This case is a violent and tragic one, a murder and vicious attack that shouldn’t have taken place, it was one that remains fresh even now, 12 years later. Sophie Lancaster’s murder is one that still evokes sadness, fear and anger to everyone just like Sophie and her boyfriend Robert Maltby, who was also subjected to the vicious attack, but survived his injuries.
On 11th August 2007, Sophie and Robert were walking home after an evening out with friends when they decided to walk home through Stubbylee Park, Bacup, Lancashire. While at the park they encountered a gang of other youths, the youths followed the couple and out of nowhere assaulted Maltby, the gang kicked and punched him until he was on the ground unconscious, Sophie knelt down in bid to help her boyfriend by shielding the blows, but the gang turned their attention onto Sophie and kicked and punched her until she was bloodied and unresponsive. A 15-year-old girl who was with the gang, but not involved in the attack used his mobile phone to call for an ambulance and said “we need an ambulance. This mosher has just been banged, because he’s a mosher, we need an ambulance at Bacup park. Poor guy, I don’t know him and I’m crying my eyes out” she spoke of the attack on Sophie by saying “They were running over and just kicking her in the head and jumping up and down on her head”.
The killers were seen by other witnesses that said they were celebrating the attack by telling friends after the attack what they had done saying they’ve “done summat (something) good” following it with “There’s two moshers nearly dead up Bacup park – you wanna see them – they’re a right mess”
The paramedics that arrived on scene reported that they were unable to tell whether Sophie and Robert were male or female due to the severity of the beating, they also reported that there were clear boot prints visible on Sophie’s face. The couple were rushed to hospital, both unconscious. Maltby was in a coma for seven days, he suffered internal bleeding and memory loss when he regained consciousness, he said he did not recall anything leading up to or during the attack. Sophie was also in a coma, she remained unconscious for almost two weeks after the attack, her parents had to make the painful decision to turn off her life support after being told that her injuries were too great for her to survive. Sophie passed away on 24th August 2007 at Hope Hospital, Greater Manchester at the age of 20-years-old.
Five individuals were arrested after the attack following witnesses testifying against them, Lancashire Police conducted investigations into the assault and found that up to fifteen people were in the area that night and could have witnessed or participated in the attack. The attackers, all teenagers were remanded in custody for the original charge of grievous bodily harm (GBH) with intent, but after Sophie passed away the Crown prosecution service upgraded the charges to murder.
The attackers were named as Ryan Herbert, Brendan Harris, these were the ringleaders of the gang, these two had been arrested for affray a month a earlier in relation to similar attack on a young boy, they walked away from this with a community order. The three others involved in the attack were named as Joseph Hulme, his brother Daniel Hulme and Daniel Mallet. All the perpetrators were under 18 at the time of the attack, but were known in the local area to be intimidating young men, local residents described the spot the gang frequented as a place used by “drunken, violent yobs” they would vandalise the park and get drunk. Residents asked prior to the murder for measures to be taken to make the park more secure before the gang got violent, and after Sophie’s murder they asked again, but Rossendale Borough Council said that hiring park rangers would be too expensive. All five suspects were charged with murder on 6th September 2007 at Burnley Youth Court.
The five boys were committed for trial at Preston Crown Court and a preliminary hearing was held on 31st October 2007, the five faced the charges of murder related to Sophie and GBH with intent in relation to Robert. A further plea and case management hearing was ordered by Judge Anthony Russell QC for 14th December 2007, the judge also indicated a provisional trial date or both allegations, 10th March 2008, the five boys pleaded not guilty on both charges.
The trial did begin on the indicated date of 10th March 2008, all five accused pleaded guilty to the charge of GBH with intent, with the charges of murder, Ryan Herbert pleaded guilty, Brendan Harris pleaded not guilty, while the murder charges facing the other three boys were withdrawn.
The prosecution told the hearing “Sophie and Robert were singled out not for anything they had said or done, but because they looked and dressed differently” throughout the jury heard intense descriptions of the attack and the severity of the couple’s injuries from a number of witnesses and through a recorded phone conversation taken at the time of the murder reporting the attack.
The trial concluded on 27th March 2008 Brendan Harris was found guilty of murder. The judge also allowed the names of Harris and Herbert to be made public as they had been concealed during the trial. Detective Superintendent Mick Gradwell of Lancashire police described this case as one of the mot violet murders he had come across in his career saying “I do not think Herbert and Harris recognised how violent the attack was. They have just done it without thinking, but they seemed to have enjoyed it, and carried on remorselessly kicking at two very defenceless people who were unable to protect themselves because of the level of violence inflicted on them…I am very critical of some of the parents involved. I really don’t think they have taken completely seriously how repulsive this incident was…” he said this in relation to an incident during Harris’ initial interview about the assault where he was described as “laughing and joking” with his mother.
The sentencing was set for 28th April 2008, both Harris and Herbert were sentenced to life imprisonment with Harris receiving a total of 18 years while Herbert got 16 years and 3 months (this was later reduced by 9 months on appeal). The closing remarks from the judge described the attack as “feral thuggery” which raised questions about the “sort of society that exists in this country” he went on to add “This was a terrible case which has shocked and outraged all who have heard about it.” He likened the gang to a pack of wild animals hunting, but said “at least wild animals, when they hunt in packs, they have a legitimate reason for so doing, to obtain food. You have none and your behaviour on that night degrades humanity itself”
The three others involved were also sentenced alongside Harris and Herbert, brothers Joseph and Daniel Hulme were both sentenced to 5 years and 10 months while Daniel Mallet was given a sentence of 4 years and 10 months, all three had earlier pleaded guilty to GBH with intent on Robert. It was reported on 13th June 2008 that all of the boys would be appealing their sentences, the appeal was heard on 7th October 2008 with an announcement that the result would be released at a later date.
On 29th October 2008 the appeal results were announced revealing that Herbert had his sentence reduced by 9 months, making it 15 years and six months, the reduction came after the judge ruled during appeal that his initial guilty plea had not been given enough allowance during the initial trial. All the others had their appeals rejected and no reduction was given on their sentences.
In 2013 it was reported that Harris’ sentenced was extended by four months after an incident where he punched a nurse in a secure psychiatric unit and left with a broken nose, he also threatened to kill a member of staff after he became angry about another inmate being restrained. Harris was in the unit after he had been diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenic and being transferred.
The narrative that the media ran with when reporting this case was “killed for being different” “murdered for being a goth” all accompanied by a photo of smiling Sophie in her “alternative clothing”, piercings and red dreadlocks. Sophie and Robert were known to have an interest in a goth subculture, but this isn’t ultimately why they were targeted. The type of offenders that targeted Sophie and Robert were just looking for a fight after a night of drinking in the park, they would have attacked anyone, it wasn’t simply because they were perceived as “goth” or “moshers”. A big element of this murder was pack mentality, with pack mentality it’s often people who are vulnerable themselves and find a safety and belonging in the “pack”. As much as a lot of this sounds like gang violence, in this case it was a group of teenagers that committed petty crimes such as vandalism and felt powerful, like they had a “one up” on society by doing it, this drove them to escalate into more anti-social behaviours like assault and murder, they would have attacked anyone they felt were different from them in some way, it just happened to be they targeted an innocent young couple that were “goths” that night. Robert Maltby touched upon this when asked about the “goth” element of the attack and said “it was always like Sophie was killed because she was a goth. No, she was killed because some arseholes killed her. Why can’t we ask what it is about them that made them want to murder someone? Not what it is about someone that made them be murdered”.