Murder victim’s mother tells of ‘dreadful’ justice system treatment

The mother of a murder victim has said she hopes a planned support service will help other families avoid her “dreadful” experience of the justice system.

Lynn Burns’ only child Sam Johnston died aged 22 after being stabbed at a party in Saltcoats, Ayrshire in 2013.

Stuart McCulloch was convicted of his murder the following year, aged 18, and sentenced to at least 13 years and five months behind bars, while his friend Allan Carey, then 19, was sentenced to three years after being found guilty of culpable homicide.

Mrs Burns told Justice Minister Humza Yousaf on Tuesday about how the justice system caused her extra distress while she was grieving for her son and he pledged to address “gaps”.

She said one of her son’s killers, Carey, was released from detention on bail pending appeal days after being convicted, but did not return to custody until February 2016, having assaulted a woman while at liberty.

He served 17 months in jail and when he was released on a home detention curfew back to her hometown of Ardrossan, Ayrshire the family was not told until five hours after he returned.

“That’s not acceptable,” Mrs Burns said.

She called for families of victims to be treated with compassion, saying her treatment was “soul destroying” at times.

This included being told her son was “evidence” and being advised not to see his body due to the damage caused by multiple post mortem examinations.

The murder trial started a day after the first anniversary of her son’s death, due to postponements, and when she attended court a police officer told her he could not find the case because he did not recognise her son’s name.

Mrs Burns said: “It’s not ok, it’s not good enough and we can do better.”

She is helping create Victim Support Scotland’s new support service for families bereaved by murder and culpable homicide, which she believes will make a difference in future.

The organisation has been given £1.2 million of Scottish Government funding over three years for the new service which is due to start next spring.

“It will provide tailored, clear support for people on an ongoing basis,” Mrs Burns said.

“Hopefully it will help people.”

She added: “I want to see continuity. It’s really important that families have one point of contact.

“It would also be good to have clarity in terms of sentencing. Does three years mean three years, because as the moment it seems like it doesn’t?”

Justice Secretary Humza Yousaf
Justice Secretary Humza Yousaf

Mr Yousaf said: “Clearly there’s some gaps within the system and I’m talking about right throughout the process not just up to sentencing but beyond that as well where there’s clearly work for use to do.”

He thanked Mrs Burns for sharing her experiences and said it is important that voices of victims are heard.

The Justice Secretary said the measures announced recently in the programme for government to enhance victim support would help address many of the issues raised.

He added: “The vast majority of what I heard from Lynn doesn’t need legislation or parliamentary commissions

“Some of it is very much common sense but also ensuring that we have more compassion within the system.

“It’s about making sure that we are communicating with each other right from the police to the Crown of course, government as well where appropriate.”

Victim Support Scotland chief executive Kate Wallace, who set up the meeting, said she envisaged bereaved families having access to a dedicated paid core worker for support.