Youth who burned girlfriend to death is 'absolute evil'

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A TEENAGER who soaked his girlfriend in petrol and then set her alight was found guilty of her murder yesterday, in one of the most horrific cases ever heard in a Scottish court.

• Stewart Blackburn killed Jessica McCagh by setting her on fire.

Stewart Blackburn, 18, faces a life sentence for killing 17-year-old Jessica McCagh in a crime which a judge said would "leave all right-thinking people disturbed".

Weeping after the verdict, Jessica's father, Garry McCagh, condemned Blackburn as "evil", adding: "We know he's going away for life. I hope he never gets out."

Blackburn doused Jessica in fuel before setting her on fire with a lighter at his Arbroath flat, after she told friends she was leaving him. As she burned, Blackburn ignored her screams and even held a bedroom door closed to prevent her escaping.

Jessica, her body still alight, eventually fled the flat to lie in the street, dying from horrific burns. As her father cradled her in his arms, she told him: "I don't want to die – I love you."

• Jessica McCagh's father Garry McCagh leads his wife Marion (right) and the rest of his family out of Livingston High Court. Picture: Dan Phillips/TSPL

Blackburn was found guilty on all counts at the High Court in Livingston yesterday. The killer stared at the ceiling as judge Lord Bracadale told him: "She (Jessica] was your girlfriend, aged 17 years, and she died a terrible death at your hands. Her family are left bereft. These acts demonstrate a degree of wickedness on your part which will leave all right-thinking people disturbed."

Detective Inspector Iain Wales, who led the Tayside Police inquiry, said Blackburn had shown a "contemptible disregard" for the girl he claimed to love.

"The handle on the outside of the door was badly bent, and our assessment is that that was held by Blackburn, so the door was closed and Jessica was confined within that room," DI Wales said.

"What kind of individual is he? Absolutely evil, I would suggest. To do that to another human, especially someone he claimed to have loved, is just beyond belief. It was a dreadful way to die."

Sentencing was deferred for reports until 5 January.

Jessica's mother Marion, 47, and father Garry, 50, were in court to hear the verdict, having had to give evidence against Blackburn.

As the unanimous guilty verdict was delivered by the foreman of the jury, there were muted cries of "yes" from family members.

Last night, Mr McCagh said: "We all had tears running down our faces. We are delighted by the decision. We all know what's going to happen to him now. I hope he never gets out."

He continued: "He's not right in the head. He's evil. All we heard through the trial was his lies, lies, lies. He will always be a liar.

"Pleading not guilty shows you how selfish he is."

Outside the court, the family issued a prepared statement saying: "Blackburn has been found guilty of murdering our beautiful daughter in the most terrible and terrifying way.

"No parent should ever have to bury their child and we hope no parent will ever have to endure the anguish we have suffered since Jessica was taken from us.

"Jessica was the baby of the family, and we miss everything about her and always will."

Jessica's uncle, Stephen McCagh, said no punishment could make up for the barbarity of the crime. He said: "There is no excuse for what he did … the death sentence isn't good enough."

The High Court heard that before the murder, Jessica and Blackburn had left a party together, where she had threatened to break up with him. On their way home, Blackburn pushed her into a hedge and punched her, knocking her off her feet. When they reached his flat, the row – heard by neighbours – continued.

In a drunken rage, Blackburn poured at least a litre of petrol over Jessica, then held the naked flame from a lighter next to her. It is thought she was kneeling when she suddenly exploded in flames.

Far from helping to put out the fire that engulfed her, Blackburn abandoned her and fled the scene, shouting: "Jessica's dead."

His victim died in Dundee's Ninewells Hospital from fourth-degree burns that affected more than 85 per cent of her body.

Blackburn was arrested on 25 April – the day of the blaze and the day Jessica died.

More than 400 people attended her funeral in Arbroath on 14 May – her body being released only after pathologists had studied it for clues.

Two days after the murder, an angry mob of about 200 gathered outside Arbroath sheriff court, where Blackburn was due to make his first court appearance.

