Steven Simpson was killed in June 2012 on the night of his 18th birthday party. He was gay, had Asperger's Syndrome, epilepsy and a speech impairment. Homophobic abuse was scrawled across his semi-naked body, before tanning oil was poured over him and he was set alight. In our view, the killing of Steven Simpson was quite clearly a hate crime motivated by both his sexual orientation and disability. So why was it not treated as such by the judge who sentenced Jordan Sheard to a custodial sentence of just three and a half years for manslaughter? The Court of Appeal may soon provide an answer to that question.
Upon learning of the sentencing of Jordan Sheard at Sheffield Crown Court on 21 March 2013, Stop Hate UK reviewed the available media coverage of the case. It appeared that although the Crown Prosecution Service had presented the case as hate-motivated in court, the judge did not take the view that hostility motivated by either sexual orientation or disability had been proven.
When a judge considers that an offence is proven to be motivated by hostility towards disability or sexual orientation, under section 146 of the Criminal Justice Act 2003 it must be stated in open court that the offence was one of hostility and the sentence must be increased to reflect that as an aggravating factor. The judge did neither during the sentencing of Jordan Sheard and in fact it appears that the only aggravating factor the judge took into account was Jordan Sheard fleeing the scene, after having set Steven alight.
We consider that the courts sometimes fail to recognize disability hate crime, because judges can miss or misunderstand the element of disability-motivated hostility present in the offence. In the absence of any clear and explicit language used to demonstrate hostility towards disability, that element of the offence is more nuanced and may only be immediately obvious to those of us with experience of dealing with cases of mate crime, where the perpetrator and victim appear to be friends but underneath the veneer of friendship is abuse and exploitation. Whilst proving that the offence was motivated by disability may involve an expert analysis, the homophobic language written upon Steven's body was quite literally staring the court in the face.