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Bishop Auckland man given 12 year sentence for helping vulnerable friend's suicide bid
A MAN who bought petrol and a lighter for a drunken friend threatening suicide was yesterday locked up for 12-years.
Instead of trying to talk him out of it, Kevin James Howe was said to have taken “positive action” to assist the “extremely vulnerable” Stephen Walker in carrying out his threat to try to take his own life.
Durham Crown Court heard that having drunk all day with Mr Walker, on Sunday May 26, Howe made a 1.4 mile round trip cycle ride with a punctured tyre to buy £4 worth of unleaded petrol and an 89p lighter from a filling station in Cockton Hill, Bishop Auckland.
He returned to Mr Walker’s home on the town’s Woodhouse Close Estate and within minutes of handing over the full jerry can and lighter, his “inseparable friend” used the petrol to set himself alight.
Following a small blast in which the windows of the house in Walker Drive blew out, he emerged screaming into the garden a human fireball, with flames leaping a foot high from him.
Neighbours backed by a passing police officer tried to put out the flames using old clothes, but 30-year-old Mr Walker was burned down to the bone in places.
He was wrapped in cling film and taken to hospital in a critical condition, suffering 95 per cent mostly third degree and full skin burns. He has since undergone a series of operations.
The court was told he remained in intensive care at Newcastle’s Royal Victoria Infirmary until August and is now in the burns unit, where the now 31-year-old Mr Walker is said to be “stable”, but at high risk from infection.
Howe left Mr Walker’s house minutes before the near fatal act, telling a neighbour: “He’s inside with the petrol. I’m going home, out of the way.”
Howe, then 19, initially claimed he filled the can with water, knowing that Mr Walker wanted to use it on himself, but changed his story at trial saying he bought it for his friend to use on a strimmer and mower to carry out odd jobs in gardens in the neighbourhood.
The now 20-year-old Howe, of Cheesmond Avenue, Bishop Auckland, denied a charge of doing an act intended to assist someone to commit or attempt to commit suicide.
In the first effective prosecution since the Director of Public Prosecutions drew up policy for prosecutors in such cases in 2010, in the wake of the Dignitas suicide clinic debate, Howe was found guilty after a four-day trial at the court last month.
Following preparation of pre-sentence reports by the Probation Service, Howe, who has no previous convictions, was brought back to learn his fate at the court today.
Elizabeth Reid, prosecuting, said the episode has had a “traumatic” effect on Mr Walker’s brother, Michael, and mother, Margaret Snowdon, who have constantly been at his bedside during his slow recovery.
She said that if he is able to return home in the future he will require “round the clock” assistance.
Mark Styles, for Howe, presented two character testimonials to the court.
He described him as, “a fairly unremarkable young man, with a hitherto good character”.
Mr Styles said despite the relative disparity in their ages, Howe had been a close friend of Mr Walker for some time.
“It’s quite clear Mr Walker was an exceptionally vulnerable man and it’s notable that time and again opportunities were there to give him assistance that wasn’t given.
“But, he (Howe) maintains his position that he never intended the consequences, contrary to the finding of the jury.”
Judge Christopher Prince, however, said Howe knew better than anyone of Mr Walker’s previous threats to take his life and, instead of trying to talk him out of it, “took positive action to assist” that intention.
“Other people who heard them considered they were idle threats, cries of wolf, but you knew him better than that and you knew they were not idle threats.
“You knew he might actually do it.”
Judge Prince said having handed over the petrol and lighter Howe was fully aware what might take place.
“You knew exactly what was going to happen and left.”
“At that point in my view you had no doubt but that Stephen was going to go through with it and you did nothing.”
The judge said Howe almost appeared to “take delight” in what his friend was about to do.
Having imposed the sentence of 12-years’ young offender detention, Judge Prince praised near neighbours Ryan McGlen and Lee Banks for their efforts to try to talk Mr Walker out of setting light to himself, immediately before he carried out the threat.
He said Mr McGlen behaved in a “highly creditable manner” and Mr Banks “demonstrated conspicuous bravery”, both only leaving when it became clear Mr Walker was about to set light to the petrol he had poured over himself.
Lee Banks was praised for his bravery
The judge slammed as “beyond contempt” reports of taunts in the area about Mr Walker’s mental health, although he added that he was pleased to hear of the general community spirited response in the wake of the tragic events of May 26.
As they left court a family friend accompanying Mr Walker’s brother Michael, who observed the entire court proceedings, said he was, “just pleased it’s all over.”
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