He went on to offer prosecutors a guilty plea of culpable homicide, but denied murder.

After the verdict, Solicitor-General Frank Mulholland, QC, prosecuting, told the judge: "It is difficult to envisage more cruel or sadistic treatment of another human being."

Profile: The killer

The product of a broken home in Dundee, Stewart Blackburn was a three-times-convicted thief, thug and housebreaker, who had spent much of his childhood in foster care.

On leaving social work care, Blackburn moved to Arbroath, where he lived in a small flat, often hosting parties and smoking cannabis there with other teenagers. The 18-year-old told police after his arrest for murdering Jessica McCagh that he often became violent after drinking, adding: "I always break my own stuff if I'm in a bad mood."

But there were many earlier indications of Blackburn's tendency towards violence. By the age of 18, he had racked up convictions for housebreaking and an assault on Jessica's father, Garry.

In a phone call to Jessica's mother nine months before the fatal fire, Blackburn threatened to petrol-bomb his girlfriend's family home.

It was not unusual for the pair to have heated exchanges.

On 25 April, they went to a party thrown by neighbour Gemma Moir, 20. Whatever caused Jessica's anger that night led to her threatening to leave Blackburn.

Tragically for Jessica, the threat to leave Blackburn saw him callously murder her just hours later.

Profile: The victim

JESSICA McCagh was described as a pleasant 17-year-old who was loved by her family and had her whole life ahead of her.

Nowhere was the outrage at her murder felt more keenly than in Arbroath, the Angus town where she spent all the years of her short life.

The "baby" of the five daughters of respected local couple Garry McCagh, 50, a gangmaster in the local agricultural industry, and his wife Marion, 47, Jessica was a popular teenager in the town, where she had attended Arbroath High School.

She was, in the words of her father in whose arms she died from her horrific injuries, "just a lovely lassie, gentle, sweet and a bundle of love".

The man who killed her, Stewart Blackburn, had been her boyfriend since she was only 15.

Their relationship was a stormy one, and the couple were often seen arguing – often after drinking together with their wide circle of teenage friends.

Detective Inspector Iain Wales, who led the Tayside Police murder inquiry, said it was "impossible to truly comprehend" what Jessica suffered in the early hours of 25 April. He added: "It is a tragedy when a young life is ended so suddenly and so utterly needlessly."

Gruesome evidence that unpicked Blackburn lies

STEWART Blackburn maintained a lie throughout the trial that he had not tried to kill Jessica, but had "slapped" petrol on her before the liquid was ignited by a burning flake from a cannabis joint.

He never gave evidence, but hoped that if the jury believed the story his defence team put forward, he would receive a lesser sentence for culpable homicide.

Prosecutors, who had insisted on the trial for murder, nailed him with compelling evidence showing the fire could have been lit only by a naked flame.

Blackburn's version of events was "so unlikely" it could be dismissed, forensic expert Andrew Wade told jurors. He explained that it was only in "Hollywood movies" that petrol was ignited by lit cigarettes.

The jury in the murder trial faced evidence so gruesome some images were held back from them. Jessica's mother, Marion, left the court in tears several times as graphic details of her daughter's death were recalled.

A plastic surgeon described how Jessica suffered massive burns and had no chance of surviving her injuries.

Dr Annis Nasan said surgeons had slashed through Jessica's skin to prevent her burns tightening and cutting off her blood supply, but she lost her fight for life hours after the blaze. Her family were with her when she died.

Dr David Sadler, who carried out a post-mortem examination, said Jessica's death had been caused by the fire and her injuries had been "unsurvivable".

The former Arbroath High School pupil had burns to 80-85 per cent of her body, the majority described as "full-thickness burns" affecting the skin's outer and inner layers. Jurors were shown two photographs of her charred body, but were spared the most harrowing pictures.

Blackburn variously wept, giggled and fidgeted in his seat in the dock during the trial.

It was revealed in a police interview that Blackburn had tried to take his own life while in custody. He also wrote to Jessica's family to beg forgiveness, but they were sickened by his pleas.