On 10th June 2013 the fire brigade were called to an abandoned Sea Cadet Centre in Croydon, following reports that it was on fire. It had been used as a sleeping place by local rough sleepers.
It transpired that a 14 year old boy and a 16 year old girl (who have not been named, which is the usual practice with under 18s) had gone there, with another friend who “filmed them set[ting] fire to paper and a sleeping bag on top of some tyres” before they left, seemingly not realising that the fire was continuing.
Tragically, they were also unaware that Sylwester Mendzelewski was sleeping in the basement. When the fire caught hold, he was unable to escape and died due to smoke inhalation.
They were both sentenced on 18th August 2014.
The two were charged with arson and manslaughter. It seems that they both admitted the above facts when they were arrested and interviewed, and pleaded guilty to arson straight away.
There was a trial on the manslaughter charge, with them both being found guilty in June this year. It is probable that there was no factual dispute of the prosecution case at the trial, with the jury being asked to consider what the two children were (and should have been) aware of.
Having a trial, there was no ‘credit‘ for a plea of guilty. It seems that they were both sentenced to three years youth detention.
We don’t have as much detail as we’d like, and we don’t have the sentencing remarks, which is always a disadvantage.
Sentencing for these sorts of cases, particularly with youths, is exceptionally difficult. Here, the youths were doing what thousands of youths do but the consequences were so catastrophic. The words of the police after sentence are worth bearing in mind :
“The two young people are not hardened criminals but simply two individuals who did not think through the consequences of their actions that fateful day.
These two young people were old enough to understand the consequences associated with starting a fire of this nature, but it’s only now that this has become a reality to them.
Both have shown immense remorse but still have to live with the knowledge of what they did and the devastating impact on the lives of others.“
The sentence has to mark the fact that a man died, whilst recognising that that was in no way the intention of the people involved. Their age has to be taken into account as well. It is not the case where there are guidelines, or where previous decisions of the Court of Appeal are or assistance – it’s all very fact specific.
The sentence is probably a bit more that we would have expected. Also, it is unclear why they both got the same sentence – we would have expected the boy to have got less than they girl as she was two years older. It may be that there will be an appeal in which all the details are aired. In the absence of that, we are none the wiser.