England's top prosecutor supports introduction of US-style murder charges

LONDON (AP) — One of Britain's top prosecutors said Wednesday he supports the idea of introducing U.S.-style homicide charges, backing legal reformers who claim that England's 17th century murder laws are long overdue for a change.

Currently English homicide law recognizes only two categories of offense: manslaughter and murder. Legal experts here have argued that that unfairly exposes some defendants to murder charges even when they didn't intend to kill while at the same time being too lenient to those who kill by reckless conduct.

"Many of us think that that's an aspect of the law which needs reforming," Director of Public Prosecutions Keir Starmer told BBC radio. "We should have degrees of murder, rather in the way they do in the U.S."

English laws covering homicide, aspects of which date back hundreds of years, have long been seen as inadequate. In a 2006 report to Parliament, Britain's Law Commission described the legal regime as "a rickety structure set upon shaky foundations," and outlined a series of reforms in a 265-page report.

Among the Law Commission's proposed changes was the creation of a three tier system of murder charges. First degree murder would cover "intentional killing" or killings carried out by defendants who intended to inflict serious harm. Second degree murder would cover, among other things, murder following provocation, while manslaughter would, for example, cover killing through gross negligence.

The Law Commission's proposals weren't adopted wholesale. Instead, the Labour Party government in power at the time made adjustments to laws covering provocation and criminal responsibility.

Police Commissioner Ian Blair told the BBC that the matter needed another look.

"I think the Americans have a very sensible idea that there are degrees of murder," he said. "I think it has been very difficult for the British courts to be able to make that difference obvious to the British public."

The Ministry of Justice said in a statement that it was aware of the Law Commission's report, which it said it would consider. The government has indicated that the issue of reforming homicide law would be among the things tackled by a promised review of Britain's sentencing rules.