Sentence took place on Thursday in the case of Michael Bowditch, a 21 year old man charged in connection with the death of a 17 year old, Becky Morgan. Simon Taylor was instructed by CPS SECCU. Oliver Saxby QC and Peter Alcock were instructed by Tuckers Solicitors.
Miss Morgan and Mr Bowditch had met at a surprise party for his uncle in Ramsgate. After the party, a group went into the town centre to carry on the celebrations. Miss Morgan and Mr Bowditch were part of this group. It was clear they were getting on – one witness saw them at one stage holding hands and text messages sent by both suggested they liked each other.
Soon after 2am, Miss Morgan and Mr Bowditch walked on to the harbour arm – a long, arcing walkway with the harbour one side and the sea, protected by a low wall, the other. Some 40 or so minutes later, Mr Bowditch returned. He was alone. He continued on into the town centre, meeting up with some other friends. Witnesses describe him as being very drunk. At one point he became involved in an altercation with another man which resulted in him being ejected from the bar.
At about 5am, Mr Bowditch called the police. As far as they were concerned, this was completely out of the blue. During the call Mr Bowditch reported that he had ‘witnessed the death of a person’. ‘They’re off the harbour’, he said. ‘I saw this 2-3 hours ago. I’m calling now because I’m incredibly worried. I literally f***ing witnessed it. I witnessed them jump in. I watched them jump off the harbour and I stared into it as they f***ing drowned’.
In due course the police attended and took him down to the harbour arm with a view to his giving them more assistance. There, he added the following: ‘We were both here. We were both laying here. She stood up. She was just f***ing about and she f***ing fell. She fell off here. Then she wasn’t talking any more. She was screaming. She was screaming and I tried to get her help and I couldn’t get her any help… She asked me for help and she told me to leave her and I f***ing did. She asked me for help. She asked me for help because she couldn’t f***ing swim. We were just f***ing dicking about. We were just acting like f***ing idiots…We were just f***ing about and she fell. She looked like she was gonna be OK and then she kept telling me to get help and I was, like, ‘yeah, fine, I’ll get help’ so I went on the phone and she told me to f***ing go. Thinking about every time she f***ing falls. Don’t understand what it’s like to have watched that…’.
As the police continued to ask him questions, he became obstructive and aggressive. He said he wanted to go home and kept trying to get out of the police car. For their part, the officers needed him to remain so he could help them find Miss Morgan – even at this point, they were not sure whether anything had happened; and they were bemused by his apparently unhelpful attitude.
In the end, he was arrested and taken to a local Police Station. Sure enough, later that morning – at about 8am – Miss Morgan’s body was found floating in the sea some 2.5 miles from Ramsgate. She had drowned.
In due course, Mr Bowditch was formally interviewed by the police on suspicion of involvement in Miss Morgan’s death: It was not clear precisely what had happened on the harbour arm but Miss Morgan had ended up in the sea, they had been together at the time, Mr Bowditch had made various admissions as to how it had happened and his behaviour in the immediate aftermath, and then later to the police, raised the suggestion that he was grappling with the guilt of having done rather more than he had admitted.
He gave a Prepared Statement, saying that he remembered being on his feet and hearing a splash. He said he did not in fact see Miss Morgan go into the water and did not now know how it had happened. He said he was drunk at the time and had not realised the significance of what had happened. He stressed that he meant her no harm and said he did not believe he could have pushed her in. Thereafter, he answered ‘no comment’ to the questions asked.
In due course he was charged. He faced three allegations, each in the alternative: Murder (on the basis he pushed Miss Morgan into the sea; and that at the time – as evidenced both by this act and by his subsequent inaction – he must have intended either to kill her or that she suffer really serious harm), Unlawful Act Manslaughter (pushing her into the sea without that intention) and Gross Negligence Manslaughter (owing her a duty of care given the circumstances in which she went into the sea and failing thereafter to do anything to save her from drowning).
In the event, the Crown accepted a plea of guilty to Gross Negligence Manslaughter. In short, Mr Bowditch accepted he must have contributed to her falling into the sea in the first place (‘We were just f***ing dicking about. We were just acting like f***ing idiots…We were just f***ing about and she fell’). And he accepted that, knowing that she had fallen in, by doing absolutely nothing to try and help her (there were life rings around, he had a phone, there were people yards away to whom he could have raised the alarm), he had acted with gross negligence, in law causative of her death. By way of explanation, he said he had been intoxicated through drink and drugs (cocaine and cannabis), had not been thinking straight and had not realised the seriousness of the situation. Until he started sobering up, that is, by which time his memory of what had happened was fragmented and he was scared.
By way of mitigation, he was able to rely on his guilty plea, his relative youth, his effective previous good character (he had a Warning for assault occasioning actual bodily harm aged 15) and his remorse. The learned judge found one principal aggravating feature, namely his voluntary consumption, to excess, of alcohol and drug and sentenced him to 5.5 years imprisonment.
The learned judge described the case as an almost unique one. Indeed it was, not least in the issues it gave rise to. First, on the question of ‘omission’ within the context of gross negligence manslaughter. Second, on the existence of a duty of care – and the circumstances in which one exists. Third, on the definition of ‘gross negligence’. Fourth, on the question of causation. And finally on the extent to which the defence could adduce expert evidence on the effect of alcohol and drugs on Mr Bowditch’s ability to take in what was happening when he was on the harbour arm with Miss Morgan, on his memory of what had happened and on his conduct and demeanour later in the morning when the police arrived.
This is one of a number of cases of gross negligence manslaughter in which Oliver Saxby QC has recently been involved – both for the defence (R v Connor: Man wrapped in clingfilm during sex act, R v Wright: Over-restraint by bouncer, R v King: Baby ingested methadone) and the Crown (R v Gregory: Baby left in bath).
Please use the links below for media coverage of the case:-
The Daily Telegraph
The Daily Mail