Anger over release of teenager's killers

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HEAVY CRITICISM has greeted the early release of three young men who kicked and stamped a teenager to death.

The three were freed yesterday, after serving less than two years in jail, on the second anniversary of their victim's death. Mark Ayton, 19, was killed in the small commuter town of Balerno, outside Edinburgh, in the early hours of 23 November 1997.

Ross Gravestock, 19, Iain Wheldon, 20, and Graham Purvis, 19, were convicted of culpable homicide and each sentenced to four years' detention in May last year. An appeal against the leniency of their sentences by the Lord Advocate failed, prompting criticism of sentencing policy in the Scottish courts.

Mr Ayton was found unconscious after he and his brother Paul, 21, were attacked just yards from their home. He died from brain injuries.

The trial was told the fight they had been involved in was part of a long-running feud between former pupils of Balerno and Currie high schools.

The teenagers' jail terms were restricted by the trial judge, Lord Eassie, because of the "particular and unusual facts of the case". He concluded that the attack had been an "essentially juvenile episode of violence" in which none of the killers had intended to inflict serious harm.

Lord Eassie said that nothing about the fight had been planned and the Ayton brothers had willingly taken part. Later, the appeal court judges praised the sentencing as carefully considered and rejected the Lord Advocate's appeal.

Yesterday Malcolm Ayton, the dead man's father, described the sentencing as a "complete mess". He said he was resigned to the release but added: "I am not a vengeful father. I did not want to see capital punishment or anything like that, just that they would pay their debt to society.

"I think two years in jail for stamping and kicking someone to death is at the lower end of expectations. I think the law is in a complete mess as far as culpable homicide, murder and attempted murder are concerned. You can get 15 years for intending to kill someone, but for kicking and stamping someone to death you get four years."

Mr Ayton called on Jim Wallace, the Scottish Justice Minister and Lord Hardie, the Lord Advocate, to impress on the judiciary the need for sentences to act as a deterrent. "The law is wrong and the sentencing policy is less than just," he said.

The three men were believed to have been released after gaining parole because of good behaviour. They left Polmont Young Offenders' Institute in West Lothian in the early hours of yesterday.

The community of Balerno was shocked by the killing. Gravestock's father was a civil servant, Purvis' father a manager and Wheldon's a chief inspector with Lothian and Borders police.

There were suggestions the killing had been motivated by Mark Ayton's English accent, but other trial witnesses blamed tensions between the two local schools for his death.