Laura Cunliffe should not have been gaoled for microwaving kitten

Yesterday 23 year old Laura Cunliffe was sentenced to 14 weeks imprisonment for microwaving a kitten to death. Apparently the kitten, Mowgli, had attacked her pet goldfish so she put it in the microwave for 5 minutes. She realised what she had done after a minute and took it out. It died about 90 minutes later.

It is always unwise to comment on a case without knowing the full facts but,  on the basis of what has been reported, here goes.

This was an absurd punishment, not because killing cats is a trivial matter but because Cunliffe is quite clearly somebody who ought not to be in gaol. According to her solicitor she has suffered from psychotic depression for years and has been sectioned at least 20 times. As she was led away in handcuffs, one member of her family shouted: “She doesn’t know what’s happening – she hasn’t a clue.”

Psychotic depression is a nasty illness:

According to the United States National Institute of Mental Health:

a person who is psychotic is out of touch with reality. People with psychosis may hear “voices.” Or they may have strange and illogical ideas. For example, they may think that others can hear their thoughts or are trying to harm them. Or they might think they are possessed by the devil or are wanted by the police for having committed a crime that they really did not.

People with psychotic depression may get angry for no apparent reason. Or they may spend a lot of time by themselves or in bed, sleeping during the day and staying awake at night. A person with psychotic depression may neglect appearance by not bathing or changing clothes. Or that person may be hard to talk to. Perhaps he or she barely talks or else says things that make no sense.

those with psychotic depression usually have delusions or hallucinations that are consistent with themes about depression (such as worthlessness or failure), whereas psychotic symptoms in schizophrenia are more often bizarre or implausible and have no obvious connection to a mood state (for example, thinking strangers are following them for no reason other than to harass them). People with psychotic depression also may be humiliated or ashamed of the thoughts and try to hide them. Doing so makes this type of depression very difficult to diagnose.”

We do not know, of course, whether her psychosis contributed directly to her offence, although it seems very likely that it did. What we do know is that she is someone who is exceptionally mentally vulnerable and who now has to endure weeks locked up in prison.

She will be used to being locked up: although her solicitor’s reported claim that she has been sectioned twenty times sounds extremely unlikely.

But there is all the difference in the world between the therapeautic environment of a mental health unit and the punitive and sometimes violent environment of a prison. If she is indeed mentally ill, it is all but inevitable that prison will aggravate her condition.

Of course she should have some access to psychiatric help in prison but she will, in the main, be looked after by prison officers who – decent as many of them may be – have little or no training in how to deal with people with serious mental disorders. She will also be exposed to other inmates who are not selected for their sympathetic and enlightened nature towards the mentally ill. Many ,of them will probably take an old-fashioned and unnuanced line on cruelty to cats.

No conceivable good will come of the sentence. It is hard to imagine that anyone in the future will be deterred from microwaving a cat by the thought that they may receive a 14 week gaol sentence.  There may even be some unimaginative folk,  to whom the idea of irradiating a cat would not otherwise have occurred, who will now try it out.

Nor is there the slightest prospect that Miss Cunliffe will be “rehabilitated” or “reformed”. She will be mentally tortured for seven weeks and then released sadder and sicker than she was before.

English law has always excelled at dishing out cruel and pointless punishments. We have abolished the treadmill, oakum picking, the lash and the gallows.

It’s about time we now abolished gaol sentences for the mentally ill.


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Author: Matthew

I have been a barrister for over 25 years, specialising in crime. You may also have come across some of my articles I have written on legal issues for The Times, Standpoint, Daily Telegraph or Criminal Law & Justice Weekly

13 thoughts on “Laura Cunliffe should not have been gaoled for microwaving kitten”

  1. Sorry but if she’s been sectioned 20 times why is she allowed to have an animal ? She gets what she deserves after the pain that poor animal went through.

    1. Obviously there are good reasons for her not to have an animal in the future. The court banned her from keeping animals and I have no quarrel with that.

      But on your wider point I completely disagree. Many mentally ill people have pets and quite right too. In some cases very ill people find it easier to relate to animals than to humans. It would be quite wrong to ban someone from having animal merely because they have been sectioned.

      1. It’s possible that she has been sectioned a number of times under Section 2 of the Mental Health Act for assessment, or has been detained by police under s136. Rather depends on what you’re counting.

        Re: wider issue of keeping pets, and prospective ban in this case. No problem that I can see. See Thomas-Ashley v Drum Housing Association [2010] EWCA Civ 265, per Scott Baker LJ as authority for proposition that whilst keeping a pet (dog) may well assist with a person’s mental health, it is not comparable to taking medicine. Thomas LJ (as he then was) concurred.

        1. Thanks for your very learned comment Jon.

          Your point about sectioning is a fair one, thanks for pointing that out. Maybe it was one of those provisions that the solicitor was talking about.

          I agree that a ban on keeping pets probably was appropriate in this case, but not with Garry’s wider point that someone who has been sectioned 20 times should for that reason alone not be allowed to have a pet.

