Lawyer 'execution': Michael Chudley jailed for murder of solicitor James Ward

Failed property developer blamed victim for the break-up of his relationship and the repossession of his £1m home

A bankrupt businessman who shot a solicitor dead in an attack motivated by revenge will most likely die in prison.

Michael Chudley, 63, was handed a life sentence with a minimum term of 28 years for murdering James Ward, 58.

The failed property developer blamed Mr Ward for the break-up of his relationship and the repossession of his £1 million home.

Chudley calmly walked into MGW Law in Devizes, Wiltshire, in July last year and shot Mr Ward once in the head at close range with a sawn-off shotgun as he spoke to a client on the telephone.

The force of the blast blew out a window of his first-floor town centre office.

The father of three, who was known as Jim, suffered catastrophic head injuries and died almost three weeks later in hospital.

Chudley, of no fixed address, was yesterday convicted by a jury at Salisbury Crown Court of the murder of Mr Ward.

Today, trial judge Mr Justice Bean told Chudley that he wallowed in self-pity and only thought of himself.

"Michael Chudley, four years ago you began a court case against Christopher Sear," he said.

"His solicitor was Jim Ward. Mr Ward was a decent, conscientious, highly respected solicitor in Devizes.

"He did his proper professional duty for Mr Sear, as he had done for many clients over many years.

"You lost the case and lost a great deal of money in the process. So you decided to take your revenge on Mr Ward.

"You armed yourself with a sawn-off shotgun, drove to the Market Square in Devizes and walked into the offices of Mr Ward's firm.

"You threatened to shoot the receptionist, Daphne Courtney, and forced her to lead you upstairs.

"I am quite satisfied that you intended to kill Mr Ward. You fired a single shot to his head, then walked out as calmly as you had arrived, got into your car and drove off.

"It was a chilling, calculated execution."

Mr Justice Bean referred to the evidence in court of Mr Ward's wife, Nicola Morris, and victim impact statements written by her daughter Louise and Mrs Courtney.

"Mr Ward's widow gave her evidence with admirable dignity and composure but the effect of the murder on her family has been appalling.

"I have read the very moving victim impact statement written on behalf of the whole family by Mr Ward's daughter Louise Ward Morris.

"She writes that her mother and sister have suffered from depression and panic attacks which sometimes make everyday tasks into mountains.

"All three children of Mr Ward have lost a loving father. His mother has outlived her son.

"I also note that Daphne Courtney has suffered severe post-traumatic stress disorder with panic attacks and flashbacks which can stop her in her tracks.

"She writes in her victim impact statement that she was frightened beyond description by your attack and by the threat to her life.

"She feels a sense of guilt although in my view there was nothing she could have done to save Mr Ward.

"Because you wallow in self-pity and think only of yourself I doubt whether any of this bothers you at all.

"Indeed, when you were asked in the witness box whether you felt any remorse for the death of Mr Ward you replied 'I don't know what the word means. I have no feelings about Ward'.

"In this respect at least, you were telling the truth."

The judge said the starting point for murder with a firearm is a minimum term of 30 years' imprisonment.

"The statutory aggravating factor in this case is that the offence involved a significant degree of premeditation," the judge told an expressionless Chudley.

"This was a calculated revenge attack. If you were an offender in your late 20s or 30s the appropriate minimum term before allowing for mitigating factors would be at least 33 years.

"The mitigating factor which does apply in your case is age. You were 62 at the time of the offence - far older than most murderers.

"You will be an exceptionally elderly prisoner before you can be considered for release. I bear in mind that in 2008 you suffered a mild heart attack."

The judge said he took into account the 349 days Chudley has spent on remand when fixing the minimum term.

"I consider the appropriate minimum term is 28 years. The 28- year term is the minimum that you will serve," he said.

"I am not ordering that you are to be released at the end of it. That will be a matter for the parole board.

"Only in the year 2040, when you will be 90, will they be entitled for the first time to decide whether it is safe to release you.

