Two boys who burnt to death homeless man will serve at least seven years in custody

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The Independent Online

Two teenagers who set fire to a vagrant and left him to burn to death "for a laugh" were found guilty of murder yesterday and sentenced to a minimum of seven years' custody.

George Johnstone, a 41-year-old with a drink problem, had been sleeping on a park bench when Stephen Brookes, 16, and John Iveson, 13, burnt his clothes with firelighters. Despite his desperate attempts to douse the flames with the help of passers-by, he suffered severe burns and died.

Mr Justice Bell described the boys' actions as "cruel beyond belief" and took the unusual step of naming them. There was a "strong and proper public interest in identifying those who have committed crime as serious as this". He ordered that they be detained at Her Majesty's Pleasure for at least seven years before being considered for parole.

Though the judge said Stephen showed no "real" remorse and John had none , he was satisfied they had not intended to kill Mr Johnstone, but to cause him serious injury.

The jury at Maidstone Crown Court took more than four hours to convict them. While the younger boy burst into tears after hearing the verdict, the older teenager showed no emotion. Both of them had denied murder, blaming each other for the crime.

Detective Inspector Tim Lewis, who led the investigation, said: "It is very difficult to imagine the pain and shock that Mr Johnstone must have undergone before he died of his injuries."

The court was told that Stephen, of Northfleet, and John, of Dartford, had found Mr Johnstone asleep on a bench in Central Park, Dartford, on 15 June.

They initially set fire to his beard. Mr Johnstone awoke to extinguish the flames but fell back into a drunken sleep, unable to appreciate what was happening. The boys then stuffed lit firelighters in his shoe and coat, igniting a newspaper under his jacket and engulfing him in three-foot flames before running away, laughing.

A 14-year-old pal of the pair told the court a mutual friend had challenged Stephen, whom he described as an "arsonist". Stephen had told the friend that he and John burnt Mr Johnstone "just for a laugh".

A post-mortem examination revealed Mr Johnstone suffered burns to 40 per cent of his body and died of a heart attack.

The court was told both boys had suffered disadvantaged childhoods and that Stephen had a mental age of 11.

After the verdict, John Johnstone, 37, the victim's brother, said: "He was a gentle giant and if this hadn't have happened he would have lived a lot longer. The verdict is the right one."