Killer of Rhys Jones jailed for 22 years

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The Independent Online

A teenage gunman who shot dead Rhys Jones – the youngest ever victim of gang violence in Britain – was beginning a life sentence last night after being convicted of murder. A judge recommended that Sean Mercer, 18, should serve a minimum of 22 years.

Rhys's mother Melanie, who campaigned tirelessly to bring Mercer and his six accomplices to justice for killing her 11-year-old son in Croxteth, Liverpool, broke down and wept as the verdicts were read out after a nine-week trial at the city's Crown Court.

After the hearing, Rhys's father, Stephen, paid tribute to the police investigation which led to the guilty verdicts and thanked people around the world for their support. "Finally justice has been done for Rhys," he said. "As a family today, it is not the final chapter but we can begin the challenge of rebuilding our lives."

Mercer's mother, Janette, was not in court to see her son sentenced. Instead, she will go on trial in the new year charged with perverting justice – by allegedly impeding the police inquiry.

The trial judge, Mr Justice Irwin, said that Mercer, who was 16 when he killed Rhys, was a "shallow and selfish coward" remarkable only for the danger he posed to others. The jury found other members of Mercer's gang, the Croxteth Crew, guilty of helping him to destroy evidence.

Mercer was convicted with five of his gang on Tuesday, but the verdicts could not be reported until the seventh was convicted yesterday. As he was led away, Mercer saluted his co-defendants. His father, Joseph McCormick, looked at him and mouthed "I love you". The trial had heard Rhys was walking home from football practice in August last year when he was hit in the neck by a bullet Mercer fired at a member of the rival Strand Gang. Rhys died in his mother's arms in the car park of the Fir Tree pub near his home.

Detectives came up against a wall of silence as Mercer and his friends tried to cover up what they had done. So confident was he of avoiding jail that he made himself known to police at a screening of a BBC Crimewatch appeal held on the Croxteth estate.

Mercer had been a serial offender since his early teens and was the subject of an antisocial behaviour order. He had convictions for possessing drugs and CS gas. It was revealed yesterday that two months before he shot Rhys, Mercer was caught going into the Strand Gang's territory brandishing a gun – but he was never charged.

His fellow gang members Gary Kays, 26, Melvin Coy, 25, James Yates, 20, Nathan Quinn, 18, Dean Kelly, 17, and Boy M – a 16-year-old who cannot be named for legal reasons – were all convicted of assisting an offender after they helped Mercer evade police for months. Coy and Kays were ordered to serve seven years. The others will be sentenced later.

Mr Justice Irwin also lifted a ban on reporting that Quinn is already serving five years for gun-related offences.

The judge described Rhys's death as a "tragedy for his family and a waste of a young life". He praised the Joneses for their dignity, saying they were "deeply impressive" and their "searing" emotions could only be guessed at.

Turning to Mercer and his gang, he said the turf war they had waged was "brutal and stupid". He added: "It is wrong to let anyone glorify or romanticise this kind of gang conflict. You are not soldiers. You have no discipline, no training, no honour. You do not command respect. You may think you do, but that is because you cannot tell the difference between respect and fear. You are selfish, shallow criminals, remarkable only by the danger you pose to others."

Rhys's murder ignited a fierce political debate about the extent of gang violence in British cities. Tributes were paid to the schoolboy by players at his favourite football club, Everton, and their arch-rivals, Liverpool. Thousands of mourners celebrated his young life at the city's Anglican cathedral, and he was buried in an Everton-blue coffin.

The Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith, said last night: "This was a tragic case which shocked the whole nation and I hope that this verdict brings some peace to Rhys's parents, family and friends at this difficult time."

The Tory leader, David Cameron, added: "Today, with the conviction of Sean Mercer and other gang members, justice at least has been done. But for Rhys's parents, Stephen and Melanie, the hurt will never end."

Detective Superintendent Dave Kelly, who led the murder investigation, said the fight against Liverpool's gangs would continue. "Mercer's conduct showed total disregard for Rhys and others. He has shown no remorse whatsoever," he added. "I hope this verdict will bring it home to him what he has done and the pain and suffering he has caused."