John Wilson, convicted by a jury of breach of the peace at the Hearts v Celtic match in May, and controversially acquitted of the charge of assaulting Neil Lennon, appeared at Edinburgh Sheriff Court today for sentencing.
Sheriff Fiona Reith, who had presided at the trial, passed a sentence of 8 months imprisonment, backdated to the date of his first court appearance on 12th May. Mr Wilson has spent all that time in custody, not having been granted bail, and therefore under the rule whereby a convicted person is released after serving one half of a “short” sentence, as this is, he will now be a free man.
Sheriff Reith’s sentencing statement is carried in full on the excellent Scottish Judiciary website. The link is here.
The Sheriff noted the terms of the charge of which Mr Wilson had been convicted, namely that “On 11 May 2011 at Tynecastle Football Stadium, Edinburgh, you John Clark Wilson did conduct yourself in a disorderly manner, run onto the field of play during the period of a designated sporting event, run at the away team dug out, shout, swear, all to the alarm and annoyance of others and thereby causing further disturbance within the crowd there and commit a breach of peace”.
The charge of which he was acquitted and the alleged religious aggravation which was removed by the jury from the breach of the peace charge are irrelevant to the Sheriff’s decision on sentence.
Sheriff Reith referred to the “poisonous” atmosphere at the match, as spoken to by witnesses, and described the evidence of one of the police officers who feared a pitch invasion following Mr Wilson’s actions.
The Sheriff stated “A breach of the peace can sometimes be a quite minor crime but sometimes it is not. In this case it was not minor at all; it was serious, and with serious potential consequences in the context of what was already a highly volatile atmosphere in the crowd of over 16,000 football supporters.”
After commenting favourably on the Social Work reports regarding Mr Wilson, and noting his remorse which she took as genuine, she went on to say “However, in all the circumstances, I take the view that the nature and gravity of the offence is such that no disposal other than custody would be appropriate in relation to this offence. It has to be clearly understood by you and others that this sort of behaviour will not be tolerated and will be punished, and punished firmly, by the courts.” (Emphasis added)
She noted that the early offer to plead guilty to the charge of which he was convicted (and indeed it is understood that Mr Wilson offered to plead guilty to both charges but without the religious aggravation on either) meant that she discounted what would have been a 12 month sentence to an 8 month sentence.
In addition a Football Banning Order was issued against Mr Wilson, a power which had been noted recently, was being little used by the courts.
Is it coincidence that the sentence imposed happens to mean that Mr Wilson is now released? I am sure that played no part in the Sheriff’s decision.
However it would be hoped that the clear comments made by Sheriff Reith, as highlighted above, and the fact that, at the top line, Mr Wilson would have received a 12 month sentence for breach of the peace if not for his early plea offer, will allay concerns that had been expressed that in some way, the jury’s verdict made it “open season” for people to try to emulate Mr Wilson.
Anyone at a football match who is thinking about encroaching from the spectating area with aggressive intent, whether with or without religious, racial or other aggravating features, is looking at a custodial sentence in future, I suspect, if they allow their exuberance to get the better of them.
I am sure that there will still be disquiet about the jury’s verdict here and the rules preventing discussion with jurors preclude us from knowing why they decided what they did.
I am equally sure that some people will express anger that Mr Wilson has now “walked free” even though he has been in custody for the last four months, and has had his picture shown in the media across the nation. This seems to be a very fair sentence passed by an experienced and wise Sheriff, who had the advantage of hearing all the evidence in court.
Indeed whilst drafting this post, I have already seen tweets commenting on how ridiculous it is that Mr Wilson is free now. As I thought these seem to miss the point that he has been in prison since mid May.
It is of course open to the defence to appeal if they consider that the sentence was unduly severe. I am sure that they would not do so.
The Crown could appeal on the basis that the sentence was unduly lenient. In light of the public statement by the Lord Advocate regarding the case, prior to sentencing, one wonders if the Crown might consider this, on the basis that the High Court would then get to have their say and effectively set the bar for these offences.
I should say that, as far as I can see, the sentence is perfectly fair and I would be surprised if (a) there was any appeal and (b) if the High Court made any change to the sentence.
If Mr Wilson had been convicted of assault or had had the religious aggravation added, then it is clear that his sentence would have been harsher. The Sheriff has done the justice system a service, I feel, by doing her job of considering all the relevant matters, disregarding the irrelevant, and pronouncing a fair disposal.
I suspect that there might be many though who will disagree!