The Impact on Sentencing If a Defendant Has Autism
How a Condition Like ASD Can Be a Factor in Sentencing for a Criminal Offence.
Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) refers to a broad range of conditions which are characterised by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviours, speech and non-verbal communications.
Autism is generally a hidden disability, and it may not be immediately apparent that a person has it, and they may be undiagnosed. A person with autism may become involved in the criminal justice system through social naivety, difficulty with change or unexpected events, misunderstanding of social cues, rigid adherence to rules, or not understanding the implications of their behaviour.
Therese Curphey lived with her elderly mother in appalling conditions, in a house with no heating, little running water and no proper washing or cooking facilities.
Mrs Curphey Senior was found by paramedics on the floor and died later in hospital. She was emaciated, had rib fractures consistent with a fall and as she had been unable to get up off the floor for several days, she developed severe pressure sores.
The cause of death was sepsis, hypothermia with necrotising skin ulcers and osteomyelitis.
Case for the Defence
On behalf of Therese, it was argued that she lacked the physical and mental capacity to administer care which should have been provided by the local authority. The prosecution conceded that external agencies should have done more.
Therese was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder, and her condition resulted in significant impairment in social, occupational and other important areas of functioning. It also impacted on her ability to understand and interact in the social world and solve social problems.
Although Therese made decisions as attempts to appease her mother rather than make informed decisions about what she needed. The experts agreed that her condition was not such to prevent her noticing the deterioration in her mother’s condition before her death.
The experts concluded that Therese’s autism was not of a sufficient degree to mitigate allegations of neglect. They were of the opinion that she was in denial about her mother’s condition and her caring behaviour during this period to protect herself from feeling the intolerable emotional feelings of shame.
Appealing the Sentence
Therese was convicted of gross negligence manslaughter and sentenced to four years imprisonment. When she appealed against sentence, it was pointed out that this case contrasted to some cases of gross negligence manslaughter in a domestic setting.
This was not a case of a carer who disappeared to the pub every night, Therese cared for her mother without any real assistance over a long period when she could not even properly take care of herself. The defence also argued that the impact of custody for someone like Therese had not been taken into account.
The Court of Appeal had previously held that mental health conditions and disorders might be relevant to the length of a custodial sentence.
The court is to have regard to any additional impact of a custodial sentence on an offender because of her mental health and to any personal mitigation to which her mental health is relevant. The impact of a custodial sentence had even greater force during the Covid lockdown.
Taking all matters into account, and as an act of mercy, the Court of Appeal reduced Therese’s sentence to 3 years’ imprisonment.
How Can We Help?
Therese Curphey’s diagnosis was made as a result of experts being instructed during the criminal case. It could have meant that the charge was not proceeded with and certainly made the difference between the sentence she received, and the sentence she could have received.
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