Shawn Seesahai Murder Verdict: Should child perpetrators be named?

Sam Preston 8 July 2024 2 min read
Shawn Seesahai Murder Verdict: Should child perpetrators be named?  feature image

The recent guilty verdicts in the trial of two 12-year-olds for the murder of Shawn Seesahai in Wolverhampton have positioned them among the youngest convicted murderers in UK history. This case now places significant decisions before Mrs Justice Tipples, who must not only determine the minimum sentence, but whether the ban to name the defendants should be lifted.

The boys attacked their 19-year-old victim with such ferocity that a 16-inch machete almost passed through his body. Mr Seesahai, originally from Anguilla, had travelled to the UK for eye treatment and lived in Handsworth, Birmingham. His parents described him as a “very loving child” and expressed their profound loss.

These defendants are amongst the youngest convicted murderers since the notorious case of Robert Thompson and Jon Venables, who were both 11 when found guilty in 1993 of killing two-year-old James Bulger. In that case, the judge removed their anonymity, and their images became permanently etched in the public's memory.

Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act (YJCEA)

In England and Wales, judges frequently utilise their discretionary powers under the Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act (YJCEA) to protect the identities of under-18s tried in adult courts until they reach adulthood. However, in exceptional cases, like the Bulger case, these orders can be lifted after the trial, typically following a media application. The YJCEA mandates that the public interest in naming a child defendant be balanced against their welfare.

Kym Darby, chair of the James Bulger Foundation, stated that James’s mother, Denise Fergus, was deeply affected by the Wolverhampton case and believes that the names of children convicted of murder should be publicly known. Conversely, Dr Kathy Hampson, a criminology lecturer at Aberystwyth University, argues that naming child killers links them indelibly with their victims, which can skew media coverage and public perception.

Judicial guidance suggests that before and during the trial, the defendant's welfare is paramount. After conviction, factors such as the offender's age and the crime's severity become crucial in determining whether to publish their identity. This balance often shifts towards publication post-conviction but not decisively so.

This principle was evident in other high-profile cases, including that of Brianna Ghey’s killers, Scarlett Jenkinson and Eddie Ratcliffe; and William Cornick, who killed his teacher, Ann Maguire. In Ghey’s case, Mrs Justice Yip emphasised the public interest in full reporting of such exceptional cases. Similarly, Mr Justice Coulson, in Cornick’s case, highlighted the deterrent effect of naming offenders involved in severe crimes.

Duty to Prevent Reoffending

Despite these considerations, there is a duty to prevent reoffending. However, Dr Hampson points out the lack of evidence supporting the effectiveness of deterrence through naming, as demonstrated in 2015, when Mr Justice Saunders chose not to name a 14-year-old convicted of a terrorist offence, arguing that it might glorify the individual and encourage similar acts.

The amplification of identity risks through social media further complicates the anonymity of child offenders. Brianna Ghey’s killers were unlawfully identified online however Justice Yip maintained that this did not justify removing reporting restrictions.

Another option is the eventual ability to name these offenders once they turn 18 unless a lifelong injunction, as in the “Venables jurisdiction,” is granted. Such measures are rare and primarily protect the new identities of offenders upon release.

Lifelong Anonymity for Child Criminals

A 2016 review recommended lifelong anonymity for child criminals to support their rehabilitation, but this was not adopted. Dr Hampson supports lifelong anonymity, citing that it provides a chance for reform, as seen with Thompson and Mary Bell, who have reportedly stayed out of trouble after being granted anonymity.

Community Alarm Over Youth Knife Crime

The Wolverhampton community is reeling from the murder of Shawn Seesahai and the revelation that his killers were only 12 years old. Local residents who witnessed the aftermath, expressed disbelief and fear, highlighting the broader issue of young people carrying weapons.

The case highlights a disturbing trend of rising serious violence and knife-related crimes in the West Midlands, which increased by 8% from 2022 to 2023. Local mentors working with youths observe that children as young as nine are carrying weapons, driven by a survival mentality and the influence of social media.

The murder of Ronan Kanda in 2022, another tragic incident involving youth and large knives, further highlights the deadly allure of these weapons as status symbols. Ronan's sister, Nikita Kanda, advocates for banning the online sale of bladed weapons to prevent such tragedies.

Youth organisations emphasise the need for safe spaces and positive activities for young people to deter them from violence. They stress the importance of keeping children engaged and away from harmful influences online, something the Ofcom proposals, in line with the Online Safety Act, have identified as essential. The proposals place duties on online providers such as search engines and social media companies to identify young service users and prevent algorithms allowing access to or serving inappropriate material.

The Wolverhampton case has sparked a crucial debate on the balance between public safety, justice, and the duty of care to safeguard the welfare of young offenders. As Mrs. Justice Tipples prepares to make her decisions, the community and the nation watch closely, grappling with the broader implications this decision will have for youth crime and rehabilitation.

The application to lift the reporting restrictions will be heard on Monday 29 and Tuesday 30 July 2024.

Sam Preston

SSS Learning Safeguarding Director

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