"It may be that you will die in prison. But that is a possibility for which you have only yourself to blame."

Chudley had pleaded guilty to carrying an offensive weapon with intent to commit an indictable offence, possessing the gun with intent to cause unlawful violence towards Mrs Courtney and threatening to kill Mrs Courtney with it.

The judge imposed sentences of five years' imprisonment for the firearms offences and a seven year term for making the threat to kill. They are to run concurrently to the life sentence.

Ian Glen QC, defending, offered no personal mitigation on behalf of Chudley.

"He steadfastly maintains he built a new house for Mr Sear and he was paid for an extension," Mr Glen said.

"He believes that he and Mrs (Francine) Whale were defrauded and the civil case was a travesty and all that means that remorse is beyond his capacity."

Chudley had denied murder but had admitted manslaughter on the grounds of diminished responsibility claiming he was suffering from an abnormality of mental function at the time.

He told jurors that he could not remember the shooting.

"I was very ill at the time. I am very ashamed of what I did but I have no recollection of the incident at all," he said.

The case centred on whether Chudley was afflicted by an abnormality of mental function.

The court heard evidence from two psychiatrists who both agreed that he suffers from a paranoid personality disorder.

Dr Andrew Johns, called by the defence, said that Chudley's condition represented an abnormality of mental function meaning he would not have been responsible for his actions.

However, Dr John Sandford, for the prosecution, disagreed with Dr John's view and said he could not find any psychiatric evidence to support Chudley's contention.

Chudley was convicted unanimously after the jury rejected his defence.

The incident began when an armed Chudley marched into the solicitors' office on the afternoon of July 2 and threatened to shoot Mrs Courtney unless she took him to Mr Ward.

As the terrified receptionist did as she was told, Mr Ward's wife, who is a partner in the firm, ran to a neighbouring shop to get help.

She heard the gunshot and a shattering of glass and watched as Chudley fled the office and drove away in his Ford Fiesta.

The property developer was arrested 30 minutes later by armed police at his former home in the nearby village of Rowde and confessed: "I shot him because he made our lives a misery."

He told police he had planned to shoot himself in a bedroom of the house but gave up when he could not gain entry and waited for them to arrive.

Chudley, who had changed his name from Mike Russell, had lost his home and his business after becoming embroiled in a long-running legal dispute over building work.

The man he unsuccessfully sued, Mr Sear, had instructed Mr Ward and Chudley was facing the prospect of paying legal costs of more than £250,000.

Prosecutors said Chudley, who by this time was either renting rooms in local pubs or sleeping in his car, acted out of revenge, anger and resentment.

William Mousley QC, prosecuting, told jurors: "At the time of the shooting his actions were planned, pre-meditated and he continued to act in such a way after the shooting - even explaining to officers why he shot James Ward.

"The prosecution say that on July 2, both before and after the shooting, he knew exactly what he was doing.

"The prosecution case is that this is a clear and obvious case of murder and nothing else."

Speaking yesterday, Ms Morris said: "We, Jim's family, have always known that no verdict could ever bring him back.

"However, we are reassured by the judgment today, which shows that the justice system in this country works well.

"Jim was a kind, honest man and the most wonderful loving husband and father. He was an exceptional person and will forever be in our thoughts."

Detective Chief Inspector Ian Saunders, who led the investigation, said: "Chudley has a history of being an angry, paranoid, litigious man and, when he lost the case, he blamed Jim Ward. He didn't get what he wanted and decided to get revenge.

"Chudley has shown no remorse and, by his own admission, does not know the meaning of the word.

"He insists that he has no memory of the shooting; however this has been discredited by a forensic psychiatrist.

"Having heard all of the evidence presented, the jury has found that Chudley intended to murder or do serious harm to Jim Ward.

"Anger, resentment and revenge fuelled Chudley's actions that day and the consequences have changed the lives of Jim's family forever."

PA

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