealment of the body.
Section 65 of the Sentencing Code also allows for previous convictions, or a lack thereof, to aggravate or mitigate a sentence as appropriate. Whilst it was accepted that Selamaj has no previous convictions, there was sufficient evidence, accepted by Selamaj, of ‘significant assaults’ on his wife. The court took this to be a further aggravating factor. It was also noted that he had expressed no remorse for his actions. This led Mr Justice Sweeney to conclude that had Selamaj been convicted following a trial, he would have received a sentence with a minimum term of 39 years.
Reduction for guilty plea
In mitigation only two points were advanced for Selamaj: his lack of previous convictions, which was rejected as seen above, and his guilty plea. A reduction in sentence for guilty pleas is provided for in the Sentencing Code at section 73, which provides for the court to take into account the stage at which the plea was given, and its circumstances. Reductions in sentence for guilty pleas to murder are calculated slightly differently to other offences, with a maximum of reduction of one sixth of the term, or five years, whichever is the less, down to a reduction of one twentieth of a term for a plea on the day of trial. On this occasion, the guilty plea was not given at the earliest opportunity, and indeed the matter was due to be listed for trial in February. Selamaj did indicate his plea shortly before the trial was due to take place. In the circumstances, Mr Justice Sweeney concluded that a three year reduction was appropriate, bringing the total minimum term to 36 years.