|His Majesty King Harry: the goal of Colborne's plans|
News emerged from the Old Bailey this morning that Mark Colborne, a 37-year-old white man, has been convicted of an offence under the Terrorism Act 2006.
The prosecution said that Colborne had planned to shoot Princes Charles and William so that Prince Harry would accede to the throne (apparently he is unaware of Prince George’s claim). The reason he wanted to Harry to become king is that he felt marginalised by society following bullying as a child for having ginger hair.
The prosecution alleged that he had written down plans for the assassinations – although owned no weapons capable of fulfilling his plans – and had been stockpiling chemicals that could be used to produce cyanide. I assume that he also made plans for a cyanide attack; however, the newspaper reports I’ve seen do not make that clear. In addition to the notes and chemicals there was evidence that Colborne had been searching the internet and buying books containing information on the manufacture and use of poisons and explosives.
Colborne was convicted under the Terrorism Act 2006, judging from the press most likely under section 5, which makes preparation of terrorist acts a crime.
Before we look at terrorism it is worth a quick word about the law of criminal attempts as contained in the Criminal Attempts Act 1981. Section 1 of the 1981 Act makes any, “… act which is more than merely preparatory to the commission of the offence …” a crime in its own right where the person intends to go on and commit the actual offence. It is the attempt coupled with the intention that is important and it is no defence to say that the defendant would have found committing the actual offence (beyond the attempt) impossible.
Terrorism Act 2006
Now let us turn to the Terrorism Act 2006, as we have already said section 5 of the 2006 Act criminalises the preparation of terrorist acts. It says that,
“(1) A person commits an offence if, with the intention of–
(a) committing acts of terrorism, or
(b) assisting another to commit such acts, he engages in any conduct in preparation for giving effect to his intention.
(2) It is irrelevant for the purposes of subsection (1) whether the intention and preparations relate to one or more particular acts of terrorism, acts of terrorism of a particular description or acts of terrorism generally.”
Leaving aside offences involving radioactive devices and materials (and nuclear weapons under the Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001) there is no actual offence of committing a terrorist act within the UK. This means that if a terrorist committed an attack that killed people and was apprehended he or she would be charged under the normal law, e.g. with offences of murder or under the Chemical Weapons Act 1996 or Biological Weapons Act 1974 etc etc.
Immediately, we see a significant difference with the 1981 Act and that is how far we need to go to commit an offence. If John decides to kill Kevin and begins hunting around the internet for information about how to do it and buys the weapons but goes no further then he is unlikely to be guilty of attempted murder because his actions are “merely preparatory” to the murder. However, if John decides to carry out a bomb attack on the tube and goes to the same lengths he is guilty of an offence under section 5 of the 1996 Act because all that is required is for him to prepare to commit the attack.
What is “terrorism”?
Terrorism is defined by section 1 of the Terrorism Act 2000 and is:
(1) In this Act “terrorism” means the use or threat of action where–
(a) the action falls within subsection (2),
(b) the use or threat is designed to influence the government [ or an international govermental organisation] 1 or to intimidate the public or a section of the public, and
(c) the use or threat is made for the purpose of advancing a political, religious [, racial] 2 or ideological cause.
(2) Action falls within this subsection if it–
(a) involves serious violence against a person,
(b) involves serious damage to property,
(c) endangers a person's life, other than that of the person committing the action,
(d) creates a serious risk to the health or safety of the public or a section of the public, or
(e) is designed seriously to interfere with or seriously to disrupt an electronic system.
(3) The use or threat of action falling within subsection (2) which involves the use of firearms or explosives is terrorism whether or not subsection (1)(b) is satisfied.
So at a very basic level terrorism is an action made for the purpose of advancing a political, religious, racial or ideological cause where serious violence or damage is planned. If firearms or explosives are used that is all that is required, where no firearms or weapons are used there must be an intention to influence government or intimidate the public.
Given that Colborne’s ideological cause was the advancement of ginger people in society, one has to conclude that a bizarre and somewhat deranged aim is no bar to conviction.
The Colborne case
At this stage you will no doubt be thinking a law that criminalises terrorists long before they deploy their weapons against the public is a jolly good thing and you’ll get no arguments from me. But, it is a widely drafted offence and there is a risk of people being caught by the offence who maybe shouldn’t have been.
Mark Colborne was described by DS Andy Hedley as a “fantasist” who “had ideas and plans about committing acts that could cause great harm to other people… he didn’t ever carry out any of these plans and from all the evidence we found, Colborne had not progressed to actually making poisons or viable devices that would have presented an immediate threat to the community.”
Colborne was described in court as a loner who suffers with depression and agoraphobia, which is an extreme and irrational fear of open or public places. At 37 years of age he lived with his mother and rarely left his bedroom. Given he was terrified of the world outside his bedroom it is difficult to see how he could have ever put his plans into action.
His ideological cause was the advancement of ginger-haired people in society, which you may think gives some insight into his mental condition at the time.
One jury failed to reach a verdict while the second acquitted him of possessing chemicals to produce cyanide and only convicted him of the terrorism offence by a majority decision.
I think we have to ask ourselves whether Mark Colborne really is a terrorist who deserves to be convicted of this very serious offence, which carries a life sentence, or whether he isn’t, as the police officer said, a “fantasist”.
The police praised his family for reporting him when they discovered his cluttered bedroom full of various chemicals, but I can’t help wondering whether the family weren’t hoping he would get some help to pull him away from his obsession with this bizarre pro-ginger cause and help him integrate into the world from which he had been absent since childhood.
There can be no doubt that Colborne committed this offence (because he was convicted) but I cannot help being reminded of Lord Shawcross’s words to the House of Lords when he served as Attorney General in 1951,
“It has never been the rule in this country — I hope it never will be — that suspected criminal offences must automatically be the subject of prosecution”.
I do wonder whether a better approach to the actions of Mark Colborne would not have been to ensure he received treatment for his very obvious mental health issues.