Michael Causer had never even considered concealing his sexuality: he was proud to be gay. He grew up in a tight-knit family in a working-class suburb of Liverpool, and friends would describe the trainee hairdresser as a “little sweetheart”. He was a gentle young man on the cusp of adulthood who “wouldn’t hurt a fly”; someone who loved his many friends and adored life.
But last July, as the 18-year-old lay in an upstairs bedroom at an after-pub party, sleeping off the effects of a night’s drinking, he was viciously assaulted and his bleeding body dumped outside in the street. The attack took place at the home of a friend’s grandmother, in the Liverpool suburb of Huyton.
Nine days later, his family took the heart-breaking decision to turn off his life-support system but vowed that whoever had assaulted him would be brought to justice. “We won’t let Micky be pushed aside because he was gay, never in a million years,” they vowed.
On Friday however, Mr Causer’s family and friends who had packed into the public gallery at Liverpool Crown Court to hear a jury decide on Gavin Alker, a 19-year-old man accused of carrying out his homophobic murder, were left in tears as the defendant was acquitted at the end of a three-week trial.
Last Sunday, 100 friends and relatives returned to the court precincts to express their sense of shock and outrage at the verdict and to demonstrate for what they see as justice in the case. They said they are now hoping to launch a private prosecution.
“We were so shocked at Friday’s judgment. Michael was made out to be a thug in that trial. Gavin Alker claimed he acted in self-defence,” said Mr Causer’s mother Marie, holding her grand-daughter Daisy who her son had helped deliver just six weeks before his death, remaining “tender and calm” throughout the birth.
“Michael weighed seven-and-a-half stone. He couldn’t have hurt a fly. If anyone acted in self-defence that night it was Michael. I want someone to explain to me how a lad who worked in an old people’s home for free, who called bingo numbers, who volunteered for the British Lung Foundation’s Breathe Easy scheme can be a thug,” she said. Before the trial, Mr Causer’s one-time friend James O’Connor, 19, of Runcorn, admitted murder but denied he had been motivated by the fact his victim was gay. A second man Michael Binsteed, 18, admitted attempting to pervert the course of justice. Both are due to be sentenced later.
But Friday’s decision means the judge must now decide on whether or not the attack was a hate crime. According to evidence put before the jury, the trigger-point for the violence came when sexually explicit images of the trainee hairdresser were found on his mobile phone, prompting a “sustained and brutal” attack on his naked sleeping form and leaving him with a fractured skull and a swollen brain. Mr Causer was punched, kicked and finally battered around the head with a heavy history book so forcibly that the book’s spine broke, the court heard. It was alleged that Mr Alker, who had never met Mr Causer, screamed “You little queer faggot” adding, “He’s a little queer, he deserves it.” During the trial it was also claimed that a cigarette lighter was used to burn the hair on Mr Causer’s legs, and that threats were made to rip out his body piercings with a knife. But the jury accepted Mr Alker’s evidence that he had been acting in self-defence after he denied making homophobic comments, blaming the attack on O’Connor.
The murder has had a profound effect on Liverpool, a city which is busy re-inventing itself as a gay destination with the creation of its own gay quarter, referred to as the Gay Village, and plans for an annual Pride March. Many in the city are puzzled at the lack of interest shown in the case by the outside world, Friday’s acquittal again failing to generate national media attention.
Steve Radford, of the Liberal Party, who has been on the city council for three decades and has campaigned for the Gay Village, is saddened that Mr Causer’s death has failed to generate the same sense of nationwide outrage as that of the black teenager Anthony Walker, who was killed in a racist attack as he crossed a park in Huyton in 2005.
Though hundreds crammed into the church for Mr Causer’s funeral, and thousands more signed books of condolence, campaigners including Mark Feehily from Michael’s favourite band Westlife, are angry that no one seems to be listening.
“It does make you question our social values. We had a lot of positive comments made about the family of Anthony Walker, but here we had a tragedy which is homophobic but it is the word which will not speak its name,” said Mr Radford.
Merseyside Police have won praise not only for pursuing Mr Causer’s murder as a hate crime, but also for reaching out to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender communities in the wake of the tragedy. Local officers cemented relations by taking part in a football match in a team captained by the city’s Lord Mayor against a local side, the Mersey Marauders, made up of local gay men and members of the Causer family.
The senior investigating officer in the case, Detective Inspector Richie Carr, said serious violent homophobic crime was a rarity in the city. “This is the first time we are aware of anything like this. We treated it as a hate crime. We brought in to the inquiry people from the community to offer reassurance that there was not a maniac going round, but that the reality was that these were people who were known to the victim.”
“The general public’s reaction was no different to that of the Anthony Walker case, but it has severely impacted on the gay community. They want to see justice to be done, not just for themselves but for the wider society,” he said.
Liverpool’s gay community, confident in the support it has received from the police, fought hard to keep the case in the public eye. In the days after Mr Causer’s death, an emotional tribute was paid to him on the dance floors of the city centre’s thriving gay clubs, when DJs led a silent tribute to the dead teenager. “You could hear a pin drop, there was a real sense of sadness and vulnerability,” recalled Mr Radford.
Yet Liverpool’s reputation as a city of tolerance took a severe hit in 2007 ahead of the Capital of Culture festivities. Despite bequeathing the world gay men including Beatles manager Brian Epstein, Holly Johnson of the band Frankie Goes to Hollywood and Pete Burns, a report by the specialist research agency Stormbreak found that 60 per cent of lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender people in the city had experienced some form of homophobic crime – 12 per cent more than in London. Statistics gathered by the gay rights group Stonewall suggest that 70 per cent of homophobic victims across the UK are still reluctant to come forward to report the crimes.
Some look to the church in Liverpool for leadership in reversing ignorance and prejudice in a city where 55 per cent of children are educated in a religious setting. In the months after Michael Causer’s death, every secondary school in the city was sent a DVD aimed at stamping out homophobic bullying in the classroom – now thought to account for 10 per cent of all cases.
But the journalist Andy Green, who writes under the byline of The People’s Queen in the Liverpool Echo, believes Liverpool is a fundamentally good place to be for gay people, citing the council’s recent decision to stage the first-ever Pride march here.
“Michael’s murder has galvanised the community and brought a lot of different groups together. The atmosphere has been very solemn but there has been anger at the lack of national media coverage,” he said.
It is a point likewise made by Ben Summerskill of Stonewall. “It is testament to the lack of seriousness with which these kinds of incidents are treated. They are simply not regarded as newsworthy. The BBC has reported every single murder of an adolescent in the past 18 months in this country as a national news story, but not this one.”
Hate Crime: Victims of gay-bashing
Last year nearly 80 per cent of the 995 prosecutions in England and Wales for homophobic hate crimes resulted in conviction. This number has risen steadily since the Criminal Justice Act 2003, which gave the Crown Prosecution Service and the police authority to seek higher sentences from trial judges when an element of hate crime could be proved.
Campaigners say that nearly eight out of 10 homophobic offences still go unreported, while it has been suggested that between a fifth and a third of gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender men and women have fallen victim to so-called “gay bashing”. The failure of victims to pursue legal redress continues to handicap cases and prosecutors still rely heavily on guilty pleas, which in 2007/8 accounted for 67 per cent of successful convictions.
In 2006, two men were sentenced to serve at least 28 years in jail for the murder of gay barman Jody Dobrowski, who was punched and kicked as if “trying to kill an animal” on Clapham Common, south London. Meanwhile, a recent study by the campaign group Stonewall found that almost two-thirds of lesbian and gay pupils surveyed in Britain’s secondary schools have been victims of homophobic bullying.