Yesterday at Bradford Crown Court Judge Jonathon Rose imposed a sentence of 6 years imprisonment upon Adam Johnson, the famous Sunderland Football Player for offences of grooming, and sexual activity with a 15 year old girl, who was previously a devoted fan of his. The question is, was the sentence appropriate to the crime?
Johnson was not found guilty of all the sexual offences of a more serious nature with which he was charged, and only pleaded guilty to less serious offences at the last minute. He was first arrested in February 2015 and not sentenced until yesterday, some 13 months later. He is reputed to be appealing, so this whole blog must await that outcome.
After conviction the judge warned of a 4 to 6 year term. Prosecution Counsel, Kate Blackwell QC, however, asked for a 10 year term. The judge quoted 3 aggravating factors to justify the sentence, which was towards the upper end of the guidelines:-
- Meeting the victim in a dark place
- Attempts to conceal the activity.
- Impact on the victim who had suffered intense psychological harm.
No doubt the aggravating factors quoted are those which strict sentencing guidelines permit the judge to take into account, but one must also wager that additional factors came into play:-
- He was a professional footballer who was idolised by young fans both male and female, who were his target audience in terms of who looked up to him as an example. He was in the public eye. He was thus in a position of power and trust.
- It would be an analogous situation if I was charged with abuse of a child. I have a high profile, regard child abuse as my profession, and put my head above the parapet in campaigning for the cause. Thus both of us must expect a higher sentence than an “ordinary member of the public”. A better analogy, probably, is a traffic policeman who is charged with dangerous driving.
- The impact statement of the victim requires some elaboration. It was hard hitting and graphic in its description of the effect upon the victim. The concept of such a device is relatively recent in criminal law terms as focus has moved closer and closer to serving the needs of the victims of crime. It identified:-
- The girl had visited many dark places in her mind over the last 12 months
- She felt depressed and suicidal
- Johnson’s denial of guilt had aggravated her condition.
- Her school work had suffered.
- She felt disbelieved and rejected.
- There had been an assault upon her via social media by other devoted fans.
- My knowledge of the effect which abuse has upon a victim tells me that the above factors are the tip of the iceberg, and that she is likely to suffer lifelong effects of this crime, which will be enduring and harmful to any attempts she makes to have relationships. Let us hope that I am wrong
- The Facebook campaign which Johnson’s sister waged in between conviction and sentence was no doubt well intentioned and motivated by loyalty, but in sentencing terms it was at best aggravating, and at worst tantamount to contempt of court. She composed a poem supporting Johnson, which was followed by many hateful comments towards the already damaged 15 year old victim. One wonders at the wisdom of trying to influence a judge to impose a less lenient sentence using the power of social media. It is likely to have made the sentence worse.
- There is no doubt that much harm was caused by Johnson’s 12 month denial of guilt. The consequence of denial is the obvious implication that the victim is telling lies, as there is rarely any corroborative evidence of a sexual crime committed in secret. There were 800 text messages from Johnson which were designed to ensnare his adoring victim. The denial led to him being allowed to continue his football career for Sunderland rather than being suspended which would have been the norm. As a consequence the Chief Executive has been forced to resign.
- This case has been played out and commented upon in the national and international media. Had Johnson accepted his guilt at the first possible opportunity, and displayed a conciliatory attitude, then no doubt his sentence would have been less. He would no doubt still have lost his career and his partner, but he may have been able to wage a less damaging public relations exercise. It was reported that he walked out of court showing little emotion. No doubt he felt it. Such a tragic loss of exceptional sporting talent.
So in conclusion, yes, the sentence was appropriate for the crime, but more the effects of the crime upon the victim than what actually happened at the time. It was the same story again, the abuse of the power of celebrity over a fan whom the accused knew adored him. A psychologist employed by the Defence said he was not attracted to pre-pubescent girls but display some emotional retard in the way he behaved.
Certainly the sentence was greater than that imposed upon the likes of Stuart Hall, who was convicted of more serious offences. The difference lies in the sentencing guidelines which mean that in some cases one has to sentence the offender by the standards at the time the offence was committed. There is no doubt that in the 1970’s it is likely that this conviction would not even have attracted a custodial sentence, such was the mood of sexual liberation permitted by society.
As always, please contact our abuse team if there is any issue with which you would like advice.