Life Means Life

By the end, the fight had gone out of John Sweeney, professional carpenter, amateur artist and suspected serial killer.

When he was found guilty of the murders of two women found dismembered in canals in London and Holland, he showed no reaction at all.

He walked calmly down to the cells and then refused to come back to court to be sentenced. Mr Justice Saunders, sentencing him to die behind bars, spoke to an empty dock.

It was a marked difference to his previous appearance at the Old Bailey ten years earlier in 2001. After being convicted of the attempted murder of his former lover Delia Balmer, he shouted ‘bastards’ at police.

The following year, when he was convicted of keeping two shotguns at his home, he had to be restrained by security guards as he shouted at the jurors: ‘It’s a f—–g kangaroo court. I didn’t expect nothing else. You’re a f—–g disgrace.’

John Sweeney
John Sweeney - the 'Scalphunter'

Sweeney (pictured right) was sentenced to life imprisonment with a minimum of nine years behind bars.

Had it not been for the determined investigation into the murders of Melissa Halstead in 1990 and Paula Fields in 2001, he might have been launching his first bid for parole this year.

During the double murder trial at the Old Bailey this year he interrupted the start of the case by shouting out ‘It’s all lies’. He also branded the prosecutor a ‘prick’ and called him arrogant and ‘smarmy’ from the witness box.

But as the jury filed back into court on Monday, April 4, he knew the game was up.

Although whole life sentences are relatively rare, they do seem to have been passed with greater frequency in the last ten years.

Between 1983 and 2002, the minimum term served by lifers was set by the Home Secretary. Since then it has been the responsiblity of judges and the High Court.

According to the list of ‘whole lifers’ on Wikipedia (which is incomplete), 30 people have been sentenced to this ultimate punishment since 2004.

Most of these murdered two or more people and had a history of violence, just like Sweeney. But even if he wasn’t given a whole life order, the minimum would have been in excess of 30 years. At the age of 54, he knew he’d never get parole, whatever the sentence.

Some would say he deserves to hang for what he did – but being forced to spend your remaining years in a cell is as close to damnation as you can get. Indeed, one prisoner believed it was such ‘inhuman and degrading punishment’ that it amounted to a violation of his human rights.

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