HMA v Kathleen Downey and Rene Howieson

At the High Court in Glasgow today, 18 January 2018, Lord Armstrong sentenced Rene Howieson to life imprisonment with a punishment part of 14 years and two months for the murder Colin Skilbeck, and sentenced Kathleen Downey to five years and three months for culpable homicide.

On sentencing, Lord Armstrong made the following statement in court:

“On 12 March 2017, Colin Skilbeck was assaulted in his own home in a brutal attack which resulted in his death. He was attacked with a knife, and sustained several stab wounds. You have each pleaded guilty to causing his death.

“I must say, at the outset, that I have no doubt that Mr Skilbeck’s family and friends have been deeply affected by this. Nothing I can say or do can compensate for their loss and I suspect that no sentence would ever be regarded as sufficient in their eyes.

“I shall sentence you individually. Kathleen Bernadette Downey, you have pleaded guilty to the culpable homicide of Colin Skilbeck. Your plea has been accepted on grounds of diminished responsibility. Sentencing in cases of culpable homicide is a difficult exercise. The ranges of culpability can be very wide, from cases which are akin to murder, to cases where the degree of criminal culpability is very slight. Your case, I judge to be in the broad mid-range. You attacked Mr Skilbeck, using a pan of boiling water and sugar, but on the narrative tendered to me, I cannot hold that your personal actings, in so far as the use of the knife was concerned, were sustained. 

"I have noted the terms of the criminal justice social work report now available to the court, which sets out your whole personal circumstances. You are 35 years of age. I note, in particular, that you have expressed remorse and take responsibility for your actions, and have demonstrated empathy for your victim’s family and the effect of this tragedy on them. I have taken account of what has been said on your behalf this morning. I note the background to your former abuse of alcohol and controlled drugs. I note that you are taking advantage of such opportunities as are now available to you.

"I have noted carefully and have taken account of the psychiatric and psychological reports tendered to the court on your behalf. I accept that there is a significant body of psychiatric and psychological evidence to the effect that following upon materially detrimental and traumatic experiences in your earlier life, and in particular in 2015, you had suffered emotional and behavioural problems which in turn led you to develop Emotionally Unstable Personality Disorder, Alcohol and Drug Dependence Syndrome, and a complex form of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, all of which contributed, at the relevant time on 12 March 2017, to affect your judgement, perceptions, emotions and behaviour. I accept that you were less capable of controlling your emotional and behavioural responses at that time, than someone without these medical conditions. Nonetheless, you did attack Mr Skilbeck, you contributed to his death, and you must answer for that.

“You have previously been convicted of an offence involving possession of a knife. You have previously been convicted of an assault, involving a domestic aggravation, in respect of which you were admonished. I note what has been said about those facts on your behalf.

“Having regard to the whole circumstances of your case, which I regard as exceptional, had I been considering sentence after trial, I would have imposed on you a period of imprisonment of seven years. However, prior to your trial, you offered to plead guilty to culpable homicide and I must take that into account.  In these circumstances, I sentence you to a period of imprisonment of five years and three months, to run from 23 March 2017 when you were first remanded in custody.

“Rene Howieson, you have pleaded guilty to the crime of murder. The punishment for that crime is fixed by law as life imprisonment and that is the sentence which I will impose. That sentence will date from 5 April 2017, that being the date when you were first detained in custody in relation to this matter. Persons sentenced to life imprisonment may become eligible for release on licence. When they are actually to be released on licence is a decision made, not by the court, but by the Parole Board for Scotland. So in addition to imposing the sentence of imprisonment for life, my responsibility, at this stage, is to identify the period, known as the punishment part, which must elapse before you will even be entitled to be considered for release by the Parole Board. Even after release you will be on licence, and subject to recall to prison for the rest of your life.

“In order to assess that period I must take account of the whole circumstances surrounding the charge to which you have pleaded guilty.  I have noted and take into account the terms of the criminal justice social work report prepared in relation to your personal circumstances. You are 37 years of age, and married to Kathleen Downey.  In 2012, you were convicted of threatening and abusive behaviour, associated with the possession of a knife.

“I have taken into account what has been said today on your behalf. I note that your abuse of alcohol and controlled drugs has caused difficulties in your life.  I accept the contextual history of events at 5 Gibson Terrace, Edinburgh, prior to 12 March 2017. I accept that a particular combination of circumstances contributed to what ultimately led to Mr Skilbeck’s death. I accept that you too have expressed remorse and accept responsibility for your actions, and their effect on Mr Skilbeck’s family. I accept that, to some extent, what you did was out of character.

“It is also clear however, that you went, from your flat, to the flat in which he was living, armed with a knife, having previously been heard to be shouting threats of violence directed towards the occupants of that flat. You knocked on the front door of the flat. When Mr Skilbeck answered his door, you struck him repeatedly with the knife which you had brought. He sustained nine stab wounds in total, the majority of which were caused by you. In particular, you accept that you are responsible for the most significant of these wounds, which catastrophically penetrated his heart.  There can be no justification for such an assault. You had simply decided that you would vent your frustrations and anger and, in what transpired, Mr Skilbeck served as the victim for that purpose. His misfortune was to be the one of the two occupants of the flat who answered the door.

“The narrative presented to the court indicates that the fatal assault was premeditated and that you went to his home armed with a weapon, meaning to do harm. This was not therefore a spontaneous incident which happened on the spur of the moment. I take into account also the fact that the attack happened at Mr Skilbeck’s home, where he was entitled to feel secure.

“There are no reasons which could possibly justify the taking of another’s life, as you did. In fixing the punishment part of your sentence, I must reflect the need to punish you for the crime of murder and to deter you and others from committing that crime. Taking into account the whole circumstances of this tragic case, including everything I have just referred to, and what has been said on your behalf, had I been considering sentence after trial in your case, I would have fixed the referable punishment part as one of a period of imprisonment of 17 years. I recognise, of course, that you tendered your plea of guilty at a preliminary hearing, in August of last year, and accordingly, in light of the consequent utilitarian value of that, the punishment part which I will in fact impose is one of a period of imprisonment of 14 years two months. As I have already said, that will be with effect from 5 April 2017.”