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High profile case raises questions over murder sentences

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Just over a week ago we saw the culmination of the tragic events which occurred at Corpus Christi Catholic College in April, with the sentencing of William Cornick at Leeds Crown Court.

The 16-year-old, who admitted the murder of Spanish teacher Ann Maguire, was told he would serve at least 20 years in prison.

Last week I was invited to provide my expert opinion on BBC Radio Leeds, addressing the following questions.

  1. Is the sentence appropriate and how long will Cornick serve?; and
  2. Is it unprecedented that a child’s name be revealed to the public, and was the Judge correct to do so?

There is always great confusion when murderers are sentenced as the general public believe that all defendants never serve more than half a custodial sentence.

That is not the case with murder as the Judge can only pass a life sentence and then set a minimum period before the person is eligible for release. It is at this stage that the Parole Board will look at the case, assess the risks to the public of further offending by the individual and, if satisfied it is safe, will release the offender. They will continue to be monitored by the authorities for the rest of their life. If the Parole Board believes the individual is still a risk to the public, they will remain in custody until the board is satisfied that it is safe to release them – should that date ever arrive.

When sentencing a child to murder, as was the case here, the sentence of life imprisonment remains the same, as do the release provisions. Many people will think that Cornick’s sentence was not long enough, especially bearing in mind the chilling lack of remorse shown following his brutal attack on someone who very highly regarded and over the years had touched so many lives in such a positive way. But as a professional, looking at the case dispassionately, I was surprised by the 20 year minimum term which he must serve before he can be released.

The reason I believe the sentence was too long is that for children who commit murder the starting point for the minimum term to be served is 12 years. The Judge must then take into account both the mitigating features, of which the guilty plea is one, and aggravating facts.

Clearly Mr Justice Coulson was of the view that the aggravating features greatly outweighed any mitigated circumstances and arrived at 20 years. I thought 16 years would have been more appropriate.

However, we are only talking about the length of time before Cornick will be eligible for release. If he maintains his current position of showing no remorse it is irrelevant whether the Judge set the period at 10 years, 16 years or 20 years as the Parole Board will never be satisfied the he is safe to leave custody and so he will remain there indefinitely. I suspect even if he does change his view of his horrific actions he will spend well in excess of 25 years in custody before serious consideration is given to his release.

The second question, regarding the teenager’s identity being made public, is more difficult to answer. The Judge cannot be criticised for his decision to release Cornick’s name as he was correct in law. Some would in fact argue that it made no difference as everyone in the community knew who he was and his details had been posted on social media almost immediately following the incident.

We have already seen that Cornick has been moved from one establishment due to the perceived risk to his safety. This threat is likely to follow him throughout his time in custody and he is therefore unlikely to spend long periods in any one establishment. This will result in the probation services finding it more difficult to address the causes of his behaviour.

Many people may argue that this work is unnecessary as he should never be released and this is difficult to argue against. However, treating him any differently to others in the prison system would set a dangerous precedent. If the ideology surrounding the sentencing of young offenders is rehabilitation, the law should protect this.

Therefore, it is clear to see the dangers of releasing the identity of children if it impacts on their ability to change for the better and lead a life away from crime. I would argue therefore that their identities should be protected at all costs. Social media is an impediment to this currently and steps must be taken to ensure the law keeps up to date with technology.

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