Jessica McCagh's killer gets 21 years under tougher sentencing rule

A YOUTH who murdered his girlfriend by soaking her in petrol and then setting her alight was ordered yesterday to serve at least 21 years' detention, in one of the first tests of Scotland's new, tougher sentencing regime for killers.

Until the changes introduced by a landmark appeal court judgment, Stewart Blackburn, 18, might have received a minimum term of about 16 to 18 years under a life sentence, for a crime condemned by a judge as showing "quite extraordinary cruelty".

The father of the victim, Jessica McCagh, 17, welcomed the increased level of punishment, and said he hoped the killer of his "lovely wee lassie" would never be released.

After Blackburn's attack on Jessica, Garry McCagh, 50, had found his daughter with horrendous burns and cradled her in his arms. She managed to speak a few words through her pain, telling him: "I don't want to die – I love you."

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As he left the sentencing hearing at the High Court in Edinburgh with Jessica's mother, Marion, 47, and other members of their family, Mr McCagh said: "The nightmare when I found her will always haunt me, and sitting beside her bed in that hospital.

"She was a lovely wee lassie. I am going to miss her very, very much. We will never forget her. He took something precious away from me."

Expressing anger towards Blackburn, Mr McCagh, an agricultural gangmaster, of Arbroath, added: "I am happy with the 21 years but life should mean life. I just hope he never gets out."

The family praised the efforts of Blackburn's neighbour, Ricci Foreman, 19, who tried to put out the flames engulfing Jessica's body.

Mr McCagh said: "That guy should be honoured, a medal or a certificate or something, for being so brave."

Jessica and Blackburn had been in a relationship for some time, but, on the night of her death in April last year, she had told friends at a party she was leaving him.

On their way home to his flat in Arbroath, Blackburn – described as being "legless" through drink – pushed her into a hedge and punched her.

The row continued in the flat, and Blackburn claimed petrol had spilled on to Jessica and was ignited by a burning flake from a cannabis joint. The petrol had been in the flat because he had been repairing a motorbike and had drained the fuel tank, he claimed.

However, the jury at Blackburn's trial last month rejected his version, which would have allowed him to be convicted of the lesser crime of culpable homicide and to have received a lighter sentence. He was convicted of murder, by deliberately dousing her and a bed with petrol and setting them alight.

Lord Bracadale told Blackburn that a sentence of detention for life was mandatory for murder. Also, the judge had to set the minimum term which Blackburn would have to serve before he could be considered for parole.

Lord Bracadale said Blackburn had threatened on an earlier occasion to use petrol to torch the home of Jessica's parents while she was staying there. During the preparation of background sentencing reports, Blackburn also admitted that, aged 13, he threw a petrol bomb at a house because of a fall-out with the occupant.

He had a previous conviction for assault since becoming an adult, and a history of violence as a child.

"The evidence disclosed that there were three stages in the murder of Jessica McCagh," said Lord Bracadale. "First, you threw petrol over her. Then you set fire to her. The expert evidence made it clear that that was a more difficult thing to do than many of us would have thought, and must have involved holding a naked flame at her or the bedclothes in order to set her alight.

"Once she was a alight, you did something of quite extraordinary cruelty – you held the door of the bedroom shut to prevent her escape. Jessica McCagh was your girlfriend, aged 17 years, and she died a terrible death at your hands."

The judge said the crime's level of wickedness had to mean a long minimum term, which he set at 21 years.

The jury had heard that Blackburn fled the flat, shouting: "Jessica's dead." He went to her parents' home and repeated to them that she was dead. His neighbour, Mr Foreman, tried to save Jessica and threw water from a fishtank over her but the flames kept reigniting.

He got her out of the flat as her father arrived on the scene. She had suffered fourth-degree burns which affected more than 85 per cent of her body.

Jessica died in hospital later that day. More than 400 people attended her funeral.

An angry mob of about 200 gathered outside Arbroath Sheriff Court when Blackburn was due to make his first appearance on the murder charge. The hearing was moved to a police station. The prosecutor at Blackburn's trial, Frank Mulholland, QC, the solicitor-general, said of the murder: "It is difficult to envisage more cruel or sadistic treatment of another human being."

Blackburn was from Dundee and spent much of his childhood in foster care. He subsequently moved to a small flat in Arbroath and often smoked cannabis there with other teenagers.

He has previous convictions for housebreaking and assaulting Jessica's father.

Jessica – the youngest of five daughters – had gone out with Blackburn since she was 15.

PROFILE

AT only 17 years old, Jessica McCagh had already made an impression on many people. The former Arbroath High School pupil was so well-liked that more than 400 people attended her funeral to say their final farewells to a loved relative and a true friend.

And when an angry crowd of 200 gathered outside the local sheriff court when Stewart Blackburn was to make his first appearance on the murder charge, forcing the hearing to be moved to a police station, it was not just the horrific manner of the death which aroused such outrage, it was also the fact that Jessica had been the victim.

Detective Inspector Iain Wales, who led the Tayside Police murder inquiry, said: "It is a tragedy when a young life is ended so suddenly and so utterly needlessly. It is impossible to truly comprehend what Jessica suffered."

The trial heard that Jessica was a pleasant young woman with her whole life ahead of her. Her relationship with Blackburn had started when she was 15, but it was stormy and they had regular heated exchanges. They would drink with a wide circle of friends and Blackburn told police that he often became violent after drinking.

Jessica was the youngest of five daughters. Her father, Garry McCagh, 50, and his wife, Marion, 47, described her as "just a lovely lassie, gentle, sweet and a bundle of love."

They said: "We hope no parent will ever have to endure the anguish we have suffered since Jessica was taken from us."