A 15-year-old boy was found guilty at Preston Crown Court today of murdering a young woman who was kicked to death in a park because she was dressed as a Goth, writes Fran Yeoman.
Brendan Harris brutally attacked Sophie Lancaster, 20, as she pleaded with him and four other youths assaulting her boyfriend, Robert Maltby, 21.
Following the guilty verdict, Judge Anthony Russell QC lifted an order banning identification of Harris and Ryan Herbert, 16, who had previously pleaded guilty to Miss Lancaster’s murder.
Preston Crown Court heard the gang behaved “like a pack of wild animals”, launching vicious and unprovoked attacks on the couple, from Bacup, Lancashire, simply because they dressed differently.
Miss Lancaster, a gap year student, died from serious head injuries two weeks after the incident in Stubbylee Park, Bacup, in the early hours of August 11 last year. Her injuries were so severe that when paramedics arrived at the scene, they could not tell whether she was male or female.
Mr Maltby, an art student, survived but has not fully recovered from the attack.
Detective Superintendent Mick Gradwell said the alcohol-fuelled gang who attacked Miss Lancaster and Mr Maltby had behaved like animals, and that the case was “the most appalling example” of an element of British youth that enjoy extreme violence.
He said that both Harris and his mother had laughed throughout police interviews and showed a “shocking level of disregard” for the consequences of his behaviour.
Referring to the date on which Harris and Herbert are due to be sentenced, he said: “I am sure that when the barristers are in front of the judge on April 28 these people will show remorse.” But he said that in his view they had so far displayed no such attitude.
Today, Mr Maltby – who had been attacked four times before that night – said he had lost his “entire world” and wishes the gang that kicked her to death had killed him instead.
Sylvia Lancaster, Sophie’s mother, issued a statement calling for something positive to come from her daughter’s death.
“Her death has also ruined the lives of those responsible as well as the lives of their families”, she said.
“On a wider scale it is a tragedy for a society which in the past has prided itself on its tolerance.
“If we are to make any sense of Sophie’s death, perhaps we should see it as an opportunity to examine how all of us, particularly younger people, can become blinkered. I believe that today, more than ever, we need to show respect, compassion and tolerance for those whose appearance and culture differs from our own.”
On the night they were attacked, Miss Lancaster and her boyfriend were walking home to their flat shortly after midnight when they began chatting with a group of teenagers.
The conversation was initially good-natured, and the couple handed out cigarettes, before the mood changed suddenly when the five teenager boys turned on Mr Maltby in the skating area of the park.
During his trial, Harris admitted starting the chain of events that led to Miss Lancaster’s death by punching Mr Maltby once in the face, but said he then played no further part in attacking him or his girlfriend.
He told police he did not know why he landed the first blow and was just “drunk and showing off”.
Giving evidence at the two-week trial, he said he stood aside as up to four youths continued the attack on Mr Maltby. He then looked on as Miss Lancaster was hit in the face with a volley kick from a 16-year-old boy, Ryan Herbert, who has already pleaded guilty to her murder.
Harris told the jury that Herbert was solely responsible for her death. He was however convicted of murder after a number of witnesses, all aged between 14 and 17 – some of whom knew the defendant – claimed he was “in the thick of it”, as he joined in the kicking and stamping of Miss Lancaster as she cradled her unconscious boyfriend’s head.
Both Harris and Herbert have pleaded guilty to causing grievous bodily harm to Mr Maltby, along with three other males, two aged 17 and one aged 16 who cannot be named for legal reasons
It also emerged that Herbert and Harris, both from Bacup, have previous convictions after they chased a youth out of Stubbylee Park and assaulted him.
Both were given six months’ community service orders at Rossendale Youth Court for the attack in April last year.
Judge Russell praised the families of both Miss Lancaster and Mr Maltby, saying they had acted with dignity during what must have been “a very, very harrowing ordeal”.
He also publicly thanked the young witnesses who had helped the victims and given evidence in court despite loyalties that he described as “very strained”. He ordered them to be awarded £250 each by way of thanks.
The judge also explained that he was duty-bound to give Harris and Herbert life sentences given their convictions for murder, but that he would set the tariffs after reading pre-sentence reports.