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Police officer sentenced to life in prison for murder of Sarah Everard


A vigil for Sarah Everard in London, March 13, 2021.

By Megan Specia


The police officer who abducted, raped and murdered Sarah Everard — a case that prompted a wave of criticism of the police and calls to reform the way officers handle violence against women — was sentenced on Thursday to life in prison by Britain’s top criminal court.


The sentence was announced a day after prosecutors detailed how the officer, Wayne Couzens, abused his authority and, under the guise of the coronavirus restrictions imposed during a national lockdown in March, deceived Everard into thinking that she was under arrest.


Judge Adrian Bruce Fulford, in explaining why Couzens would not be eligible for parole, said that he had “irretrievably damaged the lives of Sarah Everard’s family and friends” and “eroded the confidence that the public are entitled to have to the police force in England and Wales.”


The judge said that the “misuse of a police officer’s role” — he used his official police credentials, equipment and training to carry out the crime, according to prosecutors — justified the steepest possible sentence.


The degree of preparation and length of time over which Couzens planned his attack, as well as the brutality he demonstrated, also factored into the judgment, he said.


Judges in Britain are usually obligated to give life sentences to people convicted of murder, but those sentenced to life in prison rarely serve out the entire term behind bars.


There is, however, an exception for the most serious murder cases, when a judge passes a “whole life order,” as was the case for Couzens. In this situation, the offender must remain in prison for life without any possibility of early release.


Tom Little, a prosecutor, detailed the case against Couzens in London’s central criminal court this week, revealing new and harrowing details about the March killing of Everard, a 33-year-old whose death inspired national calls for better protections for women. Those present, including Everard’s family, heard how Couzens went “hunting for a lone young female to kidnap and rape.”


Couzens then confronted Everard as she walked home from a friend’s house and conducted “a false arrest” to get her into his car, the prosecutor said.


Couzens, who was a diplomatic protection officer with London’s Metropolitan Police, presented a police identity card to Everard and handcuffed her before driving her out of the city, raping her and eventually killing her and setting her body on fire, Little said.


Her remains were discovered seven days later in a wooded area in Kent, nearly 80 miles from London. Fulford reflected on Everard’s likely state of mind during the journey and said what she had to endure was “as bleak and agonizing as it is possible to imagine.”


When Couzens’ defense lawyer spoke on behalf of his client on Thursday, he said his client did not dispute any of the facts outlined by the prosecution but argued against the possibility of a whole life sentence, citing his guilty plea among other factors.


The details of Couzens calculated attack and his abuse of power as a police officer have shocked rights activists and lawmakers who have pushed for an overhaul of the approach to policing violence against women.


On Wednesday, before the sentencing hearing began, the Metropolitan Police in a statement acknowledged that Couzens’ “actions raise many concerns.”


The Metropolitan Police Federation, a staff association representing London’s police, said in a statement: “Police officers in London are totally disgusted and sickened that what was a serving colleague could have committed such a heinous crime.”


After Everard’s death, the government commissioned a report from an independent watchdog group to review the police response to violence against women and girls in England and Wales. The report, released this month, called for radical changes across the whole system in approaching these cases.


Zoë Billingham, an inspector at Her Majesty’s Inspector of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services, the watchdog group, told the BBC Woman’s Hour on Thursday that Couzens’ actions had “struck a hammer blow to the very heart of police legitimacy.”


“We cannot dismiss Wayne Couzens as a one-off, as a rarity, as an aberration,” she told the BBC. “We must see every single police force in England and Wales now stepping forward to tell its communities precisely what it is doing to ensure women are safe.”

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