          If you cut through the legalese in Ashley v Drum the most interesting part is the quotation from the claimant’s doctor:

          “… I can conclude that Alfie [the pet dog] is not only beneficial for her mental health but essential in her rehabilitation. I fully agree with David Preston’s comments in his letter of 5 June 2008 in which he states “Since having the dog Mrs Thomas-Ashley has acquired a purpose in life. At present she is uncertain of her family status and her bipolar disorder continues. However the dog gives her a point of focus and makes demands on her that she is happy to respond to. Feelings of guilt and ideas of futility have been replaced with the decision to keep the dog and fight for its existence. I could only imagine the effect that taking the dog away from Mrs Thomas-Ashley would have. I believe that it would add to her feelings of dejection, guilt, loss and bereavement that she is already experiencing considering the loss of family relationship and the loss of what she considers her home. These sentiments are echoed in Dr Janet Sinclair’s clinic letter of 20 August 2008 in which she states, “as well as the obvious emotional attachment she has to the dog she describes clear benefits to her mental health from exercising and socialising linked to the dog. I also fully agree with the following statements stated in the same letter: “She has bipolar mood disorder and is on medication that is probably contributing to a mild increase in weight. Exercise is recognised as important in controlling the weight of those who may be at risk of gaining weight and its subsequent health problems on medication. Exercise is recognised as being beneficial to depressed patients particularly exercise that lifts the mood such as that when out in the countryside”. It is predictable that the benefits previously gained as regards mental health, socialisation and physical health would be jeopardised if Mrs Thomas-Ashley were forced to give up her dog. The emotional response to such a loss in an already vulnerable individual such as Mrs Thomas-Ashley could well precipitate disengagement from the mental health scheme and a relapse of a severe depressive or manic episode. Compliance on medication could also be threatened if her weight gain due to Lithium is not moderated by her present level of exercise.””

          On the facts in that case that was not enough to entitle her to keep a dog in breach of her tenancy agreement but I don’t think the throwaway line about Alfie not being “comparable to a guide dog or medicine” establishes any particular legal proposition.

  2. What if the kitten had been a baby would the same arguments apply? I think the sentence was justified and probably should have been longer. If she is receiving medical assistance why would she subject such pain and death on an innocent animal? I think mention has been made of her not understanding what she was doing? Really? Would she walk in front of a bus or put her own hand into boiling water. Somehow I think Not!

    1. As I pointed out in the original post we have only the news reports to go on, but if, as it sounds, she was suffering from severe psychotic depression exactly the same arguments would apply. Mothers who kill their babies while suffering from post-natal depression are almost always charged with infanticide and often given non-custodial sentences. Why should killing a kitten be treated more severely than killing a baby just because the depression is psychotic rather tnan post-natal?

      You ask whether she would harm herself by walking in front of a bus or putting her hand in boiling water. Again, we don’t know the precise details of her condition but self-harming and suicidal thoughts and behaviour are very common in those with psychotic depression. The suicide rate, for example, is about 5 times higher than that for people with ordinary depression.

      1. It can be really difficult to compare sentencing across different offences. For instance (assuming fitness to plead, etc) a mentally ill shoplifter may well go to prison, whereas a mother with post-natal depression who kills her baby probably wouldn’t. Infanticide is more serious than shoplifting. It makes sense to lawyers, but is tricky to explain in a straightforward way.

        As it happens, I agree with you on the above point.

  3. Aww she’ll be inside and tortured for 7 weeks, then released feeling worse. Fitting punishment really. Shame they’re not going to cook her internal organs too.

    She knew what she was doing. Mental Illness doesn’t mean you don’t have the capacity to judge the difference between right and wrong.

    If we abolish sentences for the mentally ill then the amount of people claiming mental ill health would go up.

      1. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion and to accuse an opinion different to yours of not being enlightened is a bit pathetic.

        Personally I feel she used her mental illness as an excuse for what she did. I have suffered with mental illness and know the difference between right and wrong.

        But have it your way and we can abolish sentences for the mentally ill and have them free to perform all crimes and to be exploited by those who aren’t of mental ill health.

    1. Well said anon. If she did not know what she was doing, then why turn the microwave off mid-course? This shows her as the calculated killer that she is. 49 days in prison. That’s less than 1 day for every minute of torture that Mowgli endured. My only regret now is of a repeat offence – either detain her indefinitely, or let her return to her life and.see.what.happens.

  4. I believe she was mentally ill, but we can’t just not teach her right from wrong. Being mentally ill is no excuse for cruelty and personally I think the punishment should have been far more harsh. She placed a helpless animal into a microwave and cooked its internal organs, it then took an additional 90 minutes (that’s an HOUR AND A HALF for those of you who can’t appreciate the length of time this was) for the poor thing to die. If you ask me the punishment was too lenient. Some people only understand when pain is inflicted upon them, and I hope that someday she is TRULY punished for what she did. She is a horrible person who doesn’t deserve the sympathy she has been getting. We used to cull the weak and feeble-minded. The human race degenerates a little bit more every time we go out of our way to preserve weak genes.

  5. Seriously? Tree hugging society, if she’s a known risk then she should have not been put in prison after this but ten years in secure mental care with no access to a microwave except for herself. Animals have rights too, more than she deserves, typical jobless benefit scum, probably nothing wrong with her just says the right things to the docs to keep her in benefit and out of work being paid

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