Widow's crusade for families of murder victims
Baroness Newlove talks to Jerome Taylor about her bid to reform the judicial system
Monday 09 August 2010
Midway through the trial of her husband's killers, there was a moment when Helen Newlove almost gave up on Britain's judicial system. It had been five months since Garry, a doting father of three from Warrington, was kicked to death on his doorstep by a gang of drunken teenagers in August 2007. Five youths were on trial for his murder.
The case generated such intense interest that there was rarely a free seat in the public gallery at Chester Crown court. Helen and her three daughters Zoe, Danielle and Amy, who were then 18, 15 and 12, often had to sit next to the family, friends and associates of those accused of murdering her husband.
“It was a very volatile situation but I remember one day in particular when there were two people behind me who were social workers for the defendants,” the 48-year-old recalls. “They spent the whole time criticising the evidence under their breaths. I’m going through a trial for my husband who was beaten to death and I’m having to listen to this. I nearly walked away.”
There was a time when Helen Newlove revered the judiciary. She had worked in a Magistrates Court during the mid-1980s and felt in awe of the law itself and of the respect commanded by judges in their courtrooms.
But her own experience of navigating the courts as the relative of a murder victim led her to reappraise those views.
It is as a “voice of victims” that Baroness Newlove hopes to be at her most influential in the Lords, to which she was elevated by David Cameron in May this year. Baroness Newlove of Warrington, as she is now, will sit on the Conservative benches, where she is determined to make sure that the families of murder victims are better catered for and that the courts seize back the respect that she believes is now absent from far too many trials.
With the charity Through Unity, which supports families who have lost loved ones to violent crime, she has met scores of people in her position and has immersed herself in murder trials. Yet she is increasingly disillusioned by what she sees in court.
“I’ve been with many families up and down the country and the courts have turned into a pure circus,” she explains, speaking from a nondescript office on an industrial estate outside of Warrington where she works when she’s not in Westminster. “A judge should own their courtroom but they just don’t anymore. You have the defendant’s families laughing or joking, you have defendants falling asleep and lounging. When you watch it you think any minute now the judge will tell them to sit up, remind them they are in a courtroom, but they never do. What sort of message does that send out?”
During the murder trial, Baroness Newlove found herself increasingly angered by what she perceived to be the sensitive way the courts treated juvenile offenders compared her own family. Four of the five defendants were under the age of 18, which meant their names were withheld from the press and they were treated as children.
“The judge was even asked not to wear his robes in case it intimidated them,” she recalls. “They kept saying they’re children, but they’re not
children. Children are law abiding people – they don’t do damage to anybody.”
In contrast, she says, little help was given to her own daughters the youngest of whom, Amy, had seen her father's murder and was called on to give evidence.
“We were told that we couldn’t show any emotion through the trial,” she recalls. “Amy and Zoe were advised to sit on their hands. Now that’s fair enough, but it shouldn’t be one rule for the victims, one rule for the defendants. If we have to show no emotions, defendants shouldn’t be
allowed to laugh out loud, they shouldn’t be allowed to goad you.”
When it was Amy’s turn to give
evidence, Helen was barred from seeing her daughter in case she coached her on how to answer
questions in the stand.
“I wasn’t allowed to see her, I couldn’t give her a hug,” she says. “We had to allocate a member of the family who hadn’t ever seen the
defendants. When lunch came I couldn’t go give her a sandwich. She was desperate for a hug. Yet the defendants were able to see their parents. They were handcuffed but they could still see them. It’s disgraceful, it felt like there was no balance.”
She believes that British courts should start providing reserved spaces for both the families of
victims and defendants so that their paths do not cross.
“You have to walk the same corridors as the defendant’s families, there’s often just one canteen, and you can’t reserve seats in the public gallery. It a very unhealthy atmosphere. There should be a section for families. There’s a section for the press, a section for the jury and a section for probation.”
This Thursday will be the third anniversary of Garry’s death. His killing provoked a storm of debate over anti-social behaviour and whether the police were doing enough to crack down on violent teenage gangs.
Drunken youths plagued the street where the Newloves lived but the police rarely showed up when the neighbours called. There was a subway at the end of the road and each night a gang would gather to drink cider, smashing up cars on the street and urinating in residents’ gardens.
On 12 August 2007 Helen Newlove was watching Midsomer Murders in her bedroom when she heard the sound of breaking glass. Garry walked outside in his slippers to remonstrate with the gang but was set upon by a crowd of at least 15 youths. The attack caused an artery in his head to haemorrhage and he slipped into a coma, dying two days later in hospital.
Three people were eventually convicted of his murder. Adam Swellings, 18, received a 17-year jail term; Stephen Sorton, 17, got 15 years reduced to 13 on appeal and 16-year-old Jordan Cunliffe received 12 years behind bars. Two people, a 15 and a 17 year-old were acquitted.
They were all tried under a 300-year-old “common purpose” law which police are increasingly using to tackle gang violence. The law allows two or more people to be tried for murder even if they have not struck the fatal blow as long as it is proven that they lent support or encouragement throughout the attack and knew their colleagues were capable of violence.
Next month Jordan Cunliffe’s mother is launching a campaign to try and overturn the “common purpose” law which she believes caused her son to be wrongly convicted.
But Baroness Newlove believes such legislation is vital for cracking down on gang crime. “All I can say about the joint enterprise is that the Met Police like it,” she says. “It allows them to go into schools and tell children, if you’re in a gang this is what can happen.”
So does she believe that someone in a gang who doesn’t throw the fatal blow is as responsible as the person who does? “Absolutely. If you’re in a gang and you say you didn’t do anything, why would you just stand there and watch these acts? Why would you physically stand there and watch it? And these acts aren’t a tap on the shoulder, these are violent acts. You have to be responsible for your actions.”
A title, she admits, is little consolation for what she and her daughters went through.
“Somebody wrote to me and said I have justice because I’ve been made a peer,” she concludes. “Well I don’t think I’ve got justice. I didn’t ask for this and I didn’t ask for Garry to be murdered. Justice would be having my husband walk back through the door.”
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