UK’s pet theft penalty worse than sentence given to man who choked woman to death in sex, MPs warn

·6-min read
Photo distributed by Durham Police of Sophie Moss  (PA)
Photo distributed by Durham Police of Sophie Moss (PA)

The maximum sentence for stealing pets is longer than the jail sentence handed to a man who choked his lover to death while having sex, MPs have said.

Politicians and campaigners told The Independent the decision to sentence Sam Pybus, a married 32-year-old, to less than five years in prison is “a travesty of justice” which tells women their lives do not matter.

Last week, the government revealed a new criminal offence of pet abduction will be rolled out after a surge in thefts during the pandemic, but a maximum jail term for the offence has not yet been unveiled. Pet theft presently falls under the Theft Act 1968 with a maximum jail sentence of seven years.

Pybus was sentenced on Tuesday to four years and eight months for killing Sophie Moss, a vulnerable 33-year-old who has two young children, at her home in Darlington in County Durham.

Teeside crown court heard Pybus, who will only have to serve half his sentence in prison, employed “prolonged” pressure to Moss’ neck for tens of seconds or minutes while having consensual sex in the early hours of 7 February. Pybus, who had been seeing Moss for three years, had consumed 24 bottles of Amstel lager over the course of 10 hours that day.

Sam Pybus has been jailed for four years and eight months (PA)
Sam Pybus has been jailed for four years and eight months (PA)

Harriet Harman, the Labour MP who chairs parliament’s joint committee on human rights, has now written to the attorney general, Michael Ellis QC, to object to the “unduly lenient” sentence - urging him to refer the case to the Court of Appeal.

“The maximum sentence for pet theft is higher than what this man got for killing Sophie Moss,” Ms Harman, the MP for Camberwell and Peckham, told The Independent. “The fact he can stand in court and characterise himself as an upstanding citizen rubs salt in the wound for relatives.”

Ms Moss’ death comes after the so-called ‘rough sex’ defence was outlawed in the UK at the end of April via the domestic abuse act - with campaigners celebrating the decision to tackle the rising number of killers claiming women died during rough sex in court proceedings.

Increasing numbers of women are being seriously injured and killed in incidents dubbed “sex games gone wrong”. In 1996, two women per year were killed or injured during what the defendants referred to as “consensual rough sex”, but this figure had soared to 20 women by 2016.

Ms Harman argued the sentencing of Pybus shows parliament must relook at the issue.

The politician added: “If they killed a stranger, it would be life, but if it is their girlfriend and someone who she ought to be able to trust, he will be out in two years.

“For decades, for centuries, men’s violence against women has been accepted as just one of those things. There is now a modern twist on this which uses women’s sexual empowerment as a precept by exploitative men who are exercising control over women.

“It is a cruel irony women’s sexual empowerment is used against them by their killers.”

Ms Harman argued Pybus’ sentencing is symptomatic of a “long-standing culture of impunity for men”, as she explained he was initially charged with murder, before a manslaughter plea was accepted.

“Although he admitted that he intended to put his hands around her neck to put pressure to stop her breathing,” the politician added. “The intention was there and he takes no responsibility for the result of his actions.”

She said parliament is in agreement that they are opposed to men arguing in court that it is not their fault they killed a woman but she is instead to blame because she wanted “rough sex”.

She added: “The judge is too ready to allow his mitigation of I didn’t intend to kill her, but I did intend to stop her breathing. That is just an abdication of responsibility. And shifting the blame onto her.

“Pybus killed the only other person able to speak about it. He is the sole purveyor of the story because he silenced Sophie by killing her. Everybody who knows anything about this case thinks it is a travesty of justice.”

The court heard after Pybus woke up and found her naked and unresponsive, he chose not to dial 999 or give Moss first aid, but instead waited in his car for 15 minutes before driving to a police station to hand himself in.

Caroline Nokes, chair of the Women and Equalities Select Committee in the Commons, urged the Attorney General to look at the sentencing handed down again.

Suella Braverman, the attorney general, is due to return to her role on Monday after able to taking time off for maternity leave. A spokesperson for the attorney general’s office issued a statement saying law officers have 28 days from sentencing to look at the case and decide whether to hand the sentence to the Court of Appeal.

“This sentence is in no way reflective of the fact a woman has lost her life and it feels as if the perpetrator has in fact got away with it,” Ms Nokes told The Independent. “It sends a message to women that your lives are not worth very much and a message to male perpetrators that you will get away with it. With the new legislation on pet theft, you can get more for stealing someone’s dog.”

In 45 per cent of cases where a man kills a woman during sex and alleges she gave her consent, the ‘rough sex’ defence succeeds, which leads to the killing being prosecuted under manslaughter or not even regarded as a crime.

Christopher Atkinson, a senior district crown prosecutor for the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) in the North East, said: “While the defendant has always acknowledged the fatal consequences of his actions, he also claimed that it was never his intent to cause Sophie serious harm or, as was tragically the case, her death.“

He said the CPS has not “simply accepted the account put forward by the defendant, but that we have proactively determined that there was insufficient evidence capable of establishing beyond reasonable doubt that he intended the serious harm or death” of Moss.

Fiona Mackenzie, spokesperson for We Can’t Consent To This, an organisation that has done extensive research into the ‘rough sex’ defence and campaigned to change the law on this, said the sentencing is an “absolute outrage” for the loved ones of Moss.

“The question is do we believe the law change in April was enough. It is not yet clear whether the lenient sentencing here would be fixed by the law change in April,” Ms Mackenzie told The Independent.

“The CPS chickened out of prosecuting for murder even though Pybus killed Sophie in prolonged serious violence which left his hands hurting afterwards. The reference to hands hurting is a direct quote from Pybus.”

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