Paige Doherty killer John Leathem wins appeal against ‘excessive’ sentence

The man convicted of the murder of school girl Paige Doherty has had his sentence reduced following an appeal after claiming that the punishment part imposed was “excessive”.

John Leathem was sentenced to life imprisonment with a punishment part of 27 years after pleading guilty to the murder of the 15-year-old in September 2016, but the High Court of Justiciary Appeal Court ruled that the length of the punishment part selected was “inconsistent with current sentencing practice” and reduced the sentence to 23 years.

The Lord Justice Clerk, Lady Dorrian, sitting with Lord Bracadale and Lord Turnbull, heard that Leathem, 32, pled guilty at the High Court in Glasgow to charges of murder and attempting to pervert the course of justice.

On the murder charge he was sentenced to a punishment part of 27 years, which was reduced from 30 years to reflect the guilty plea. He was also given a concurrent period of six years for attempting to defeat the ends of justice.

Leave to appeal was granted to challenge the length of the punishment part selected, the sentence imposed on the attempt to pervert the course of justice charge and the level of sentence discount afforded.

On behalf of the appellant it was argued that the starting point for the duration of the punishment part was “excessive” and “inconsistent comparatively with contemporary sentencing practice”.

It was also submitted that the selection of a concurrent sentence of six years, which had led the sentencing judge to enhance the period of the punishment part by three years, was also excessive and that the period of discount permitted was “insufficient” to reflect the proper “utilitarian value” of the plea.

It was accepted that there were relevant and important aggravating features present in the appellant’s conduct, namely the “vicious and sustained” nature of the attack, the fact that the victim was a child and the appellant’s conduct in the period between the murder and the date of his arrest.

However, it was pointed out that there were also relevant mitigating features to be taken into account, including the fact the appellant was a first offender, he was married with a young daughter and ran a moderately successful business within the local community where he lived.

His actions were said to be “out of character”, the murder was committed “spontaneously” and he had expressed “genuine remorse”.

It was submitted that an analysis of the cases to which he referred – including the cases of Robert Chalmers in 2014, Alexander Pacteau in 2015 and Tanveer Ahmed in 2016 – demonstrated that they all contained “aggravating features of a more numerous and significant nature” than were present in the appellant’s case, which led to the conclusion that a punishment part in the order of 30 years were restricted to cases which are significantly more serious than the present in relation to cause of death and which contain elements such as dismemberment after death.

It was also argued, again with reference to Chalmers, that the sentence imposed on the attempt to defeat the ends of justice charge was excessive.

The appeal judges agreed and quashed the punishment part imposed.

Delivering the opinion of the court, Lord Turnbull said: “As the presiding judge made clear in her sentencing statement, the appellant in the present case engaged in a brutal, savage and frenzied attack on a young defenceless child before attempting to cover up his actions. In the course of that attack he appears to have struck her in the region of 146 times. Each case must be determined upon its own facts and those just identified demonstrate that the appellant committed a most appalling murder.

“Even in such cases though, all of the relevant circumstances require to be given proper weight before the appropriate sentence can be identified. The appellant was a family man of previous good character who had not offended before and who had expressed remorse. The murder was not premeditated. The extent of his efforts to defeat the ends of justice can be measured against certain of the conduct which took place in some of the other cases referred to above.

“When these circumstances are all taken account of we think it can be said that the length of the punishment part selected in this case was inconsistent with current sentencing practice and was excessive.”

The judges also held that by comparison with the circumstances of the case of Chalmers v HM Advocate, the sentence imposed on the appellant in respect of charge 2, and the resultant enhancement of the punishment part by a period of three years, was excessive.

Lord Turnbull added: “In our opinion the appropriate starting point for the punishment part selected in respect of charge 1 ought to have been a period of 25 years. The appropriate sentence on charge 2 ought to have been one of three years’ imprisonment to run concurrently with the life sentence imposed. In these circumstances it would have been appropriate to enhance the punishment part by a further period of one year to a total of 26 years.

“Thereafter the question of reflecting the utilitarian value of the plea by way of sentencing discount arises. In light of the history of case preparation as given to us by the advocate depute we consider that the utilitarian value of the plea merits no more than a discount of three years. This would result in an overall punishment part of 23 years.”

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