Family members at the funeral of a British soldier killed on the streets of London by two men who said they were avenging Muslim deaths. Photographer: John Giles - WPA Pool/Getty Images
Family members at the funeral of a British soldier killed on the streets of London by two men who said they were avenging Muslim deaths. Photographer: John Giles - WPA Pool/Getty Images

Should a man convicted of a murder in which he bought a set of knives for the purpose, sharpened them, sat in wait, ran the victim over with a car and dragged him into the street to sever his head from his body be given the hope of release from prison on good behavior?

That is the question that delayed the sentencing of Michael Adebolajo until today, after his December conviction for the murder of a British soldier, fusilier Lee Rigby, on a London street. The judge in the case had delayed today's hearing until an English Court of Appeal ruled on whether a decision last year by the Strasbourg-based European Court of Human Rights had made it illegal for the U.K. to continue handing out so-called whole-life sentences, a life term that offers no chance of parole.

The appeals court decided that life can indeed mean life, so Justice Nigel Sweeney today gave Adebolajo, 29, life without parole. It's hard to imagine a better candidate for such a sentence than the leader of the two-man terrorist squad that murdered Rigby. His accomplice, the mentally troubled Michael Adebowale, 22, received a life sentence with the possibility of parole after 45 years.

This was an extraordinary crime. After the murder, the two men waited at the scene for police to arrive, justifying their actions in statements captured on the camera phones of passers-by. U.K.-born Adebolajo gesticulated with blood-soaked hands as he spoke. The men said they had acted to avenge Muslims killed abroad by the British military. When police arrived, the killers ran at them waving an unloaded gun. They said later they had planned on being shot dead and martyred.

The case, unsurprisingly, triggered public outrage and demands for punishment commensurate with the attack. Soon after the murder, a column in the popular Daily Mail newspaper proposed that the men be tried not just for murder but treason. The small crowd outside the Old Bailey court house today comprised mainly members of the racist English Defense League. The marginally less extreme British National Party set up a mock gallows. Both groups advocate capital punishment.

The U.K. abolished the death penalty in 1969 for all crimes but treason, and for treason in 1998; it can't restore restore executions so long as it is a member of the European Union. Last July, the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg ruled that life without the prospect of release upon rehabilitation is torture. Under U.K. law, prisoners awarded whole-life sentences can be released, but only if they are terminally ill or physically incapacitated. The Strasbourg judges decided that could not "really be considered release at all."

No doubt putting a person in a position where he knows he will never experience freedom again, no matter what he does, will affect him psychologically. But that doesn't make it torture. It's also true that a whole-life sentence can reduce the incentive to behave well in prison, as was argued in Strasbourg. But the needs of justice shouldn't be subservient to a preference for quiescent inmates.

Capital punishment is no answer because it is irreversible; legal systems make mistakes, and nothing can be worth the execution of an innocent man or woman. Life without parole seems the right alternative for cases so savage that the death penalty would otherwise be justified. For the family of the victim, it provides certainty that the killer will never walk free unless new evidence emerges to demonstrate his innocence.

Justice Sweeney reasonably concluded today that there was "no real prospect of rehabilitation" for Adebolajo, who had to be removed from the courtroom before sentencing because he became violent. The judge also found that this had been an "exceptional" murder, "done for the purpose of advancing a political, religious or ideological cause" -- the hurdle to be crossed in order to impose a whole-life sentence. That seems right, too. To address the European Court's ruling, the U.K. appeals court adopted a fudge. It ruled that the court in Strasbourg didn't actually outlaw whole-life sentences but just said each inmate's case had to be occasionally reviewed to determine whether keeping the prisoner in jail was still warranted.

Rigby's family said they were happy with his murderers' sentences. They're assuming that even if there are periodic reviews of Adebolajo's case, no panel will decide he is behaving so nicely in jail that he deserves to go free. I hope they're right.

(Marc Champion is a Bloomberg View editorial board member. Follow him on Twitter at @MarcChampion1.)

To contact the writer of this article: Marc Champion at mchampion7@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Lisa Beyer at lbeyer4@bloomberg.net