Decision on drugs case was 'a startling result', say appeal judges
By SAM GREENHILL, COLIN FERNANDEZ and TOM KELLY
Cherie Blair suffered a humiliating rebuke yesterday for allowing a cocaine smuggler to walk free from court.
Sitting as a Crown court judge, she gave drug dealer Lee Williams a suspended sentence even though he had a kilogram of cocaine worth £145,600.
Three Appeal Court judges expressed astonishment at what was described as a ‘startling’, ‘deficient’ and ‘unduly lenient’ sentence.
Soft justice: Cherie Blair, sitting at Isleworth Crown Court, let cocaine smuggler Lee Williams walk free. Her decision has been heavily critised by appeal judges
They replaced it with a three-and-a-half-year jail term. The case comes at a time of increasing concern over ‘soft’ sentencing despite the recent tough justice handed out to looters.
Mrs Blair, known professionally as Cherie Booth QC, holds the rank of Recorder –a part-time judge –as well as working as a leading human rights barrister.
In March this year, she was presiding at Isleworth Crown Court in South-West London when 43-year-old Williams faced trial.
The cocaine was wrapped inside a package said to contain a ‘gift’ and posted from the US last September.
Overturned: Three appeal judges criticised Cherie Blair for her soft sentencing at the Appeal Court, in London, yesterday
Customs officers allowed it to be delivered to Williams’s flat in Hanwell, West London, where he was arrested.
Prosecutors said he was not an ‘organiser’ of the drugs ring but argued he must have been ‘near the top of the food chain’.
The jury took less than three hours to find him guilty of conspiracy to supply a class A drug. Experts said a criminal in such circumstances could expect a stretch behind bars of five to nine years.
However, Mrs Blair imposed a 12-month suspended sentence after she was told he was a long-term alcohol abuser who suffered from cirrhosis of the liver and had suffered a stroke while on remand in prison.
She said she had taken into account his poor health and the fact that he had spent 240 days in prison on remand before trial.
The Appeal Court was asked to review the sentence by lawyers representing Attorney General Dominic Grieve, who said it was ‘unduly lenient’ and a ‘startling result’.
Appeal judge Lord Justice Pitchford agreed the sentence was ‘remarkable’.
Sitting in London with Mr Justice Tugendhat and Mr Justice Griffith Williams, he said cocaine smuggling had a ‘public dimension’ and should normally attract ‘lengthy’ jail terms.
‘There is a deficiency, in the respect of the recorder, in her reasoning,’ ruled Lord Justice Pitchford.
‘We consider the Recorder was persuaded against her initial and better judgment and imposed an unduly lenient sentence.’
He added: ‘In the most exceptional circumstances, it may be possible for the court to take an exceptionally lenient course. We consider this case is not in that category.’
He told Williams’s barrister Matthew Morgan: ‘I don’t know what spell you were casting but this is a remarkable sentence, is it not?’
Imposing the jail term, the court ordered Williams to surrender to police. But last night he claimed to be unaware of the new sentence. ‘Nobody has told me anything about it,’ he said. ‘I need to ring my solicitor and check. If that’s true I think it’s diabolical.’
He said of Mrs Blair: ‘She was a good judge. She was fair. I was innocent.’
Dr David Green, director of the Civitas think tank, said: ‘Mrs Blair doesn’t appear to be well-suited to being a judge if that’s her idea of a proportionate sentence.’