A life sentence was right for Will Cornick, the teacher killer. Right?

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November 5, 2014 by Paul Goldsmith

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It’s a particularly heinous act, to kill a teacher in the course of them doing their job. I’m not just saying that because I am a teacher, but because killing a teacher is an attack on the society you are in. Teachers don’t tend to do their jobs for the money, they want to contribute to the community. When someone like Ann Maguire, someone who had been a pillar of her community, teaching at the same school for almost 40 years, died in service, it felt like an attack on all of us. So it is no surprise that the same society seems satisfied that her killer, Will Cornick, aged 15 at the time, has been sentenced to life imprisonment. But I think it is important for us all to stop and think for a moment about that sentence. What good will it really do?

Cornick has apparently harboured an irrational hatred of Ann Maguire since he had been in year eight. It was now Year 11, and Maguire was doing what all good teachers do, having high expectations of her pupils. She had banned Cornick from a school trip because the high ability student had fallen behind so much on his homework. This, apparently, was the last straw for Cornick, as he vowed to kill not just her, but also the Assistant Head who had spoken to him in his office when Cornick turned up for the trip anyway.

Good teachers do challenge their students. They will challenge bad behaviour, challenge lack of effort, and challenge an attitude that is holding a student back from achieving their aspirations. Sometimes, the student will react negatively, and this is the risk you take, but it is normally irascible words, or perhaps they will walk away from you. Ann Maguire had a history of making a massive difference to her students’ life chances. She will not have done that just by letting the get on with what ever direction they were going in.

The result this time though was that Cornick got a knife out, walked up behind her as she was leaning over a desk helping another student, and stabbed her in the neck and back repeatedly. As she tried to flee, he carried on, until she got into a room, which her colleague barricaded, seeing Cornick expressionless at the door. He dropped the knife, walked back to the classroom, sat down and said “good times.” When some staff came into his classroom to apprehend him, he calmly raised his hands to allow them to. Apparently, he had decided to carry out his murders in school as then he “could be caught.”

Dr Kent, a forensic psychologist who examined Cornick on behalf of the Court, had noted a “gross lack of empathy for his victim and a degree of callousness rarely seen in clinical practice.” Here was a personality disorder with “marked psychopathic traits.”

Passing the life sentence, Justice Coulson pointed out that Cornick had loving parents, was a successful student, with 5 GCSE passes by the end of Year 10. But he had “planned the murder, knew it was wrong, and didn’t care.” The judge added that he could understand why people had used the word ‘evil’ and the experts had “said he was bad, not mad.”

Nobody doubts that Cornick needs to be punished. That punishment had to be exemplary as well as consequential to what he did, because killing a teacher is one thing, doing it in front of pupils is another, having no remorse whatsoever is even worse. On this basis, a life sentence makes sense. Given he has no remorse and doesn’t care about his victim or her grieving family, there is a strong case that society has to be protected by him.

On the other hand, he was a teenager, and one with quite obvious mental health problems. Cornick argued during questioning that it was about “kill or be killed”, in that he was convinced his life was being destroyed by these teachers, and so it was a choice between killing them or committing suicide. Someone who thinks like that needs to be worked with. What good will come of him being locked up in prison for 20 years, coming out maybe when he is 37, with little chance of a job or career, given who he is and what he has done? We feel better, because we have punished him and we are safe from him, but Will Cornick needs help, and a lot of it. Would it not be better if he was out somewhere he could get that help?

You can’t ‘cure’ a psychopath though. You can only help them understand that in the society in which they live, they can’t kill people. What a life sentence does is make there no deadline. Had he been sentenced for 20 years for instance, he would have had to be released within that time, whether he was a further danger to society or not. A life sentence gives the opportunity for rehabilitation, but with no time limit for it to happen, and if it doesn’t happen, he doesn’t get released.

It is right that everyone’s thoughts are with Ann Maguire and her family. But I think it is possible to give a little thought to this boy, who has done so much to destroy lives, but whose life may now be over not so long after it had begun,

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13 thoughts on “A life sentence was right for Will Cornick, the teacher killer. Right?

  1. DH says:

    Good article once again! As promised a Daily Mail response…Surely society should focus its time and efforts on the victims of (violent) crime rather than waste tax payers money on mindless thugs who carry them out?!

