After manslaughter arrest in Adam Johnson case, what happens now? Explaining the legal process

More than two weeks have passed since Adam Johnson, the former NHL player, tragically died following a Challenge Cup match between his side Nottingham Panthers and the Sheffield Steelers on October 28.

Johnson, 29, was involved in an incident with Matt Petgrave, a Sheffield Steelers player, and had his neck cut by a skate.

He briefly stood up, bleeding heavily from the neck, and was helped to the side of the rink at Sheffield’s Utilita Arena by the referee and a team-mate before collapsing again. Johnson later died at Sheffield’s Northern General Hospital.

Johnson’s club, the Nottingham Panthers, described what happened as a “freak accident”.

An inquest into his death was opened and adjourned on November 3, and now South Yorkshire Police (SYP) has made an arrest in relation to its ongoing investigation.

What happened this week?

On Tuesday, SYP announced that a man, who has not been named, had been arrested on suspicion of manslaughter and taken into police custody. In a statement, it said, “Adam’s family is being supported through the investigation by our officers. They have asked for their privacy to be respected at this incredibly difficult time.”

Earlier today, the force confirmed that the man had been released on bail: “Our investigation continues and we will provide further updates as and when we can.”

On Tuesday, SYP detective chief superintendent Becs Horsfall had offered some detail as to the exact nature of the force’s enquiries.

“Our investigation launched immediately following this tragedy and we have been carrying out extensive enquiries ever since to piece together the events that led to the loss of Adam in these unprecedented circumstances,” she said, in a statement published on the SYP website.

“We have been speaking to highly specialised experts in their field to assist in our enquiries and continue to work closely with the health and safety department at Sheffield City Council, which is supporting our ongoing investigation.

“Adam’s death has sent shockwaves through many communities, from residents here to ice hockey fans across the world.”

Tributes paid to Adam Johnson by Nottingham Panthers fans (Daniel Taylor)

Why was the name of the man arrested not released by the police?

In the United Kingdom, arrested suspects usually have the right to privacy, unless they are later charged.

The courts in the UK believe the fact that someone is being investigated or has been arrested by the police is generally private to them. However, once they have been charged, it is legally permissible to name the defendant.

On rare occasions, it is legally safe to name someone before they are charged. This can be the case when they themselves have spoken out about the situation or if their arrest was highly public.

How is manslaughter defined under UK law?

The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) notes how manslaughter is often committed in one of three ways.

The first is killing with intent for murder, but where a partial defence applies, most notably loss of control or diminished responsibility. This is normally described as voluntary manslaughter.

The second way is where the conduct was “grossly negligent given the risk of death” and did kill, while the third is conduct taking “the form of an unlawful act involving a danger of some harm that resulted in death”. This tends to be described as involuntary manslaughter.

“Manslaughter is an unlawful killing without the intent to kill or cause serious harm,” Patrick Maguire, a partner at Horwich Cohen Coghlan Solicitors, tells The Athletic. “There are two classes of involuntary manslaughter. There is unlawful act manslaughter and manslaughter by gross negligence.”

Maguire explains that unlawful act manslaughter is “where someone is killed, but the person who has killed them has not intended to do so, but has done something that has caused a death”.

Is there a precedent for people being charged with manslaughter in a UK sports event?

“No,” says Maguire. “The police would investigate if there has been a suggestion of neglect or a conscious effort to harm someone. But there has been no precedent.

“Even in cases when there has been very serious injury caused to someone, falling short of death, it is often the case that the regulatory authorities of that particular sport or the governing body of that sport will get involved rather than the police dealing with it.

“It is a significant leap in the context of a sporting incident for someone to be arrested for manslaughter.”

What happens now?

Suspects who have been arrested are held in a custody cell and then interviewed by the police about the offence for which they have been arrested. They do not have to attend court at this stage.

The police can hold suspects for up to 24 hours before they have to charge them with a crime or release them, although they can apply to hold them for up to 96 hours if suspected of a serious crime, such as murder.

In the Adam Johnson case, the suspect has been released on police bail. If you are released on bail without being charged, that means the police are not yet ready to make a decision on your case but will continue their investigation.

If the police, with support from the CPS, decide to charge the suspect, then they will either be released on bail or held in custody until the court hearing.

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Nottingham Forest football fans pay tribute to Adam Johnson (Paul Ellis/AFP via Getty Images)

What are the possible punishments if someone is found guilty of manslaughter?

There is no mandatory sentence for manslaughter; punishments are decided by the ruling judge.

The maximum sentence a judge can impose for someone convicted of manslaughter is imprisonment for life. At the other end of the scale, and depending on the circumstances of the case, the judge can hand out a suspended sentence. This means the offender would not have to go to prison on the basis that they commit no further crimes and agree to any requirements that are set out by the judge.

Maguire observes that sentences of “up to 10 years are pretty common”.

Editor’s note: Comments for this story are disabled because of legal reasons. In the United Kingdom, suspects who are arrested have the right to privacy until police officially charge them with a crime.

(Top photo: Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

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