It’s been difficult to blog over the summer holidays, especially at this back-end. Too much to do and too little time to do it all; I’ve had to prioritise severely, which means that this post has been quietly fermenting for six weeks. But on the day that LB’s Justice Quilt is revealed to all,
I can finally call some of my time my own again.
Just before the schools broke up, there was widespread reporting of actions taken over the unexpected and premature death of a young man, a 19-year-old teenager who had died in circumstances that were initially thought to be accidental, but which subsequently turned out to be culpable. He was found unconscious, an ambulance was called and he was given CPR at the scene. He was taken to to hospital and continued attempts were made to revive him, but in vain. The young man was much-loved. He had recognised good qualities and possible potential as a sportsman or musician. However, he was also acknowledged by his family to be someone who might have struggled to make what could generally be seen as a positive contribution in life. Indeed, he had already required institutional placement and seemed likely to need more of the same in the near future, so could well have turned out to be a net ‘taker’ from society rather than a net contributor to it.
In the days and weeks following the teenager’s death, it was discovered that besides people who were there when the young man died, and to whose actions his demise was directly attributable, there were others implicated, who had been responsible for running the set-up that led to the death, and for trying to hide evidence of what had really happened.
Sound familiar? No, I am not talking about Connor Sparrowhawk, or anybody else with intellectual or physical disabilities. The young man’s name was Zain Sailsman and he was found injured in an unlit, tree-lined country lane one evening in late October 2013, having, it was surmised, been hit by a car whose driver had failed to see him in the dark. Later it was found that he had suffered a twelve-inch stab wound to the back. The knife had damaged his spine and severed his aorta, causing him to bleed to death in a few minutes.
Zain was known to be a young man with problems. His mother, who calls him “a much loved and cherished son and brother” and the “boy with the cheeky smile and the big sense of humour”, also acknowledges that “he was a handful since the day he could walk”. He had been in constant scrapes at school and, having been permanently excluded from two local secondary schools, he was placed in a special school to try to address his emotional and behavioural difficulties.
When he began stealing from his mother to fund cannabis purchases, she turned him in to the police. “I told Zain there was consequences to his actions. It was the way I tried to bring my kids up.” He became a looked-after child at his mother’s request, since she felt that she needed him out of the home in order to protect her other children. After a number of court appearances – to all of which his mother turned up to support him – he was sentenced to a term of imprisonment in a young offenders’ institute. After his release, his ongoing involvement in crime led to his family being threatened and their home and possessions vandalised. Zain was later recalled to prison for taking and crashing his mother’s car. Released again, he continued to use drugs and to deal in cocaine, crack cocaine and heroin to fund his own habit. In early July 2013, the police caught him with a significant quantity of heroin and he was accordingly due to face trial on charges of possession with intent to supply class A drugs.
What the police didn’t know was that Zain, hopelessly in hock to his suppliers and frightened of what they might do if they thought he had ratted them out, had continued his involvement in drug-dealing after his most recent arrest. He even took part in a plot to put the frighteners on a dealer from a rival network. In early October, he twice fired a shotgun through the door of the house where the rival was thought to be staying. The gun was then stashed in a woodland hiding-place, but Zain later retrieved it and sold it to pay off some of his mounting drug debts. When his fellow-dealers found the gun had gone, they guessed Zain had taken it and decided to punish him for double-crossing them.
The law and other institutions involved did not treat his death at the hands of violent associates as a natural consequence of Zain’s criminality. A young man had been unlawfully deprived of his life, and was therefore entitled to justice. The police carried out an extensive, intensive investigation that involved searches of houses in several towns; combing of various open spaces; tracking of purchases and mobile phone activity; interrogation of many witnesses, potential witnesses and suspects; and the covert electronic remote surveillance of a suspect’s home. They arrested and charged two suspects within a week. More followed within a month.
The final outcome was that seven people were sentenced to imprisonment in connection with Zain’s death. Not just Charlie Beadell, who stabbed Zain, and Ricky Jervis who was present at the stabbing, but also Julia Howard, who claimed to have seen nothing untoward, but who drove the getaway car, deliberately asked no questions about what had happened and deleted potentially incriminating messages from her mobile phone.
Jake Powell and Dale Thompson were jailed for helping to destroy evidence by burning bloodstained clothing and William Dale and Patrick Jordan were jailed for their involvement in drug-dealing and for possession of the shotgun.
Reading the statement that Zain’s mother gave to the media, familiar phrases leapt out at me. “(Zain’s) death has ripped the heart out of our family and our lives will never be the same without him in them.” “He did not deserve to die the way in which he did.” “I would like to take this opportunity to thank everyone for the love and support we have received.”
I’m glad for Zain’s mother that despite the unending, always-present sadness, there has been a measure of justice for Zain, and all within nine months of the crime. What I don’t understand, and the question has been rattling round my brain all summer, is why Connor and his mother and family should still be in judicial limbo, fourteen months down the line.
‘But,’ my mind’s ear hears the cry, ‘there is an overriding public policy interest in dealing prompt justice to murderers’. Obviously it was in the public interest that the person or people who caused Zain’s death should be taken off the streets as soon as possible. Killer drug dealers can’t, mustn’t, be left on the loose. There were strong public policy reasons for swift investigation and adjudication, not least in order to prevent further deaths, should the people responsible feel emboldened by official inaction to continue with more of the same.
But Connor’s death arguably raises an even higher-priority public interest. You, I, and former Lord Justice McKay are far more likely, should we die an avoidable death, to do so at the hands of a health professional than those of a career criminal. Like Zain, we do have some degree of choice over whether we put ourselves in the path of criminals; and, like Connor, we will almost certainly, sooner or later, have very little choice about putting ourselves into the hands of health services. We really, really need to have assurances that services won’t feel emboldened by official inaction to carry on with the kind of appallingly poor practice that caused Connor’s death. In a numbers contest for ‘potential to cause unnecessary deaths’, the NHS beats crime all hollow.
To a lay outsider, clarifying the circumstances leading to Connor’s death looks like a much easier investigation than the one into what happened to Zain. The police don’t need to go searching for suspects: the people present at the time of Connor’s death are recorded on time-sheets. They don’t need to piece together the structure of, and roles within, the organisation involved: it’s all there in Trust records. The prosecutors won’t have to construct proofs of responsibilities and accountability lines: those are laid out in statute, regulations, guidance and public minutes. The police shouldn’t need to resort to covert methods: public bodies like Trusts have a duty fully to co-operate, in the public interest, with other public institutions. Of course, trawling through documentation in some anonymous back-office doesn’t provide quite the excitement and glamour of public fingertip searches and bugging narrowboats, but I’d be loath indeed to think that the justice system prioritises cases according to how many opportunities they provide for showing-off.
So, how long is it going to take British justice properly to consider Connor’s case? Because from here, viewed in the light of the justice very properly afforded to Zain, the State process of securing #JusticeforLB appears to be edging perilously close to the event horizon that tips ‘delayed’ into the black hole of ‘denied’.