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    • The interesting thing about this was that the judge named Cornick as a “deterrent” to others. A deterrent? A deterrent to others from developing a complex personality disorder? How might naming someone else have been a deterrent to Cornick, who said he wanted to be caught. This sentence is a punishment being presented as pragmatism, when it isn’t

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  2. Antoine says:

    There is one thing that really struck me from this article and this idea presents itself in the first paragraph when you say that society feels Will Cornick’s punishment is just because the victim of his assault was a teacher. This raises a fundamental point as to whether murdering a teacher is worse than murdering a homeless person, for example. This may sound like a heartless comment, however society seems to accept this point. Recently 3 teenagers from Liverpool were sentenced for the murdering of a homeless man, with the main culprit, 17 year old Connor Doran, landing a minimum of 12 years in prison. There is a clear disparity between the sentence of Connor Doran and Will Cornick, yet society accepts this disparity as normal. Theresa May herself, when asked about the release of Harry Roberts after he spent 48 years in prison for killing three police officers, said that she believed police murderers should be behind bars for life. Why does society seem to accept that the sentence of an aggressor should be based upon the input the victim has towards society. After all, isn’t everyone equal…

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    • You raise an important point. Would Cornick have got life for murdering a homeless man? Well, if he had shown the same lack of remorse he has done over Ann Maguire I think yes. Why? Because he is plainly a danger to society and will continue to be so whilst he has no empathy with his victim and her family. The life sentence gives the authorities time to work on this without a deadline, which is important. Harry Roberts went 18 years past his original sentence as he also showed no remorse and carried on allegedly committing crimes from within jail. I think there are certain professions in society that NEED to have their workers protected. But that’s just my opinion

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  3. CO says:

    Intriguing arguments made here. I believe that the life sentence given to Cornick is justified. A murderer who shows no regret or empathy deserves to punished and put away for a long time regardless of his psychotic state. This will also give peace to the Ann Maguire’s family and the community. Although, during this time I hope he gets the help he needs.

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    • Agreed, it was his attitude which did for him in the end, not just who he killed. That said, he is a teenager and shouldn’t spend his adult life being punished for something he did when going through this hard stage in life

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  4. Endri says:

    Isn’t it possible for him to be released from prison even though he has been given a life sentence? If he receives the right treatment in prison and actually shows remorse many years down the line, he may be released when he is not as big a threat to society. If not, he should stay in prison for life as he is still showing many psychopathic traits, even after he has ‘matured’ as an adult. So I believe that the life sentence is justified for this moment in time

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    • I agree – the life sentence means they don’t have any imposed deadline for helping him, which could mean he might be out sooner. Be prepared though for a massive fuss when or if he is released.

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  5. Daniel says:

    I think whilst obviously the student must be punished for murder, I wonder whether it is ever fully justified to sentence a child of 15 to their entire life in prison. He clearly felt he was being held back and that this teacher was ruining his life, and so consequently killed her. But even if this was a pre meditated murder do we have a right to consequently force this Young adult of 15 into a state of imprisonment for the rest of his life. He did not do this crime out of pure craze and had a reason, if not very justifiable. Therefore do we have to accept that this child should not be lead down a path where he will spend on average, a further 65 years in prison. It is a waste of life and a harsh sentencing for a child that wasmclearly mentally disturbed, and whilst he should have been imprisoned, I agree that life is simply too harsh.

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    • It may not be life though. This means that there is no deadline for helping sort him out mentally so he may not be a danger to society. Once this is done he could be released. If they instead named a number of years he would have to come out whether ‘cured’ or not. So ‘life’ gives them some leeway

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  6. HC says:

    Whilst in general I do agree with the sentiment of this article the description ‘died in service’, whether purposeful or not, arguably weakens your overall point. This comparison or allusion in relation to soldiers dying ‘in service to our country’ is one which is not relevant to this tragedy. The two jobs, irrelevant of outcome, are not comparable and as such by including this you are simply reducing your own credibility when it comes to unbiased commentary.

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    • That is a really interesting view that I hadn’t thought of before. So let me try to explain why I disagree with you. I am a teacher. If I die when stabbed by a burglar in my home or as I walk home I am not dying “in service”. If I die as I try and break up a fight at the school gate (cf. Phillip Lawrence 1995), then I sort of dying “in service” – although bear in mind that I died breaking up a fight that was not to do with school, so it is slightly different. If I am stabbed in the back whilst teaching a class by a pupil who is unhappy with efforts I am making to help them achieve their aspirations then I AM dying “in service”. I am dying AS a teacher, BECAUSE I am a teacher, WHILST teaching. I would argue that a teacher is serving their country – not in the same way as a soldier, but certainly is contributing to society. Therefore I would argue that “in service” is appropriate. It was written on purpose – because it was the first teacher to die in this manner in a classroom actually recorded, and it was so related to what she actually did. I can see why you feel that saying “in service” might reduce my credibility in terms of making unbiased commentary – but bear in mind I gave the same comparison when talking about the police officers who died “in service” when shot by Harry Roberts.

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      • HC says:

        My disagreement was never with the direct meaning of the term ‘in service’ . Undeniably it does mean to die whilst serving, which can be construed as one wishes including teaching. Yet colloquially one can argue that ‘in service’ only brings forth connotations of ‘serving the peace’ as such making it relevant to both the Police and the Army. When you say ‘died in service’ to someone their mind instantly thinks of the Army or maybe the Police.
        Due to this although in a literal sense the term ‘in service’ can certainly be used in this context, due to the military associations which often come to mind when it is read one could argue that it is not beneficial to use this term. Even if it is correct contextually due to peoples prior biases towards its military usage it can detract from your argument more than it might benefit it.

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