The judge sentencing the defendant, in this case, made a number of notable comments which are relevant not only to the sentencing of children for murder but also to the sentencing of children more generally. Of note, the judge rejected an application by the media after conviction for the child’s identity to be revealed due to the need to safeguard the welfare of the defendant and his younger siblings.
The Defendant was convicted of the murder of Ava White, a 12-year-old girl, who died following an argument between Ava and the Defendant which led to him stabbing her in the neck with a knife. The Defendant pleaded not guilty on the basis of self-defence but was found guilty following trial.
In her sentencing remarks, the judge, Mrs Justice Yip, began by noting that although the starting point for murder for those under 18 has been changed by the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022 she was required to apply the old rules as the Defendant was convicted before the PCSCA 2022 came into force on 28 June 2022. As a result, the old regime necessitated a starting point of 12 years.
The new regime amends section 21 of the Sentencing Code to create a graduated scheme based on the offender’s age and the facts of the case, to match the starting points for over 18s more closely. Interestingly, despite the change, the judge did not consider that the new rules would lead to a different outcome in this case.
The judge noted that despite the lack of premeditation, the Defendant’s possession of the knife was an aggravating feature, and stressed the significance of the age of the victim:
It is also shocking and a serious feature that the victim was a 12 year old girl… You were both children, of a very similar size. This is not a case of using superior strength to overpower her. She saw herself as your equal and was not afraid to chase after you. But as this case demonstrates, groups of children are likely to come together in crowded areas and arguments can start over all sorts of things. Carrying a knife into such a situation and then using it against an unarmed child naturally causes concern and fear to the wider community. This is the real seriousness of this case.
The judge noted the requirement in paragraph 4.10 of the Sentencing Council’s Guideline on Sentencing Children and Young People, which states as follows:
It is important to consider whether the child or young person has the necessary maturity to appreciate fully the consequences of their conduct, the extent to which the child or young person has been acting on an impulsive basis and whether their conduct has been affected by inexperience, emotional volatility or negative influences
The Judge did acknowledge the impact on the Defendant’s culpability of his adverse childhood experiences and mental health difficulties would have had on his behaviour, noting that he had been diagnosed with ADHD and had attended a special school. The Defendant was also being assessed for Autism at the time of the offence. The judge stated as follows:
This was an impulsive act where your immaturity, the difficulties which had not been addressed at the time and your past experiences may have affected how you saw the threat of being chased and confronted by Ava. Taken together, this provides some mitigation which balances the impact of the aggravating factors.
However, the impact of the mitigation in relation to his immaturity was limited. The judge highlighted the fact he had taken steps to dispose of the evidence of the murder. As a result, she considered that this demonstrated an ability to understand and act on the consequences of his actions. The judge went on to highlight the lack of remorse he had shown immediately after having committed the murder.
In summing up, the judge felt that on balance, the aggravating factors slightly outweighed the mitigating factors and sentenced the Defendant to a minimum term of 13 years, less the 224 days already spent on remand. When that has elapsed, the Parole Board will decide whether he is released. He will be on licence for his entire life.
These sentencing remarks give a useful indication about the approach courts will take to cases such as these, where both the victim and the defendant are very young.
The remarks also provoke further thought, for example, in relation to the approach taken to the question of ‘remorse’, in light of the Defendant’s outstanding Autism assessment. The remarks did not appear to take into account that children with Autism are often deemed to lack remorse when in fact their reaction is different as a result of their neurodiversity.
A question not answered by this case, though very important going forward is how much the new rules concerning starting points for children convicted of murder will impact the length of sentence a child receives? Although in this case the judge commented that the new rules wouldn’t have made any difference, they will impact the sentences handed down to other under 18s who are convicted of murder.
Positively though, the defendant has remained anonymous, with the judge recognising that "the public interest in knowing the identity of the person who murdered Ava White is outweighed by the need to safeguard the welfare of the Defendant who is still only 15 years of age".
The judge added that "there are real and immediate concerns for the welfare of the Defendant and his younger siblings if his identity becomes more widely known".
Written by Robbie Eyles, Criminal Solicitor, Just for Kids Law