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Was Brianna Ghey’s murder really motivated by transphobia?

The murderers had a ‘kill list’ and their preferred target wasn't trans. The culture war must not distort the justice system.

Luke Gittos

Luke Gittos
Columnist

Topics Politics UK

The girl and boy convicted of murdering 16-year-old Brianna Ghey were named last week as Scarlett Jenkinson and Eddie Ratcliffe.

In February last year, the pair, then aged 15, lured Ghey to a park in Culcheth, in north-west England, and launched into a ‘sustained and violent assault’ with a hunting knife. It was an appalling murder made all the more shocking by the youth of the perpetrators.

Normally in cases involving offenders under the age of 18, the media are prevented from publishing their identities. The thinking being that revealing young defendants’ or offenders’ names affects their chances of being rehabilitated in the future. During their trial at the end of last year, Jenkinson and Ratcliffe were referred to as ‘girl X’ and ‘boy Y’ respectively.

But last week, after several outlets applied to have reporting restrictions lifted, Mrs Justice Yip decided that there is a ‘strong public interest’ in naming the killers. She argued that there was a ‘presumption in favour of open justice’ and that naming the killers would assist ‘public understanding’.

Make no mistake, these two are guilty of an exceptionally horrific murder. The pre-meditated and sadistic nature of the killing, coupled with the perpetrators’ lack of remorse, set this case apart. Yet, as exceptional as this crime was, by naming the culprits, Yip risks setting a dangerous precedent – one that could affect countless other young offenders.

What is most worrying is Justice Yip’s reason for breaking with legal precedent and naming the pair. There are strong indications that the culture war over trans issues played a major part in this decision. In her sentencing speech, Yip talked of the public interest in Ghey’s trans identity and mentioned the vigils which took place after the murder. In other words, for the judge, the public interest in the case appears to centre on the fact that Ghey identified as trans.

In sentencing Ratcliffe and Jenkinson, Yip even ruled that Ghey’s trans identity was a secondary motivation for the killing. She seems to have arrived at this conclusion on the basis of text messages sent by Ratcliffe. In these, he wondered whether Ghey would scream like ‘a man or a girl’.

What Ratcliffe wrote was appalling. But this is far from clear-cut proof of motive. We should be wary of taking anything said in these text messages at face value. Plus, the claim that transphobia was a factor in Ghey’s murder is contradicted by other evidence. Cheshire Police ruled it out as a motive at the start of their investigation. The pair also had a ‘kill list’ of potential victims. The trial made it clear that they were determined to kill someone, not Ghey in particular. They explicitly discussed trying to hang a boy on the list, who seemed to be their preferred target. ‘If we can’t get [him] tomorrow, we can kill Brianna’, Jenkinson said over text.

Furthermore, it was Jenkinson, not Ratcliffe, who compiled the ‘kill list’ and put Ghey on it. She had formed a relationship with Ghey at school. According to Jenkinson’s psychiatrist, she once claimed to have committed the murder because she was worried about losing Ghey as a friend. She said she wanted to ‘kill her so she would always be with her’. Whatever else might have driven Jenkinson to single Ghey out, there’s little evidence it was transphobia.

Judges have to exercise their judgement based on an interrogation of the evidence before them. But in this case, it is difficult to escape the impression that a momentous decision to name two young people appears to have been taken on the basis of a highly contested claim – namely, that transphobia was a key factor in Ghey’s murder.

Justice Yip’s decision carries serious risks. There has long been a recognition that, prior to the age of 18, children convicted of criminal offences should remain anonymous, in the hope they might be rehabilitated. This is a humane principle of our justice system that is worth defending, even in the face of the most abhorrent and heinous of cases.

As lawyers often say, hard cases make bad law. We should not change rules, eliding the vital distinction between children and adults, because the facts of one particular case are so shocking and politically resonant.

Sadly, that does seem to be what has happened here. This decision risks eroding important principles of justice in service of the culture war over gender. We should always defend open justice. Justice should be done and seen to be done. But children and adults are different – and should be treated as such.

We must call out this attempt to portray Brianna Ghey’s murder as another symptom of our ‘transphobic’ society. To do so warps the facts and does a disservice to justice. All to suit a political agenda. Identity politics has no place in a courtroom.

Luke Gittos is a spiked columnist and author. His most recent book is Human Rights – Illusory Freedom: Why We Should Repeal the Human Rights Act, which is published by Zero Books. Order it here.

Picture by: Cheshire Police.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics UK

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