Holyrood told life should mean life after Paige Doherty case

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A bid to give judges the power to hand down sentences that would see Scotland’s worst killers die in jail is to be launched in the Scottish Parliament.

Conservative leader Ruth Davidson said her party would bring forward a Member’s Bill to introduce whole-life tariffs following outrage caused by a cut in the jail term to be served by the killer of the schoolgirl Paige Doherty.

Earlier this month the Appeal Court in Edinburgh cut the 27-year sentence originally imposed on John Leathem to 23 years.

He admitted killing the 15-year-old in a frenzied knife attack when she stopped for a breakfast roll at his Delicious Deli in Clydebank, West Dunbartonshire, on 19 March last year. He dumped her body, which suffered 146 injuries, in a wooded area next to Glasgow’s Great Western Road.

Leathem was given a mandatory life sentence at the High Court in Glasgow in October and ordered to spend at least 27 years behind bars. He then launched an appeal and his sentence was recently reduced by four years.

Ms Davidson brought his case to the attention of Nicola Sturgeon at First Minister’s Questions.

“There are too many families who have seen their loved ones killed who simply do not feel they are getting the justice they deserve,” Ms Davidson said.

“They feel the dice is loaded against them and in favour of the criminals.”

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She then announced her party’s plan to press ahead with a proposal to change the law so that life means life.

The Member’s Bill will be in the name of Conservative justice spokesman Douglas Ross and would require the support of two MSPs from other parties to go forward.

Ms Davidson acknowledged the independence of the judiciary but pointed out that parliament makes laws and can set sentencing frameworks.

Ms Davidson said: “As it stands, our judges do not have the tool of a whole-life tariff at their disposal and we say they should. We can sit in this parliament and express outrage or we can do something about it.

“I want to do something about it. If the Scottish Government won’t act, I can say the Scottish Conservatives will do so. We should change the law so that families like Paige Doherty’s feel that the law is tipping back in their favour and that the worst criminals are kept off the streets forever. We have waited too long. Isn’t it time we all acted?”

Ms Sturgeon said she would consider proposals for change that are evidence-based and are consistent with European Court of Human Rights.

The First Minister said: “We will continue to consider openly and frankly any changes that are considered to be appropriate.”

The opinion of the Appeal court judges, delivered by Lord Turnbull, said Leatham had committed a “most appalling murder” but other circumstances needed to be given “proper weight”.

At a hearing in December, Leathem’s lawyer, Iain Duguid QC, said the punishment part of his client’s sentence – the minimum time he must serve – was higher than other murder cases involving young victims.

Among the cases he highlighted was that of Alexander Pacteau, 22, who was jailed for 23 years for murdering Irish student Karen Buckley, 24, in Glasgow. Pacteau had then tried to dispose of Karen’s body in a barrel of chemicals.

The judges said that Paige’s murder was not premeditated and concluded Leatham’s punishment was inconsistent with current sentencing practice and was excessive. 

Earlier Ms Sturgeon said she had met Paige Doherty’s mother and indicated she disagreed with the cut to Leatham’s sentence.

“There are no words to express the pain and grief her family had gone through,” the First Minister said. “There are occasions where I wish different decisions had been reached [by courts]. But I respect the independence of the judiciary.”

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