Five boys guilty over 'stoning' death

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Five boys aged from 12 to 14 burst into tears today as they were found guilty of killing a father who they spat at, insulted and pelted with sticks and stones.

Ernest Norton was playing cricket with his 17-year-old son, James, on a Sunday afternoon in February last year when they came under a hail of missiles.

Two stones, one the size of half a brick, struck him on the temple and fractured his cheekbone, and he collapsed to the ground with a heart attack.

As the 67-year-old lay dying on the tennis court, his wife, Linda, rushed to his side, holding his hand and calling his name.

Mr Norton, for 30 years a house husband who enjoyed nothing more than looking after his two children, died at the scene.

The five boys who killed him, the youngest of whom was just 10 at the time, were convicted at the Old Bailey today of manslaughter and violent disorder.

Mr Norton had gone with James and Linda to their local leisure centre in Erith, Kent, and while his wife went to the gym, he and his son set up stumps in a tennis court outside to have a bowling practice.

But they were soon surrounded by up to 20 youths, who began to shout insults including "Rubbish bowler" and "Go back to the old people's home".

Mr Norton went to the gate to try to scare the boys off but they threw stones, rocks and pieces of wood at him and he collapsed bleeding heavily.

"We were just keeping ourselves to ourselves," James told the trial. "It just seemed they wanted to pick on someone."

James ran for help and to tell his mother what had happened and when they returned off-duty Police Constable Christopher Malone was trying to save his life but it was too late.

"His eyes were blank and staring upwards," Mr Malone recalled in court. "There was a small pool of blood close to his head."

Mrs Norton later said: "I can't remember much about it. I called his name and held his hand but there was no response."

She described how her husband, a former engineering draughtsman, had been a full-time house husband since losing his job when she was pregnant with their first child, Gemma, now 26.

Just days before the end of the trial Gemma gave birth to the couple's first granddaughter, Ceinwen, a baby girl.

"Now he has missed his first grandchild," Mrs Norton said. "He would have been thrilled to have a grandchild, especially a granddaughter."

The court heard that Mr Norton underwent a triple heart bypass operation in 1977 but ever since then had enjoyed a "fit and active" lifestyle.

David Fisher QC, prosecuting, told the jury: "This was a completely unnecessary, pointless and random attack."

He said Mr Norton was in good health on the Sunday when he died, but "the stress and trauma of abuse and a physical attack would make him vulnerable to a heart attack".

Mr Fisher added: "Their youth is no defence. They were quite old enough to know that to abuse Ernest Norton and his son was wrong and that to throw stones and pieces of wood at them was wrong.

"I expect they deeply regret the death and no doubt did not intend that he should die.

"But it was their joint course of conduct, quite probably with others, that caused his death."

The five defendants accused of killing him were some of the youngest ever to appear at the Old Bailey.

Two brothers, aged 12 and 13, and three other boys, aged 14, sat in the dock with their parents while judges and barristers did not wear wigs and gowns for the case.

The boys belonged to a gang called TNE and earlier that day, armed with a baseball bat, had met up with another group of youths for a fight.

They had also been amusing themselves by smashing windows in a disused factory and being "mouthy" to staff at the leisure centre.

As the boys ran off after attacking Mr Norton, a nearby resident heard one saying "I think I got him" while another neighbour saw a boy crying as he struggled to keep up with the rest, and calling out "He's dead, he's dead."

The court heard how the five defendants were initially arrested on suspicion of murder and some of them admitted throwing stones.

Only one, now 14, gave evidence at the trial, admitting that he spat at Mr Norton and that it was "stupid", "revolting" and "appalling".

He said he was only throwing stones to try to knock over stumps and wreck the cricket game, for a "bit of fun".

The boys had ended up at the leisure centre, he said, because there was "nothing else to do".

The five were remanded on bail to October 19 for pre-sentence reports to be prepared.

Five women on the jury wiped away tears as the youngsters clung to their mothers and one to his father in the dock.

Some sobbed uncontrollably as prison officers stood by. The mother of the two brothers put her arms round them and kissed them.

After they left the court, the defendants fell into the arms of their parents.

Mrs Norton, who had looked relieved as the verdicts were delivered after three days of deliberations and a month-long trial, left the court in silence.