HMA v John Cowbrough and James Wilson

At the High Court in Edinburgh on 11 December 2015, Lady Wolffe sentenced both John Cowbrough and James Wilson to five years imprisonment after they were convicted of extortion.

On sentencing, Lady Wolffe made the following statement in court:

“John Edward Cowbrough, at the close of the Crown case you pled guilty to two very serious charges, of extortion of £60,000 and of the attempted extortion of £375,000 in January 2013 and April 2014, respectively. Your victim was not known to you.

James Wilson, you were found guilty by unanimous verdict after trial of these same two charges. Your victim was well known to you and regarded you as a confidant.

The evidence I heard at trial disclosed that together you perpetrated a plan whereby your victim received a series of unsigned letters, first in January 2013, threatening violence against a member of his family, if £60,000 was not paid.

Thereafter, you, James Wilson, pretended that you could assist your friend and victim by putting him in touch with your co-accused, John Cowbrough, under the guise of his being ‘Davy’, because (it was said) Davy had a security firm in Glasgow and could assist in analysing DNA taken from the threatening letters.

By this means you, James Wilson, prevailed upon your victim to hand over to you the letters that he had received at that time, for the purported purpose of DNA analysis.

Purporting to be Davy, you, John Cowbrough, conveyed certain information to your victim to the effect that the purported DNA findings belonged to dangerous criminals in England, and that your victim should hand over the money to you, James Wilson, and it would be conveyed via ‘Davy’ to the criminals.

Fearing for the life of his son, your victim did as he was told.

Not satisfied with the extortion you both effected in January 2013, a similar plan was made in April 2014, again commencing with unsigned letters being sent to your victim and containing threats against his family, and a specific horrific threat of burning his grandchild. Unlike the first occasion, this plan was not seen through to a conclusion because your victim was prevailed upon to go to the police.

The foregoing discloses a criminal plan to extort money, executed against the very good friend of one of you. You have benefited personally from the first crime of which you now stand convicted.

Having heard the evidence of your victim, it is clear that he is still affected by the threats made against his family. And he has been financially the worse off because of the extortion of £60,000 from him in January 2013.

At the conclusion of the trial, I wished to have the benefit of a criminal justice social work reports for each of you. 

John Cowbrough, I have had regard to the terms of the CJSW Report. It narrates a relatively stable upbringing and settled domestic situation. You have a number previous convictions, the majority of which have been for crimes of dishonesty. I also note that there have been substantial periods of desistance: of six years from 1997 to 2003 and for 10 years from 2003 to 2013.You have previously, but recently, served a term of imprisonment.

You accept responsibility for the crimes but cannot explain to the author of the report what motivated you to commit these together with your co-accused. You did not know the victim but were persuaded by your co-accused to participate. You are described by the author as now remorseful for your conduct. In relation to risk, it assesses you as being unlikely to pose the imminence of serious harm.

I have also noted your previous convictions. These are three in number. These include two crimes of dishonesty, namely a conviction for reset at summary level in 1997 and a charge of fraud, in the sheriff court in 2003, and in respect of which you were ultimately admonished. More recently, you were convicted before a sheriff and jury in July 2013 under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 and sentenced to two years imprisonment. I place very little weight on that last matter, even though recent, as it is not analogous to the matters to which you have now pled. I also place very little weight on the other convictions, even though analogous, by reason of their age and the periods of desistance.

I have taken into account all that has been said on your behalf in mitigation. You again express remorse through your counsel at the hurt and harm you have caused. You accept that you gained financially to the extent of £30,000. You pled guilty at the conclusion of the crown case.

It is accepted on your behalf that a substantial custodial sentence is inevitable. In respect of a prior sentence, there remains a period of 100 days that you might now be required to serve. It was urged on your behalf that I exercise a degree of leniency in how I approach that. I have accepted that submission, and will exercise my discretion not to impose those days. I do so to reflect the plea of guilty tendered at the stage that it was.

James Wilson, I have also had the benefit of a CJSW Report and have had regard to its terms. It narrates a relatively stable upbringing and settled domestic situation. It is concerning that you continue to deny responsibility for the crimes of which you have been convicted. It follows that you express no remorse to your victim.

You have one previous conviction, which is non-analogous. By reason of that factor and its age, I place no weight on that matter.

I have taken into account all that has been said on your behalf in mitigation. It was accepted that, standing the verdict and your continued denial of guilt, little could be said by way of mitigation.

You have been a hard worker and provider for your family. You have been long married, have two grown up children and are soon to be a grandfather for the first time. It was suggested in relation to these matters that there was no actual violence resorted to, and that, in relation to risk, this had involved only a single individual and that you posed no risk to the wider public. 

It is accepted on your behalf that a substantial custodial sentence is inevitable. In the light of all of the information before me, I have considered whether a custodial sentence is appropriate.

The crimes of which you both have been convicted are very serious and have the features I have already described. This was a planned and executed scheme to extort, and to attempt to extort, significant sums of money from a man, who was well known to one of you, by making vile threats of violence against his family, including against his baby grandchild.

The sentence I pass must reflect society’s deprecation of what was despicable conduct with adverse consequences, financially as well as emotionally, for your victim. I am satisfied that in each of your cases, the only disposal is one of imprisonment – as indeed your legal representatives accepted.

You were convicted on an art and part basis. On that basis, you are each criminally liable for what was done by each of you in furtherance of the extortion and attempted extortion. I shall reflect this in the sentence that I pass. I have reflected on whether or not to impose a separate sentence on each charge or a cumulative sentence, treating these as a single course of conduct. I have determined to impose a single, cumulo sentence. Had I imposed separate sentences to run consecutively, the overall length of sentence I would have imposed would have been longer.

John Cowbrough, having regard to the nature of the crimes to which you have pled guilty, your past record and what has been said on your behalf, the cumulo sentence I impose is one of five years. Your sentence is to be backdated to the point when you were first taken into custody on this matter, namely 17 November 2015.

James Wilson, having regard to the nature of the crime of which you have been convicted, your past record and what has been said on your behalf, the cumulo sentence I impose is also one of five years. Your sentence is to be backdated to the point when you were first taken into custody on this matter, namely 17 November 2015.”