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Wednesday, November 05, 2014 

On naming Will Cornick.

Hard cases, so it goes, make bad law.  Much the same applies when it comes to what judges themselves recognise are extraordinary cases.  The murder of Ann Maguire, stabbed to death in her classroom by a then 15-year-old pupil, named as William Cornick after the judge lifted the legal restrictions on naming juveniles accused and convicted of criminal offences, is sadly not entirely without precedent.  Maguire did not so much as intervene in a fight as headmaster Philip Lawrence did, though; she died purely as a result of Cornick's long developing irrational hatred of her, fostered by what might well have been similarly developing personality disorders.

As always in these instances, especially when someone pleads guilty at all but the first opportunity, how much of what would have been the prosecution case can be taken as beyond dispute is open to doubt.  Despite media reporting which might give the impression, Mr Justice Coulson in his sentencing remarks does not accept without question that Cornick had been planning to kill Maguire for the best part of three years, although Cornick had certainly not hidden the violent animosity he felt towards her.  At Christmas last year he told a friend on Facebook he intended to "brutally kill" her, later writing in February of how Maguire "deserves more than death more than pain torture and more than anything that we can understand".  He later told the prosecution's leading psychiatric expert he firmly made up his mind to kill Maguire the Thursday before the murder, rather than killing himself.  Whether he truly intended to also kill or at least attempt to kill two other teachers, as has been reported, is dubious; after stabbing Maguire the opportunity to seek them out had he so wished was there.  He instead went and calmly sat back down in the classroom, remarked it was a pity how she was (at that point) still alive and then gave himself up meekly when two other teachers arrived.

Cornick's actions are not just unusual in terms of how minors rarely kill, and how when they do they most often kill other children, but in that he killed both an adult and one in a position of authority.  The first apparent instance of a student killing a teacher in the classroom itself in this country, a grim fact that brings into focus how we've escaped the worst of the violence other nations have experienced in schools since the Dunblane massacre, it would have taken an especially brave, or indeed, foolish, judge to refuse the request from the media for the section 39 order preventing his identification to be lifted.  More eyebrow raising perhaps is that the application was led by the Guardian.

One letter writer criticising the paper comments on how the leader in defence of the application seems almost embarrassed at its role.  Certainly, by far the most important principle at work is that justice should be seen to be done.  This is obviously not an absolute: most I suspect would now accept the decision by Mr Justice Morland to lift the s39 order on Jon Venables and Robert Thompson was the wrong one, fuelling rather than dampening the moral panic that followed the murder of James Bulger, as David Omand noted in his review (PDF) into what, if anything went wrong in the supervision of Venables following his conviction for possessing child pornography.  In his extended reasoning on why he is lifting the order, Mr Justice Coulson dismisses the arguments made by Cornick's defence counsel that it could affect his right to life under the HRA, opening him to attack by others at the secure unit where he is detained, and could in turn increase his risk of suicide.  As he is already on permanent 24-hour suicide watch, which in turn limits his interactions with others being held, the increased risk is at least for now fairly negligible.

Where Coulson's balancing of Cornick's welfare with the right of the press to name him is more questionable is on how it could affect his parents, and on the wider issues raised by the crime itself.  In an especially unusual move, Cornick's parents sat alongside him in the dock as he was sentenced, a request allowed by Coulson.  As they've more than reasonably refused interviews and requested privacy, we can't know their exact thinking so can only guess, but you would hazard it was a gesture meant for Maguire's friends and relatives, expressing the remorse and guilt their son has refused to, hating what he did while still being there for him.  Coulson suggests this level of support is unlikely to be affected by his being named, but there is surely a myriad of difference between being known locally as the parents of a notorious killer, and then suddenly being thrust into the limelight nationally as such.  At the end of his ruling Coulson expressly criticises the media for how they conducted themselves outside court on Monday, calling it "shameful", and this was in reference to how journalists and photographers jumped onto the car bringing the Maguire family to the hearing.  If that's how they acted towards the victim's relatives, just what behaviour can the Cornicks expect?

Equally problematic is Coulson's view that debate on "the safety of teachers, the possibility of American-style security measures in schools, and the dangers of 'internet loners' concocting violent fantasies on the internet" will be informed by Cornick's naming.  As he says, this is an exceptional case.  It is however very far from exceptional for teenagers to have violent fantasies, at the same time as not having the slightest inclination of carrying them out in reality.  Few if any of Cornick's friends seem to have believed he was truly capable of such a horrific act of violence until it was too late to prevent it.  Coverage has focused not so much on the rarity of Cornick's crime as it has on whether he could have been stopped, as well as his wholesale lack of remorse and empathy for his victim.  Cornick may not have been aiming for notoriety as some others who have committed acts of violence at their schools have, but it is nonetheless what his crime has wrought.  Plastering his face across front pages, this boy least likely to kill, who hid "strong feelings of anger" beneath his "outward appearance", does not seem likely to deter those harbouring similar feelings exacerbated by mental health problems or disorders.

Coulson for his part dismisses any naysayers on just how much of a deterrent naming is, writing "Ill-informed commentators may scoff, but those of us involved in the criminal justice system know that deterrence will almost always be a factor in the naming of those involved in offences such as this".  Some of us may indeed be ill-informed, but is someone such as Frances Crook, or Ben Gunn for that matter?  Unlike others who have questioned the sentence itself, in the circumstances it does not seem excessive for a pre-meditated, brutal murder committed in front of other children, even with Cornick's age and capacity for rehabilitation taken into account.  If the psychiatrists and psychologists who have spoken with and examined him at length are right in that he has a personality disorder with marked psychopathic traits, he might will never be released.

Naming Cornick has also had the effect of putting attention almost wholly on him rather than on Maguire and the influence she had on so many lives.  Most of us remember a teacher who went beyond mere platitudes and was actively inspirational, for whom nothing was too much trouble, who could be a friend at the same as demanding that you aspire for more than just mediocrity.  For 40 years it seems Maguire was that teacher, leaving separate generations much to be thankful to her for.  All until a indistinct, hateful young man took against her for reasons no one, not even he can properly explain.  Justice might have been served by naming him, but it also would have been in two years' time when he reaches 18 and his protection under s39 lapses.  It would have allowed Maguire to be remembered as she deserved to be, rather than as a bit-part in a story where the victim always ranks after the perpetrator.

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