CAMPAIGNERS said today they are ‘disturbed by the leniency’ shown to a killer who scrawled gay taunts on an autistic boy’s face and body – before setting him alight at his own 18th birthday party.
Steven Simpson, who had Asperger’s Syndrome, epilepsy and a speech impairment, was doused in tanning oil before Jordan Sheard flicked a lighter close to his groin, engulfing him in flames.
A paramedic reported seeing lipstick smudged on Steven’s face, and the words ‘gay boy’ on his forehead in pen.
After the blaze Sheard fled, and claimed Steven – who died two days later from 60 per cent burns – had set himself on fire.
Eventually he confessed, and pleaded guilty at Sheffield Crown Court to manslaughter.
Jailing him for three years and six months, Judge Roger Keen QC told Sheard: “At his 18th birthday party you destroyed Steven’s life.”
But the judge said taunting which led up to Steven’s death had been ‘good-natured horseplay’, and that Sheard, now 20, of Darfield Road, Cudworth, was ‘egged on’ by other partygoers.
Today human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell said: “This is a shocking, violent abuse of a vulnerable young disabled gay man.
“The sentence is outrageously lenient for this protracted series of homophobic insults, which culminated in Steven’s death.”
Ben Summerskill, chief executive of gay equality charity Stonewall, said: “The leniency with which the killer has been treated is disturbing.”
And Carol Povey, director of the Centre for Autism at The National Autistic Society, said: “It is vital disability hate crimes are punished with the same severity as other hate crimes.”
The Crown Prosecution Service said it had wanted to prosecute the tragedy as a hate crime – but added: “The judge did not agree and sentenced accordingly.”
Tim Warburton, the CPS prosecuting lawyer, said: “This was a cruel case of bullying based on Steven’s sexuality and disability. Steven had significant learning difficulties but was getting on well, and had recently started college where he was studying life skills.
“On his course he made some new friends and decided to have a few of them over to his house to celebrate his 18th birthday.
“The focus of the party quickly turned to Steven and his sexuality. He was encouraged to take off his shirt and dance around, he had obscene pictures and writing scrawled on his body, and he was sprayed with suntan oil.
“Had the horseplay ended there we may have had a different story to tell today. Sadly it didn’t.
“While we accept Jordan did not intend to kill Steven, his actions did lead to his death.
“His disability and sexuality were used as weapons against him, with the group of friends taking advantage of his naivety.”
But the CPS stopped short of saying they would appeal the sentence, adding: “It was within the range of what would be expected had it been considered a hate crime, and we will therefore not be appealing it as unduly lenient.”
Sarah Wright, prosecuting, said Steven threw the party for himself last June at the flat on Pleasant View, Cudworth, Barnsley, where he lived alone. One of his neighbours made a buffet, but initially no-one turned up.
A neighbour who popped in to check on Steven noticed shaving foam in his hair and red pen on his arm, but said the teenager ‘seemed to be enjoying himself’.
The high jinx went too far when tanning lotion was doused over Steven in his bedroom.
“Steven did not object to being covered in oil, rather the opposite,” said Sarah Wright, prosecuting. “Then Jordan Sheard took out a lighter and held it to Steven’s groin, and he went up in flames.”
Neighbour Shaun Banner, who had also called in to check on Steven, witnessed the horrific aftermath. He ripped off the teenager’s burning clothing, injuring himself, and placed Steven in a cool bath while waiting for paramedics to arrive.
Andrew Smith, defending Sheard, said: “He knows he has done something very stupid. His part in the death of a decent person is never going to go away.”