Lord Justice General
HIGH COURT OF JUSTICIARY
OPINION OF THE COURT
THE HONOURABLE LORD COULSFIELD
NOTE OF APPEAL AGAINST SENTENCE
HELEN RODGER or HOUGHTON
her majesty's advocate
Act: C. M. Shead; George Mathers & Co
Alt: G. C. Bell, Q.C.; Crown Agent
16 March 1999
The appellant is Mrs Helen Rodger or Houghton who appeals against a sentence of six years' imprisonment imposed on her in the High Court at Stonehaven on 18 January 1999. On that day she pled guilty to a charge of the culpable homicide of her husband, committed on 27 September in the house in which she and her husband lived in Aberdeen.
The sentencing Judge tells us that the death resulted from two blows struck by the appellant with a knife. The first transfixed the heart, left lung and left side of the diaphragm of the deceased, penetrating to a depth of about 7 inches and causing massive internal bleeding. The second blow transfixed the liver penetrating about 5 inches. The first wound would alone have killed the deceased.
The circumstances as narrated by the Crown to the sentencing Judge were that the appellant and her husband had been out drinking socially on Saturday 26 September 1998. The evidence showed that the deceased and the appellant had consumed considerable quantities of alcohol, the deceased having taken however a good deal more than the appellant. There was a background in that, for some six months to a year previously, the deceased had been conducting an affair with another woman and had been in the way of taunting the appellant about this relationship. There was some animosity between the deceased and the appellant on the evening of 26 September and that continued after the parties arrived home. In the course of the evening, the deceased compared his wife unfavourably with his lover and taunted her by making reference to the affair. The appellant and the deceased had retired to bed but at this point, after the taunting, the appellant left the bed and made to push past the deceased, at which point he struck her on the mouth with his hand. Accordingly to Mr Shead who represented the appellant today that blow was accompanied by a threat to kill her.
The appellant was then pursued through the house by the deceased who pushed her onto a settee. She then, in fear, went to the kitchen and took a sharp and thin boning knife, which she used in her job as a fish filleter. Mr Shead informed us that she did so because of her fear. She then went into the bathroom, followed by the deceased, who pinned her against the wall with his hand on her throat. At that point she struck the two blows which caused the deceased's death. She immediately, realising what she had done, went to a neighbour, told the neighbour she had stabbed her husband and asked for an ambulance to be called. In an interview with the police shortly afterwards, she admitted having struck her husband with the knife. She did not at that stage give a full account of the incident but she did indicate that something had happened in the way of violence before it.
The sentencing Judge records that the appellant showed no signs of injury at the time of the police interview, but the doctor who examined her conceded that bruising might not have developed at that stage.
The plea in mitigation went in some detail into the history of the marriage.
The appellant had been previously married, and had two children, who are now adult, by that marriage, and by her marriage to the deceased had two sons now aged 15 and 13. The second marriage had, however, deteriorated as a result, according to the plea in mitigation, of the deceased's behaviour. The deceased regularly became moody and violent and assaulted the appellant on a number of occasions, both with fists and feet. On one occasion he threatened her with a knife but was disarmed. The appellant suffered a number of injuries of quite a serious nature. She left the deceased on a number of occasions because of these assaults, but a reconciliation was always achieved. We have already referred to the circumstances of the deceased's affair with another woman and that was also a factor which caused distress to the appellant.
In the plea in mitigation attention was also drawn to the views of the pathologists who examined the deceased and expressed the opinion that not much force was required to inflict the fatal injuries, in view of the fact that the knife used was sharp and narrow-bladed. Information was also put before the sentencing Judge as to the appellant's general good character and to her good behaviour since she had been taken into custody, as she was immediately after the assault. She had one very minor previous conviction.
In his report, the sentencing Judge sets out his reasoning in determining the sentence which he imposed as follows:
"The Crown accepted the mitigating plea of provocation in respect of two matters - first, the deceased's admission of infidelity and the taunts which he made with regard to that in the appellant's presence; and, second, the assault upon the appellant by the deceased when he struck her on the mouth. The Crown obviously were not aware of any other violence perpetrated by the deceased upon the appellant that night since she had not mentioned it in her police interview. It was obvious to me that there was an underlying current of violence running through the relationship between the appellant and the deceased, and to some extent the Crown confirmed that. As I explained to the appellant, the causes of such violence were always difficult to assess because the deceased was not able to give his account of the relationship between the parties to the marriage. I accepted from all that had been said that the appellant was extremely contrite and shocked by what she had done. I did not regard her as a danger to the public. I discounted her previous conviction for assault and I took into account the fact that from the start she had admitted killing her husband. I was however clear, as I have already said, that there was no other appropriate way of disposing of the case except by imposing a custodial sentence."
In presenting the appeal on behalf of the appellant, Mr Shead referred us to the whole circumstances, as we have already narrated them, as they appear from the sentencing Judge's report with the additional matters to which we have also referred. It was not suggested that the trial Judge had been in error or had misdirected himself in relation to the matters which should properly be taken into account. The submission was simply that it could properly be said that adequate weight had not been given to the mitigating factors.
As with all cases of this kind, the sentencing Judge was faced with a difficult decision. Such cases vary endlessly in their circumstances and it can often be difficult to decide what is the appropriate sentence. In the present case it was not disputed that the sentencing Judge took into account every factor which he should properly have considered. We have also attempted to consider those circumstances and to see whether it could be said that the Judge had not given adequate weight to any of them.
It could perhaps be said that the sentence imposed in the present case was at the upper end of the range appropriate for cases of this kind but, having considered the whole circumstances, we have come to the conclusion that we could not say that the sentence was excessive. The appeal will therefore be refused.