Content Warning: Contains Description Of An Ableist/Homophobic Killing.
In the early hours of the 23rd of June, Steven Simpson was set on fire by 20 year old Jordan Sheard, who had gate-crashed his house party in Cudworth, near Barnsley. He had been verbally abused, stripped of his clothes and had phrases like “I love d*ck” and “gay boy” scrawled across his body. He was then doused in tanning oil and Sheard lit his crotch with a cigarette lighter, and the flames engulfed his body. Those involved fled as Simpson’s neighbour tried desperately to put out the flames. Simpson died the next day after enduring 60% burns to his body.
Steven Simpson’s murder was the result of the hatred and humiliation caused to him because of his sexuality, and his disability. He was bullied, de-humanised and then killed. It follows the format of many killings of LGBTQ people world wide.
Sheffield Crown Court’s view on the matter has been frankly disgusting. Judge Roger Keen dismissed the crime as a ‘good-natured horseplay’ that had gone too far, and sentenced him to a unusually short sentence of three and a half years in prison. Sheard’s defence lawyer described what happened to Simpson as a ‘stupid prank that went wrong in a bad way’.
This was clearly a hate crime. Simpson was being taunted for his sexuality and his disability. He was devalued so much in the eyes of those involved, that they thought setting him on fire was somehow acceptable. He was a bright young man studying at Barnsley College, but his last moments alive on this earth must have been dehumanising, painful and terrifying.
How Judge Roger Keen can dismiss this so flippantly as “horseplay” is beyond us. He is re-enforcing the same notions that lead to Steven’s death: that homophobic bullying is fun, rather than a crime against LGBTQ people, that it is okay to mock or take advantage of someone’s disability, rather than looking out for them and treating them with respect, that setting someone on fire and burning them to death is a joke gone too far, rather than one of the inevitable consequences of the way we still treat people like Steven in our society.
It makes us sick to the stomach to think someone so young has been killed because he was different – and the frightening fact is that could have been any one of us that lives with a disability, or who is LGBTQ. Many have commented on the lenient sentencing of Steven’s killer, however we think this misses the point. The point here is the criminal justice system is acting complicitly in the oppression of LGBTQ people and disabled people, when it makes comments like those of Judge Keen’s. It is churning out the very same ideas that lead to hate-crime.
It is not a joke, funny, or horseplay to treat someone in the way Steven was and we should not condone it as such. If we do condone this behaviour we are sending out the message that LGBTQ people and disabled people are fair game to be bullied and preyed upon. We are sending out the message that this okay for other young people to do what was done to Steven. It appears it is all okay with Judge Keen, just as long as you don’t kill someone.
But the point is, the way Steven was killed, was precisely a result of how he was treated. If he had just been treated like any other young person, with a bit of decency or respect, it would never have happened.
This is the message that Sheffield Crown Court should have put out.
We hereby condemn Judge Keen’s remarks, call for him to make a public apology, and to make a statement recognising the daily battle people like Steven face because of their sexuality and their disability.
Steven’s death should serve as a reminder of what our LGBTQ and disabled youth face today.
By legitimising this behaviour as horseplay, he has sent out the message that this behaviour toward LGBTQ and disabled youth, is somehow permissible or acceptable, when in fact it has devastating effects on young people. Steven's death serves as a reminder of the risk LGBTQ and disabled youth still face today.
We call upon on the Office for Judicial Complaints to call on Judge Roger Keen QC to make a public statement apologising for his remarks, and a make a commitment to protecting LGBTQ and disabled youth from violence and discrimination.