Life term for teenager found guilty of Rhys murder

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The Independent Online

Teenage gunman Sean Mercer was jailed for at least 22 years today for the murder of innocent schoolboy Rhys Jones.

Mercer, 18, blasted three bullets across a busy pub car park in Croxteth, Liverpool, targeting rivals who had strayed onto his turf.

But Rhys, 11, was shot in the neck when he wandered into the line of fire as he made his way home from football training.

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

Mercer, 18, was convicted of murder yesterday but the verdict could not be reported until now.

Following the convictions of his fellow gang members for helping him, Rhys's father said: "Finally justice has been done for Rhys."

After almost four days of deliberations, the jury of seven women and five men convicted Mercer of murder unanimously.

What the jurors did not know was that just two months before he shot Rhys, Mercer was involved in a chilling rehearsal of the killing.

Waving a gun, he rode a motorcycle past members of the public on rival gang territory.

The incident was not reported to police at the time.

The jurors were also unaware that just weeks after shooting Rhys, Mercer was given a three-year Asbo for terrorising security guards at a sports centre.

Six other gang members were found guilty of helping Mercer evade police for months after the killing of Rhys, which shocked the nation.

They were Gary Kays, 26, of Mallard Close, and Melvin Coy, 25, of Abbeyfield Drive, both West Derby, Liverpool, James Yates, 20, of Dodman Road, Nathan Quinn, 18, of Wickett Close, Croxteth, Dean Kelly, 17, of Sword Walk, Croxteth, who was referred to as Boy K during the trial, and Boy M, 16, who cannot be named for legal reasons.

Quinn is already serving five years for gun-related offences.

Speaking outside court before the sentencing, Rhys's father praised Merseyside Police for their "professionalism and perseverance" in bringing Rhys's killer to justice.

Stephen Jones, 45, who was supported by Rhys's mother, Melanie, 42, said: "From the day Rhys died, the kindness shown by the people of Liverpool has been immeasurable, for which we will always thank them from the bottom of our heart.

"Over the months we have found strength in messages of support from the many thousands around the world.

"As a family today it is not the final chapter but we can begin the challenge of rebuilding our lives."

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

Kays and Coy were both jailed for seven years today. The rest of the gang will be sentenced at a later date.

Sentencing Mercer, the judge Mr Justice Irwin said: "Rhys died at your hands, his death was a tragedy for him, a tragedy for his family and a waste of a young life."

The judge branded Mercer a coward.

He told Rhys's killer: "You were caught up in gang activity at a young age and it is clear you gloried in it."

The judge described the gang members as "selfish and shallow criminals".

He said: "Rhys Jones died because of your brutality and because you are a coward."

When the main verdicts were delivered yesterday, only two people in the packed courtroom could not hold back their emotions - Rhys's mother, Melanie Jones, and the killer's father, burly Joseph McCormick, who was dressed entirely in black.

As Mercer's "guilty" verdict was announced to the silent courtroom, Mrs Jones, 42, who was sitting opposite her son's killer, burst into tears and buried her head in her husband's shoulder to stifle her sobs.

Rhys's father choked back tears as Mercer blinked, looked down and visibly paled, repeatedly puffing his cheeks out.

For the first time in the trial the teenage killer looked close to showing emotion as he stared towards the public gallery where his father sat, tears rolling down his cheeks.

Mr McCormick mouthed "I love you" to his son - and left the court.

But Quinn cracked a joke, inaudible behind the reinforced glass of the dock, and he and other defendants smiled and laughed.

As they were all led away, Mercer shook Quinn's hand and the pair hugged before they were led down to the cells.

During the seven-week trial, the jury heard that Mercer, of Good Shepherd Close, Croxteth, was a leading member of the Croxteth Crew gang, which terrorised the local community and was involved in a long-running and bloody feud with the Strand Gang, based on the neighbouring Norris Green estate.

Mercer had an "intense hatred" of Strand Gang member Wayne Brady.

When told by Coy and Kays that Brady, 19, and two rivals had been seen cycling near the Fir Tree Pub on Croxteth Crew territory, Mercer set about the murder.

Dressed in a black hoodie and tracksuit, Mercer got hold of Yates's Smith & Wesson .455 revolver and cycled to the pub where he took up position on a grass verge alongside the car park.

Standing astride the bicycle with his arms outstretched in front of him, he clasped the gun with both hands and fired three shots at Brady's friends, moving his arms in an arc to follow their movements on their bicycles.

Rhys, distracted by the sound of the first bullet, which struck a shipping container in the car park, turned toward the gunman and was struck in the neck by the second bullet.

Mercer then adjusted his position to aim one final shot at his two rivals.

The third bullet struck a disused well as the gunman and his targets fled the scene.

After the shooting, Mercer cycled to the home of Boy M, where he called on his fellow gang members to help him avoid the law.

With Yates, Quinn and Kays, he was driven by Coy to a lock-up garage on an industrial estate where his clothes were burned and his body washed down with petrol.

Mercer gave the murder weapon to 17-year-old Boy X, who was frightened of him and who hid it in a dog kennel.

It was later moved, along with a second gun and ammunition, by Kelly to the loft of his house where police found it later.

A crucial breakthrough in the police investigation came 16 months later when Boy X, who cannot be named, accepted immunity from prosecution in exchange for giving evidence against the gang.

Together with information gained from bugging devices in the homes of Yates and Boy M, much of which cannot be reported, and mobile phone logs, detectives were able to piece together the movements of the killer and his cohorts as they sought to evade justice.