LONDON (AP) — A former London police officer was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole Thursday for the kidnapping, rape and murder of a woman he tricked into his car using his police identification and COVID-19 laws.
Wayne Couzens, 48, was accused of falsely arresting 33-year-old Sarah Everard for violating lockdown restrictions as she walked home from visiting a friend in south London on March 3. Prosecutors said Couzens, who was on the Metropolitan Police force at the time, handcuffed Everard, drove her far outside the city, and then raped and killed her.
He had pleaded guilty to the charges.
In handing down the sentence, Justice Adrian Fulford described the details of the case as “devastating, tragic and wholly brutal." Couzens went “hunting a lone female to kidnap and rape," having planned the crime in “unspeakably” grim detail, the judge said.
“You have eroded the confidence that the public are entitled to have in the police forces of England and Wales," Fulford told the ex-officer, who had finished working an overnight shift at the U.S. Embassy on the day he kidnapped Everard.
The seriousness of the case was so “exceptionally high” that it warranted a whole life sentence, Fulford added. The sentence means that Couzens will die in prison with no chance of parole.
The body of Everard, a marketing executive, was found in woodland in Ashford, Kent, about 60 miles (nearly 100 kilometers) southeast of London, a week after she went missing. Prosecutors said Couzens strangled her with his police belt before setting fire to the body.
Couzens joined the Metropolitan Police in 2018 and had worked as part of a team protecting diplomatic locations in central London. During the U.K.’s winter pandemic lockdown, he also spent time patrolling the city in search of people violating the government’s restrictions on public activity.
He was arrested at his home in Deal in southeastern England after police connected him to a rental car he used to abduct Everard.
Everard's slaying and the officer's arrest prompted an outpouring of grief and anger across Britain, touching a nerve with women particularly because Everard was abducted while walking home along well-lit areas of Clapham and Brixton -- urban, busy areas of the capital frequented by scores of women and girls every day.
The case also raised wider questions about trust in police, with many asking how police vet their officers and others criticizing Scotland Yard for not doing enough to protect women and girls and tackle allegations of sexual violence.
After Couzens’ arrest, it emerged that he had been accused of indecent exposure at least twice before he murdered Everard, and the police department is being investigated over whether the allegations were dealt with properly.
Home Secretary Priti Patel said the Metropolitan Police force needed to answer “serious questions” about “all the requirements and checks that should have been put in place” regarding Couzens. But Patel backed London police chief Cressida Dick amid calls for the commissioner to resign.
Dick attended Thursday's sentencing hearing. She said outside the Central Criminal Court afterward that she recognized the case had damaged a “precious bond of trust” between the police force and the city it serves.
“This man has brought shame on the Met. Speaking frankly as an organization, we have been rocked," the chief said.
Labour Party lawmaker Harriet Harman led calls for Dick, the Metropolitan Police's first female chief and Britain's most senior police officer, to step down. She said urged the implementation of urgent reforms, including the immediate suspension of officers accused of violence against women.
“Women need to be confident that the police are there to make them safe, not to put them at risk," Harman wrote in a letter to Dick. “Women need to be able to trust the police, not to fear them.”
Also on Thursday, the suspect in a similar, more recent slaying appeared in court accused of the “premeditated and predatory” murder of a 28-year-old school teacher in southeast London.
Koci Selamaj, 36, is accused of attacking Sabina Nessa as she walked to meet a friend on Sept. 17. Her body was found a day later in a local park.
“No woman should have to fear harassment or violence. We will do everything possible to prevent these abhorrent crimes and keep our communities safe,” Prime Minister Boris Johnson said.