What is a whole life order? How long is UK sentence, as Sarah Everard killer Wayne Couzens given court verdict

Wayne Couzens has been handed the most severe punishment in the UK criminal justice system - a whole life order

Former Metropolitan police officer Wayne Couzens was sentenced today (Thursday 30 September) by Lord Justice Fulford for the kidnap, rape and murder of Sarah Everard.

During the sentencing, the judge paid tribute to the dignity of Ms Everard’s family, whose statements in court revealed the human impact of Couzen’s “warped, selfish and brutal offending which was both sexual and homicidal”.

Video footage released on Wednesday (29 September) showed Couzens staging a false arrest of Ms Everard, claiming that she was breaching lockdown restrictions.

What is a whole life order?

A whole life order is the most severe punishment available in the UK criminal justice system for those who commit the most serious crimes.

The Government states that “a whole life term means there’s no minimum term set by the judge, and the person is never considered for release” unless there are exceptional compassionate grounds.

According to government figures at the end of June, there are 60 criminals serving whole life orders. If Couzens is handed one, he will become one of a number of criminals expected to die behind bars.

Who is serving a whole life order?

Serial killer and sex offender Levi Bellfield is thought to be the only criminal in UK legal history to be serving two whole life orders – for the murder of Milly Dowler, the killings of Marsha McDonnell and Amelie Delagrange, and the attempted murder of Kate Sheedy.

Other notorious criminals serving whole life orders include:

  • Gloucester serial killer Rose West
  • Michael Adebolajo, one of Fusilier Lee Rigby’s killers 
  • Mark Bridger, who murdered five-year-old April Jones in Wales
  • Neo-Nazi Thomas Mair who killed MP Jo Cox
  • Grindr serial killer Stephen Port
  • Reading terror attacker Khairi Saadallah, who murdered three men in a park

Before they died, Moors murderer Ian Brady and his girlfriend Myra Hindley, Yorkshire Ripper Peter Sutcliffe, and doctor Harold Shipman – thought to be one of Britain’s most prolific serial killers – were also among those serving whole life orders.

Has Wayne Couzens been given a whole life order?

Couzens has officially been issued a whole life order.

During the sentencing at the Old Bailey, Lord Justice Fulford said the circumstances of the case were “devastating, tragic and wholly brutal”. He added that the seriousness of the case was so “exceptionally high” that it warranted a whole life order.

He said: “The misuse of a police officer’s role such as occurred in this case in order to kidnap, rape and murder a lone victim is of equal seriousness as a murder for the purpose of advancing a political, religious ideological cause.”

The judge said Ms Everard was “a wholly blameless victim” of a “grotesque” series of offences which culminated in her death and disposal of her body.

Prior to the verdict, Prosecutor Tom Little QC suggested the case was so exceptional and unprecedented that it could warrant a whole life order.

In court, Little said: “Whilst it is impossible to summarise what the defendant did to Sarah Everard in just five words, if it had to be done then it would be more appropriate to do so as deception, kidnap, rape, strangulation, fire.”

Couzens’ defence barrister Jim Sturman QC urged the judge to hand him a lengthy life sentence, meaning he would be eligible for parole in his 80s.

Sturman said: “The defendant was invited to look at the Everards. He could not, I am told.

“He is ashamed. What he has done is terrible. He deserves a very lengthy finite term, but he did all he could after he was arrested to minimise the wicked harm that he did.”

On the evening of 3 March, Ms Everard was walking home from a friend’s house in Clapham, south London, when Couzens kidnapped her under the guise of a fake arrest, claiming that she was breaking lockdown rules.

Using his Metropolitan Police-issue warrant card and handcuffs, Couzens drove Ms Everard to a secluded rural area near Dover in Kent, where he proceeded to rape her. He then strangled her using his police belt.

Couzens burned her body in a refrigerator in an area of woodland he owned in Hoads Wood, near Ashford, before dumping her remains in a nearby pond.

He was arrested at his home in Deal, Kent, on 9 March after police connected him to a hire car he used to abduct Ms Everard, whose remains were found by police dogs on March 10.

Couzens initially claimed that he had been threatened into the kidnapping by an Eastern European gang, but later pleaded guilty to the kidnap, rape and murder of Ms Everard.

Does Scotland have a whole life order sentence?

It’s a common myth that Scotland doesn’t have whole life sentences.

The Scottish Sentencing Council explains: “When people are sentenced to life imprisonment, the judge must, by law, set the punishment part - the minimum time the person will spend in prison before they can be considered for release at all.

“After that minimum time, they will remain in prison unless the Parole Board for Scotland decides that they are safe to be released into the community under lifelong conditions.

“When setting the punishment part of a life sentence, judges can set a period which is likely to ‘exceed the remainder of the prisoner’s natural life’. This can result in a whole life sentence.”

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