This article appears as part of the Unspun: Scottish Politics newsletter.

I cannot and will never be able to know the hell of the parents of the babies murdered by Lucy Letby. 

I cannot fathom what it must be to suffer the death of your child and subsequently learn that they were murdered.

For most of us, dear Christ hopefully, the victim’s impact statements read out in Manchester Crown Court on Monday will be the closest glimpse of their nightmare that we will ever experience.

The one that stuck with me was the mother of Child I, speaking about how her daughter had improved in the neonatal unit, how she and her husband thought they would soon be able to take her home, how they brought the car seat into the ward for it to be checked. 

A week later their daughter collapsed. 

After four attempts Letby had killed her. 

“'When they handed (Child I) to us we never wanted to let her go we held her so tight she was our gorgeous little princess and I can’t even begin to explain the pain. When we lost her a part of us died with her.”

Letby wasn’t there. She heard none of it.

I suppose her sentence was never in any doubt. And given that she’s never going to leave prison ever again, the threat of having a few years added on to her jail time for not turning up to court is no real punishment. 

The question is though, should she have been forced to be there? Should those found guilty of crimes be compelled to be in court for the sentencing?

It is too late for Letby, but that's exactly what the UK Government are looking to do in England and Wales. 

There are, of course, what Keir Starmer described as “practical considerations”.

How do you force someone into court that doesn’t want to be there? 

Former senior crown prosecutor Nazir Afzal told the BBC that the only option may be to “Hannibalise” them, that is truss them up on a trolley, straight-jacket and mask, like Anthony Hopkins in The Silence of the Lambs.

Letby was not the first killer to refuse to appear in the dock to face victims’ families. 

The Herald:

Earlier this year, Thomas Cashman stayed in his cell rather than take part in proceedings when he was convicted for shooting dead nine-year-old Olivia Pratt-Korbel in Liverpool.

Jordan McSweeney refused to come to court to be sentenced for the killing of Zara Aleena in east London.

In Scotland, the situation is slightly different. Partly because we don’t have whole-life sentences, though judges can impose sentences in which the punishment part effectively amounts to a whole-life term. 

Maybe that means there’s more incentive for an offender to turn up and keep on the Sheriff's good side. 

Certainly, there doesn’t seem to be much of a problem here. 

“In almost 40 years I’ve never seen an accused refuse to come up to court for sentencing,” Thomas Leonard Campbell KC tweeted over the weekend. 

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Nevertheless, that it hasn't really happened yet, doesn't mean it might never. 

And as Professor James Chalmers from Glasgow University’s School of Law pointed out on social media, there is a “risk of contagion.” That the high-profile coverage of Letby’s refusal may encourage others to follow suit.

On Monday, the Scottish Government said they were looking at the situation here. 

“Offenders are brought before the court to hear their sentencing in Scotland,” a spokesman said. “However, there is no statutory law that requires this. We will consider carefully if any new laws are needed in this area.”

But even then, if we change the law and compel someone to be in court who doesn’t want to be there, is that necessarily worthwhile?

As much as we may want to see the whites of the offender’s eyes as the victim impact statements are read out or as the sentencing is delivered, someone with nothing to lose can cause chaos.  

“A sentencing process conducted in view of a contemptuous or visibly distraught prisoner may offer little by way of catharsis,” Prof Chalmer pointed out on X. 

“This may be an example of the fact that not every problem can be fixed, or at least be fixed in a way which makes things better.”

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