Extra five years for gang member who armed Rhys's killer

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The Independent Online

A gang member who armed the killer of schoolboy Rhys Jones had his "unduly lenient" seven-year sentence increased to 12 years by the Court of Appeal today.

James Yates, now 21, was originally given a total of seven years detention at Liverpool Crown Court in January for possession of a prohibited firearm and assisting an offender.

The sentence was referred to the Court of Appeal for review by the Attorney General, Baroness Scotland QC.

At a hearing in London today, the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Judge, sitting with Mrs Justice Rafferty and Mr Justice Henriques agreed with submissions made on her behalf that the sentence imposed should have been longer.

Yates, of Dodman Road, Croxteth, was present in the dock of the court for the decision.

Eleven-year-old Rhys was shot dead in August 2007 in a Liverpool pub car park as he made his way home from football training.

His family were present in the courtroom today for the hearing.

The Lord Chief Justice, in announcing the increase in sentence, stressed that gun crime was a "modern pestilence" and that offenders faced severe, deterrent custodial terms.

Stephen and Melanie Jones, who had previously described the original sentence passed on January 29 as a "disgrace", welcomed the increase.

Rhys's mother said outside court: "We are just absolutely delighted that he has had his sentence increased."

She said a message had been sent out to anyone involved in gun crime, or thinking about getting involved, that the sentences handed out will be "tough".

Mr Jones said of being back in court once again: "It brings all the emotions flooding back."

On today's outcome, he commented: "We are happy with the sentence. We did think the sentence was lenient considering what he had actually done. He had supplied the gun that murdered somebody.

"We are just really happy that that deterrent is there now... there is a big sentence if you get caught."

He added: "It is the end of the trials and the appeals, but just around the corner some of those men will be getting out in the not too distant future, which doesn't sit very comfortably with us."

Referring to today being the last time they will be in a courtroom, Mrs Jones said: "I feel relieved because we feel we have been through the mill and back.

"It is such an ordeal. You can't explain what it is like to go through and you think it is never ending.

"This will be the last one and hopefully we will be able to move on and remember all the good times we had with Rhys."

As well as the firearm charge Yates was convicted of assisting murderer Sean Mercer, 18, by helping dump the gun and his clothing.

Mercer, of Good Shepherd Close, Croxteth, was jailed for life and ordered to serve a minimum of 22 years before he can apply for parole, after being convicted of murder by a Liverpool Crown Court jury in December.

He blasted three bullets across a pub car park after targeting rivals who had strayed on to his turf.

Rhys was caught in the line of fire and shot in the neck.

He died in his mother's arms a short time later.

Commenting after the ruling, Solicitor General Vera Baird QC said: "The murder of Rhys Jones remains a shocking crime and for public confidence the sentences must reflect each player's criminality."

She stressed that gang members "must know that the assistance they provide to offenders will meet with punishment".

It was successfully argued before the three judges today that seven years detention was inadequate to reflect the seriousness of the combination of the offences, and that custodial terms should have been consecutive rather than concurrent.

Giving the judgment of the court, Lord Judge said Yates was charged with offences arising out of the "notorious and tragic murder" of Rhys Jones.

"He was doing what any 11-year-old boy, healthy and well and fit, should be encouraged to do - playing and learning how to grow up."

The judge said: "After playing football, a little boy of 11 was shot dead as he made his way home one summer evening.

"That tragic death represented the culmination of some years of warfare in north Liverpool between gangs of young men who armed themselves with guns which, as and when they thought appropriate for their own purposes, they were prepared to use.

"There is no point in us mincing our words. This use of guns is a modern pestilence. It produces fatalities and injuries to innocent victims."

It also caused "apprehension and fear" to the community as a whole.

Lord Judge said: "In this particular case the moment of the offender's gravest culpability was when he handed that gun over out of his own possession into that of his friend for reasons arising out of the gang warfare and misplaced gang loyalty."

It was taken to a public place and "an innocent child was gunned down".

The judge said: "The law is clear. If you choose to be loyal to a gang member who has committed murder you must, if convicted, expect a substantial prison sentence."