Picture: Matt Rourke/AP

London - A murder suspect has been jailed for refusing to give his Facebook password to detectives investigating the killing.

Officers face a lengthy legal procedure in the US to get into Stephen Nicholson’s social media account.

Nicholson, 24, was arrested on suspicion of murder and sexual activity with a child after Lucy McHugh, 13, was found stabbed to death last month, a day after she disappeared.

The care worker told police he was in touch with Lucy on Facebook on the day she vanished and the night before – but would not let them see the messages.

Police were granted a court order requiring him to reveal the password, but he refused twice more.

On Friday, he pleaded guilty at Southampton Crown Court to a charge under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (Ripa) and was sentenced to 14 months in jail.

After exhausting all options to obtain the login details through the British legal system, detectives must now go directly to Facebook in the US.

The long process involves an application to the US Department of Justice, Matthew Lawson, prosecuting, told the court.

Judge Christopher Parker QC said Nicholson had caused a ‘very significant delay’ to the investigation, and had made police inquiries "that much more difficult".

He dismissed the excuse put forward by Nicholson’s defence lawyer that providing his password would expose information about cannabis as "wholly inadequate".

The court heard that Nicholson, a father-of-one who had been living with Lucy’s family for months, was arrested after she went missing from her Southampton home just before 9am on July 25. Her body was discovered in woodland almost 24 hours later at Southampton Sports Centre, around two miles from her house.

Referring to Nicholson, Mr Lawson said: "He admitted contact with Lucy via Facebook on the evening before and the morning she disappeared.

"He was therefore requested to disclose his password to investigate those claims. The defendant refused and the police went to court to obtain an order requiring him to reveal his password."

Mr Lawson told the court Nicholson’s refusals had stalled the murder probe, adding: "The result is police are having to make inquiries with Facebook themselves. These enquiries present a difficulty to them. The police have to go through a lengthy procedure. The police investigation has been considerably obstructed by the defendant’s failure to comply."

Richard Tutt, defending, said: "Mr Nicholson explained to the police when requested to provide the information that within his Facebook they will find information relating to cannabis and he was concerned that, should the information be revealed, that would put him or members of his family at risk." 

A spokesman for Hampshire Police said officers had exhausted all options through the British legal system to get access to Nicholson’s account, adding: ‘There is no further legislation available to assist with this.

"We are continuing to follow the process of requesting access from Facebook, which is lengthy."

Nicholson, a former tattoo artist of no fixed address, admitted failing to co-operate with police, and was told he would have to serve half his 14-month sentence in jail and the rest on licence.

Judge Parker said police needed to see his Facebook posts to investigate Lucy’s murder, adding: "You knew how important that was. Your refusal was considered and deliberate. You were fully aware of the significance of your refusal.

‘"The excuse you put forward was wholly inadequate when compared to the urgent need for the password to be provided.

"The damage you have caused so far is very difficult to quantify without having access to the messages. The only mitigating factor would have been had you subsequently provided your password, but you have not done so.

"What you have done is obstruct a very serious investigation and caused a very significant delay."

Officers will decide whether to charge Nicholson over Lucy’s death by October 27.