A teenager who raped and murdered six-year-old Alesha MacPhail has had his 27-year minimum sentence reduced by appeal judges, sparking anger from the schoolgirl’s family.

Aaron Campbell, 17, was jailed in March this year after being convicted of abducting the youngster from her 
grandparents’ home on the Isle of Bute and raping and suffocating her in nearby woodland.

Campbell, who was 16 at the time of the murder in July 2018, denied the killing during his trial and tried to blame the partner of Alesha’s father.

However, he later admitted his crimes after being found guilty and told social workers he had “tried to zip his mouth shut” during the trial to stop himself from laughing. He is now being held at the young offenders institution  in Polmont.

The killer has now successfully appealed to the High Court in Edinburgh, with judges reducing the minimum term of his life sentence to 24 years.

Campbell’s lawyers successfully argued that the sentence was “excessive” due to his age at the time of the murder. 

Alesha’s uncle, Calum-John MacPhail, yesterday hit out at the decision and claimed the family are now concerned about Campbell being released at the end of his minimum term.

He wrote on Facebook: “They told us it be very unlikely for him to be granted an appeal, which he was granted; they told us it would be unlikely for him to be granted the reduction on his sentence.

“So how can we believe when they say he is unlikely to be released?”

Mr MacPhail is campaigning for a change in sentencing legislation which would mean offenders aged 16 and over are treated the same as adults if convicted of serious crimes such as murder, rape or abduction.

Currently, under the Criminal Procedure Scotland Act 1995, offenders up to the age of 21 are treated differently by the courts due to their immaturity, the risk of influence from others, including peers, and the likelihood that their behaviour will change over time. In Campbell’s case, one psychologist stated that he was “not confident that [he] has the capacity or desire to change”, while another said any rehabilitation would be “very challenging” but not “necessarily impossible”.

In the appeal judgment, Lady Dorrian, the Lord Justice Clerk, said that she did “not think that it is possible entirely to rule out any residual capacity for change in such a young individual, notwithstanding the atrocious nature of his 

She added that the trial judge made the mistake of thinking that Campbell fell into the category of “irreparable corruption” and “underestimated the mitigatory effect of [his] youth”.

However, Mr MacPhail, whose petition to change sentencing has attracted almost 25,000 signatures, argued that “as an adult as in the UK you can get married at 16, you can join the army at 16 and you can even leave home at 16”. He said: “I believe if you can make these choices at the age of 16 and you commit such horrendous crimes, you’re old enough to receive the full sentencing as an adult.”

John Scott QC, who acts as an adviser to the Scottish Sentencing Council, said there are good reasons why – and a lot of research behind – young offenders being treated differently.

“There are a variety of reasons why young people are dealt with differently,” he said. “The law recognises that young people can do things as a result of not being fully mature. Their approach to risk is different, they’re more likely to indulge in risk-taking behaviour, but research shows that often, once the brain is fully developed, they grow out of it. 

“Young people are much more able to change than fully formed adults whose brains are fully developed.”

He added: “Obviously in the context of something as horrific as what he did, it’s a challenge to the notion that we should be more careful in the way we sentence young people – but the law has to be fair and proportionate to everyone.

“Even if a young person commits a truly awful crime, you still have to take into account that they’re a young person.”

The new sentence means that Campbell will be considered for parole after 24 years. However he may never be released if the parole board considers that he is still as risk to the public.

Lady Dorrian stated: “As the trial judge had observed, ‘whether [Campbell] will ever be released will be for others to determine but as matters stand a lot of work will have to be done to change [him] before that could be considered. It may even be impossible’.”