Several news outlets have reported the release from prison – on licence – of Ryan Herbert, found guilty in 2008 of the murder of Sophie Lancaster, which was motivated by her goth appearence. He pled guilty and was jailed for life, with a minimum term of 16 years 3 months, later reduced to 15 years 6 months and then further reduced in 2020 – allowing his parole hearing to take place last month.
The attack on Sophie, and boyfriend Robert Maltby who survived, was violent, unprecedented and thankfully unmatched – but it left a significant wound on the psyche of UK goth. We’re all resigned to abuse, threats and even altercations have occurred, but none have ever escalated to the severity of the Sophie Lancaster murder.
It was cruel, vicious and cowardly – the assailants had struck up a seemingly friendly conversation with Sophie and Robert just prior – but it was also clearly motivated by their alternative appearance, which brought it into stark reality for so many of us in the subculture.
So it has always been a sensitive topic on the goth scene, particularly here in the UK but also resonating abroad. The reactions to the decision to parole Ryan Herbert have hardly been surprising;
The most damning of course was the short statement from the Sophie Lancaster Foundation, set up by Sylvia Lancaster – Sophie’s Mum – to try and fight the prejudice and intolerance that prompted the assault.
“I’m obviously very disappointed in the result of the parole hearing. Once again we have a justice system that fails to deliver justice. However much progress people make in prison, they have been given their sentence in recognition of the extent of their crime … Her attackers may not have been given a life sentence, but I have.”Statement from Dr Sylvia Lancaster, The Sophie Lancaster Foundation
Attitudes towards prisoner parole have always been charged with powerful, negative emotions. It has been magnified in this case because of the unusual motivation for the attack, the shocking intensity of the violence, and the incomparable tragedy of the outcome. It has impacted a small, close-knit and sensitive community on a terrible scale. So I am not at all surprised at the vehemence with which this decision has been roundly condemned.
Ryan Herbert was sixteen when he was sent to prison for his crimes, for which he could not be given a true life sentence under British law as a juvenile. He is ‘on licence’ for the rest of his life, with the threat of being returned to prison for any infraction. He is now thirty, having spent his entire adult life behind bars in a hostile environment costing a staggering amount of public money to maintain. He will emerge but – for the rest of his life – with the stigma of an inmate and a murderer.
This is no apology for him, or any of the other boys charged, or for their cold-blooded crimes. It’s just… a small part of me would like to have faith in our system of justice, and how it is designed to punish and reform the offender, to prevent such offences in future. Hopefully…
It’s precious little comfort to those who have been scarred by this crime, however. I hope that all those affected find their peace in due course.