Teacher jailed for firing airgun is freed on appeal

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The Independent Online

A teacher who became a cause célèbre when she was jailed for firing an airgun during a row with a gang of youths has been freed by the Court of Appeal.

Three appeal judges set aside Linda Walker's six-month prison sentence yesterday after hearing that the 48-year-old's family had been terrorised by "yobs". Campaigners claimed the special-needs teacher had been victimised by the courts and presented ministers with a petition of more than 10,000 signatures calling for her release. Tony Blair said he sympathised with Walker, from Urmston, Greater Manchester.

At a hearing at Manchester Crown Court in March, Walker was convicted of affray and possessing a firearm. She had fired the pellet gun at the pavement during a stand-off with youths outside her home in August.

She told police that she had received phone calls abusing her family, her garden shed had been broken into and a car and her garden had been vandalised. No evidence was produced that any of the youths she confronted was involved in the vandalism.

The Court of Appeal granted the defendant a conditional discharge, but refused her permission to challenge her convictions. The judges also criticised Parliament for imposing mandatory jail sentences and removing the discretion available to judges when passing sentence.

While stressing the seriousness of the teacher's crime, the judges said it was important to take into account her previous good character as well as the stress she suffered teaching special-needs children.

Lord Justice Rose said the use of a firearm in public was a cause of great public concern. "There can be no excuse whatever for what you did that night." Her action in firing the gun should normally result in a custodial sentence of considerable length. "If the courts were ... to respond to such conduct in any other way it would be a recipe for both anarchy and injury of the innocent."

But he said the courts were sometimes called on to conduct a "delicate exercise of an often difficult discretion" over non-custodial sentences. "Parliament, in its enthusiasm for mandatory minimum sentences and apparent determination to reduce judicial discretion, has seemed unwilling or reluctant to recognise this."

Walker was greeted outside the court by her partner, John Cavanagh, a college lecturer, and two of her three children. She remains suspended from work as Salford City Council considers disciplinary action.