17 years ago today, Tony Martin, a Norfolk farmer, shot Freddie Barras and Brendan Fearon as they broke into his farmhouse.
Barras, 16 at the time, was killed and Fearon injured.
The case caused public outcry however, when at the subsequent trial, Martin was found guilty of Murder. He successfully appealed the decision and the verdict was changed to Manslaughter on grounds of diminished responsibility.
Surely it can't be right that a man defending himself in the heat of the moment be jailed for murder?
As a Personal Safety consultant and trainer I meet thousands of people every year, from all walks of life, up and down the country. When I ask about reasonable force- Tony Martin is usually the first name that comes up. This case, more than any other, seems to have lodged in our collective subconscious. It is often held up as an example of all that’s wrong with the legal system, and how all the rights are on the side of the criminal.
There was huge sympathy with Martin, and I can understand why. It cannot be right that anyone, fearing for their lives and acting in the heat of the moment be sent to jail for defending themselves.
So why was Tony Martin found guilty?
The truth is, there is more to the story.
I thought I would share what actually happened on that night and why the jury, twelve men and woman just like you and me, found that what Tony Martin did that day crossed the line. Rather than go to newspaper headlines designed to stoke up public feeling and, dare I say sell papers, I found the original Appeal Court ruling.
A little background then…
Tony Martin lived alone in an isolated and dilapidated old farmhouse which had been broken into many times in the 20 years he lived there.
He was not happy with police response to these burglary’s and repeatedly said the best way to stop them was “to shoot the bastards”. He told people that if the group of burglars came back he would “blow their heads off” or put them in a field and use a machine gun on them.
In fact, in 1994, he caught a man stealing apples from his orchard, and as the man drove away Tony Martin shot the back of his car with his shot gun. His shotgun license was taken off him.
So what happened on the night?
Martin said he was at home, upstairs and asleep (fully dressed with his boots on) when he heard someone downstairs. He went onto the landing and saw a bright light coming up the stairs. He was so scared that he ran back to his room, picked up a pump action shotgun (which he claimed to have found) and loaded it before moving down the stairs. He had to carefully navigate this as the top steps were missing (and so were the bottom three steps).
He said he was about halfway down when a light was shone in his face. He said he felt vulnerable and fired the gun several times before going back to his bedroom. He was adamant that at no time did he go downstairs. After a while he went out and looked around with a torch but didn’t think he hit anyone. He drove around looking for the burglars before going to a neighbour’s house to sleep on the sofa. He was arrested there the next day.
The evidence told a different story…
The prosecution argued that Martin was lying. He had not been woken by the burglars and was not in fear at all. They argued that he was waiting for the burglars with an illegal pump action shotgun and fired the shots intending to kill them.
Their case hinged mainly on forensic evidence which examined where the cartridges and dispersed shot were found. Cartridges are expelled from the side of a pump action shotgun on re loading, and land close to where the person is standing, so you can get an idea of where they were the trigger was pulled.
It is difficult to create a mental image of the building layout, but in short, the evidence clearly showed that Martin was lying. It was physically impossible to have fired all three shots from the stairs as he claimed, because of the layout of the building. Shot was found in the far wall of the breakfast room and under the window that the men climbed out of…impossible to hit from halfway up the stairs.
The experts concluded that the first shot, possibly fired from the bottom of the stairs and around 4 metres away, hit Barras in the back as he bent over a bag containing Martin’s silverware. Barras and Fearon ran to a window to try and escape, as Tony Martin pursued, reloaded and fired two more shots in quick succession. The first hit Fearon in the legs and the one after that hit both men's legs as they scrambled through the window.
Fearon got to a neighbours house and was arrested there.
Barras collapsed a short distance from the window and died.
In my blog about Reasonable force I shared how the courts consider the issue of reasonable force and you can read about that here. I discussed how any defensive action must be based on an honestly held belief that you or another are in imminent danger, and the use of force must be reasonable and necessary to avert that danger.
A jury can only convict if they:
- do not believe the defendants evidence or
- thought that the use of force was unreasonable.
Tony Martin was found guilty of Murder, Wounding with Intent, and possessing a shotgun without a certificate. He was sentenced to 10 years. On appeal this Murder conviction was quashed on the basis of fresh evidence around his mental state, and reduced to 5 years. The experts could not agree as to whether Martin had a mental ill health condition.
To sum up then…over to the Lord Chief Justice:
Mr Martin was entitled to use reasonable force to protect himself and his home, but the jury were surely correct in coming to their judgment that Mr Martin was not acting reasonably in shooting one of the intruders, who happened to be 16, dead and seriously injuring the other.
Having been a police officer for 15 years I have every sympathy with victims of crime. I have seen the devastation that burglary in particular can bring. We are not expected to let others take our things, invade our homes and threaten or harm our loved ones. The law is on our side.
Shooting people in the back as they are running away however, crosses the line.
Thank you for reading. If you liked this blog please feel free to share with everyone you know. We need to start challenging some of the stuff we can often blindly accept. Check out some of my other blogs: