Conspiracy - the Agreement
What was the actual plan?
In most cases the prosecution will have to prove that there was an agreement to kill someone.
Even if the evidence points towards some kind of agreement between the defendants before the act was carried out, this is not enough on its own to prove that there was a plan between the defendants. To be guilty of conspiracy to murder, each defendant must be aware of the agreement and agree to be part of the killing in some way.
So if a group of people agrees to have a fight with another group, unless the agreement was specifically to kill members of the opposing group or cause them really serious harm (also known as GBH), for example by using weapons, they cannot all be guilty of conspiracy to murder. Association, even if it is a fairly guilty sort of association, is not the same legally as conspiracy to murder.
A person can be convicted of conspiracy to murder even where no killing actually takes place. The offence is the planning. For example, if a group of people agrees to hire a hitman to kill someone, but the hitman doesn't complete the act and takes the money, the group is still guilty of the offence.
Defending Conspiracy to Murder - Strategy
When the prosecution has an overactive imagination
In a case where a plan to kill is alleged, the prosecution will usually try to get the jury to believe that the fact that there was contact between defendants around the time of the death means that they must have been acting together and according to a plan. The prosecution will often attempt to create meaning from contact between different people, even where there is no meaning or significance to it. They will present the jury with an incomplete picture and ask them to join the dots to decide that there must have been a plan. But using the fact that someone has been in contact or seen another person, or been in an area where somebody's phone was near another's phone, is not the same as proving a real plan to do anything. The prosecution should be challenged when they try to create a case only out of coincidence, and the conspiracy to murder solicitor and the defendant are the ones who should prevent them from doing this. If there are alternative explanations for contact which look suspicious at first, they need to be prepared in advance and properly presented at the trial. At the same time, if the prosecution is fantasising, as they have been known to do, about the reasons for different contact between defendants, the conspiracy to murder solicitors should be uncompromising in exposing this fantasy in front of the jury.
Understanding the relationships between defendants, witnesses and the victim
In a situation where the prosecution is using limited amounts of either technical or circumstantial evidence linking defendants and their movements and trying to use it to prove an agreement to kill, the more the conspiracy to murder solicitors understand about the different people in the case the better. If the conspiracy to murder solicitors spend time with the defendant understanding the relationships between defendants, contact between defendants, or with the victim which is innocent, then it can be explained in context. The solicitor, barristers, and the defendant must have a good understanding of the ins and outs of each key relationship so that if something needs to be explained to the jury during the trial, this can be done in a way that appears natural and persuasive. These types of situations arise in every case, whether it is explaining the frequency of communication with a friend or relative in the context of the history of that relationship, or simply why somebody might have visited a certain area, shop, pub, or park at a given time, and why this would not be anything out of the ordinary.
How do you challenge cell site evidence and ANPR in a conspiracy case?
Police and the CPS often use technical evidence, sometimes called forensic evidence, to show contact or meeting between defendants or between the defendants and the victim. The big developments in this area in recent years have been the use of the UK's mobile telephone network and national ANPR (Automatic Number Plate Recognition) network. The mobile network can give approximate details of the location of a mobile handset at certain times, but this is far from a precise science. The prosecution will in most cases overstate the interpretation of this type of evidence. The defendant in a conspiracy to murder case should expect his or her lawyers to be very wary of accepting this so-called ‘cell site' evidence and should obtain their own expert report. In cases where experienced conspiracy to murder solicitors are defending, the aim in every case is to have a defence cell site expert who can show greater knowledge and authority on the subject than the prosecution expert, so that the jury feel more comfortable trusting the defence interpretation of the evidence.
The prosecution will also use call traffic, or the frequency and timing of calls between different phone numbers, to show that the defendants must have been involved and had knowledge of a conspiracy. This can be quite a leap of the imagination. The reality is that there can be any number of explanations for phone communication, depending on the relationships and circumstances. It is for the prosecution to prove that this is criminal communication, and where there is another explanation, the jury should, in the absence of corroborating evidence, be reminded that the prosecution has to prove its case beyond reasonable doubt. Guesswork by the prosecution is not the same as evidence.
ANPR evidence can give data that provides support that a car with a certain registration passed certain points on the motorway and major road network. It does not give any more detail than that, however, and the possibility for ‘misreads' or the car passing an ANPR camera without being detected cannot be ignored. ANPR data on its own cannot prove presence in a certain place, but can show that a car was in the vicinity at a certain time. This does not mean that a defendant had contact with whoever it is that the prosecution says he or she did, it is merely circumstantial evidence, and will usually need other evidence to support a particular theory.
What sentence does somebody get for Conspiracy to Murder?
The sentence for murder is always a life sentence, but the Judge will give what is called a 'tariff' which is the minimum sentence that must be served in prison before a defendant is eligible to apply for early release on licence.
The Judge will start with a sentence of between 15 and 30 years for someone over 18 and of around 12 years for someone under 18, at the time the offence was committed.
If a gun has been used, then the starting point for someone over 18 is 30 years imprisonment and 12 years imprisonment for someone who was under 18 at the time of the offence.
Where a knife has been brought to the scene and used in the murder, then the starting point is 25 years imprisonment for someone over 18 and 12 years imprisonment for someone under 18, at the time of the offence.
Once the Judge has set the starting point, they will then take into account aggravating factors (which increase seriousness and sentence) and mitigating factors (which reduce seriousness and sentence). The Judge will need to look at all the circumstances and the part the defendant played in the conspiracy. These could include whether there was significant planning, the use of threats or intimidation, and any concealing of evidence etc. The Judge will also look at mitigating factors such as the defendant's age, lack of previous offending and remorse when making their decision.
Obtaining proper representation and free advice from conspiracy to murder solicitors is important in these cases. The lifelong consequences are of course devastating if the case goes wrong.