LONDON — A U.K. police officer was sentenced to life in prison with no parole Thursday for the kidnap, rape and murder of a young woman in a case that sparked nationwide outrage and protests over male violence.
Wayne Couzens, 48, used his position as a serving London police officer and the pretext of Covid-19 restrictions to abduct Sarah Everard from a street in the British capital earlier this year, prosecutors said.
Everard, a 33-year-old marketing executive, disappeared as she walked home from a friend’s house on March 3. A major police investigation led to Couzens’ arrest, and he pleaded guilty to the charges in July.
Revelations from the two-day sentencing hearing have driven renewed uproar around women’s safety and the role of law enforcement.
In details heard for the first time Wednesday, prosecutors told London’s Old Bailey Court that Couzens used his police ID and coronavirus restrictions to handcuff Everard in a “false arrest.”
He then drove to a secluded area in a rental car where he raped and murdered Everard, prosecutor Tom Little said, before burning her body and clothing.
The body was found a week after her disappearance in a woodland in the county of Kent, more than 50 miles southeast of London.
Little said Couzens was on a “hunt” for a lone, young woman before encountering Everard.
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In emotional statements read out in court, Everard’s parents blamed Couzens for taking their daughter away and treating her “as if she was nothing.”
“I go through the terrible sequence of events,” Susan Everard, Sarah’s mother, said. “I wonder when she realized she was in mortal danger.”
Defence lawyer Jim Sturman said Thursday Couzens doesn’t seek to make excuses for anything he did, and is filled with remorse, self-loathing and shame.
In a submission that took about 20 minutes, Sturman argued against a life sentence for Couzens, noting he had spared the Everard family “the agony of awaiting a verdict” by pleading guilty.
Couzens joined London’s Metropolitan Police in 2018 and most recently served in an armed unit responsible for guarding embassies in the capital and Parliament.
He had worked an overnight shift at the U.S. Embassy on the day he kidnapped Everard.
In a statement released ahead of the sentencing hearing Wednesday, the Metropolitan Police said they were “sickened, angered and devastated by this man’s crimes which betray everything we stand for.”
Couzens was sacked by the force in July, a week after pleading guilty to Everard’s murder.
Prosecutors called the case “one of the most widely publicized missing person investigations this country has seen,” with Everard’s disappearance and death gripping the U.K. and prompting a national conversation about violence against women.
In the wake of her murder, thousands of women took to social media to talk about harassment they had been subjected to, safety issues and the criminal justice system’s failure to prosecute offenses committed against women.
Since then, the U.K. government has reviewed its strategy to tackle violence against women and girls, and a government-commissioned report released earlier this month recommended that police treat the issue with as much urgency as terrorism.
But women’s rights campaigners continue to sound the alarm about disproportionate levels of violence affecting women and girls, especially those from marginalized communities. Six months down the road from Everard’s murder, many say not much has changed, and women remain unsafe.
Since Everard was killed, 80 women have been killed in circumstances where a man is the principal suspect, according to Counting Dead Women, a group that tracks femicide in the U.K.
The latest case to prompt renewed national conversation is the death of 28-year-old school teacher Sabina Nessa, killed as she walked through a public park on her way to a pub in southeast London earlier this month.
The case also stirred debate about whether incidents involving women of color fail to receive the same level of public and media attention.
A man was charged in her death earlier this week.