A killer recommended to spend the rest of his life behind bars will become eligible for release next year, sparking calls for parole reforms to be accelerated.
Nicholas Burton was found guilty of the murder of 27-year-old Rachel McGrath, who he stabbed to death as she called to collect her boyfriend from a pub car park in Bramhall in April 1997.
A few hours later, Burton kidnapped a 17-year-old girl as she stopped at a newsagent on her way to work and subjected her to a terrifying 11-hour ordeal in which she was forced to drive to Wales. He threatened to kill her, and later told a court he had intended to rape and murder her.
The judge handed Burton life sentences for murder, kidnap and false imprisonment with a minimum tariff of 25 years and gave him an additional 10 years for threats to kill.
Speaking during the case in 1998, Mr Justice Morland told Liverpool Crown Court that a psychiatrist had described Burton as one of the most dangerous men she had ever come across in her career.
The judge told him: “I shall recommend that no home secretary is ever likely to allow your release.”
Victim’s family informed
Ms McGrath’s elderly parents have, however, now been contacted by victim liaison officials to be told that he is due to be considered for parole next May after serving the 25-year minimum term.
The family have even been asked to specify what conditions they would like to see imposed on him as part of his licence on release, including the size of any geographical exclusion zone and contact restrictions, according to Liz Saville Roberts, the family’s local MP.
She said it was the first time that the family had known he would be released, having believed that the judge’s recommendation would mean he would die in jail.
However, the 2003 Criminal Justice Bill transferred the right of the Home Secretary to determine whether a lifer could be released to the Parole Board.
The decision comes just weeks after the Parole Board rejected an appeal by Robert Buckland, the Justice Secretary, and allowed the release of Colin Pitchfork, jailed for 33 years for raping and murdering 15-year-olds Lynda Mann and Dawn Ashworth in the Eighties.
The decision has already reinforced demands for a root and branch overhaul of the Parole Board, with new legal rights to appeal its decisions and its hearings opened to the public and press as well as victims to boost transparency.
MPs are, however, concerned that the changes may not take place before Burton comes up for parole.
On Tuesday, Ms Saville Roberts appealed to ministers to meet the family to “help ensure that they have all the information they need, that their voice is heard and it is respected”.
“The trial judge described Burton as merciless and manipulative and recommended that no home secretary – as the arrangement was at the time – would ever be likely to allow his release,” she said.
“Rachel’s elderly parents haven’t even been able to make a victim statement and believe the correct procedure has not been followed. My constituent Michael McGrath is battling for justice for his family.”
Alex Chalk, the Justice Minister, said victims must be participants rather than spectators in such cases. He thanked Ms Saville Roberts for raising the “extremely sensitive, distressing and, frankly, appalling” case, adding: “Yes, of course I will be delighted to meet.”