A FORMER sports coach who sexually abused a seven-year-old has walked free from court - because a judge believes he would be “taken advantage of” in prison.

Antonio Lawrie, an ex-apprentice at Hedge End-based sports firm My Coaching, faced more than three years behind bars after he was found guilty of assaulting the youngster numerous times.

However, due to his “complex” learning difficulties, a judge at Southampton Crown Court ruled it would be unjust to send him to prison because he “would be taken advantage of both physically and mentally”.

The 22-year-old abused the child at least 16 times during a six-month reign of abuse.

He denied all seven counts of assault by sexual touching - none of which happened in his coaching role - but was found guilty.

During his sentencing Jon Swain, mitigating, told the court Lawrie struggled to befriend people his own age, and had difficulties understanding that his actions were wrong.

He said: “Certain sections of society will say he must be punished and locked up with the key thrown away.

“But they are not aware or have the knowledge of what his needs are. They know nothing about his life but make up opinions of what he has done.”

Lawrie, a former Cantell School pupil, worked for My Coaching, which delivers further education programmes for young adults aged between 15 and 19, between September 2015 and June 2017.

James Welsh, managing director of the company, said Lawrie was then subsequently sacked.

Judge Gary Burrell QC said that the public would be best served for him to be rehabilitated within the community, and sentenced Lawrie, of Bluebell Road, Southampton, to two years imprisonment, suspended for two years.

He was given a restraining order preventing him from contacting children for 10 years and a 60-day rehabilitation order.