Is it possible for wealth to enable an individual to avoid a jail sentence for murder, even in the UK? According to MP Lucy Powell, the answer is yes. Yousef Makki, a scholarship pupil at the prestigious Manchester Grammar School was stabbed to death by another student in March of this year. Little information has been revealed about the two boys connected with the trial until now. They were known respectively as Boy A and Boy B, until Boy A turned 18 this week and lost the right to anonymity that is meant to protect children in court. He was named as Joshua Molnar, a former private school pupil from a middle-class family.
Joshua stabbed Yousef Makki, but was cleared of his murder. He did admit perverting the course of justice, and lying to the police about possessing a flick knife.
Boy B, the other defendant, who is still under the protection of anonymity, has been cleared of perverting the course of justice, but has also admitted possession of a flick knife.
The facts are clear: Joshua stabbed Yousef with a flick knife, and lied to the police about it afterwards.
So why has this series of events not been viewed as a murder? Well firstly, it is important to note that Joshua, at least, attended a fee-paying school, and is from a middle-class background. He was likely brought up with the benefits of financial and educational privilege. MP Lucy Powell’s response to the acquittal of the defendants was to tweet a question: ‘You do have to ask if these defendants were black, at state school and from, say, Moss Side whether they would have been acquitted?’
Although some individuals argued that Powell was drawing grand conclusions about race and class without having actually been present throughout the trial, the sentiments she expressed received much popular support. After all, the defence which was ultimately accepted by the jury alleged that Yousef and the two defendants were friends who engaged in casual drug use and were essentially ‘wannabe’ gangsters. Indeed, they were presented in such a way that Alistair Webster QC for the defence described the stabbing of Yousef as ‘an accident waiting to happen’. He argued that all three boys had ‘idiotic fantasies’ of being gangsters, and led ‘double lives’ in which they indulged obsessions for knives and drugs. According to Webster, how the boys had previously acted, sharing videos of knives on snapchat and listening to violent rap was simply ‘ridiculous posing’.
But what Webster called posing had left Yousef dead.
It is perfectly reasonable to argue that all three boys were obsessed with knife culture and had bought into the glorification of drugs and violence. That may very well have been the case, and is an issue that must be explored. But what exactly was it that allowed this obsession to be classified as part of a ‘double life’? What was it that meant that the stabbing of Yousef was seen as a tragic, but inevitable, outcome of mere ‘posing’? Why, in the hands of Joshua Molnar, was a murder weapon judged as foolish mistake rather than a vehicle of criminal intent?
Why was it, that in the aftermath of Molnar's name being revealed, his parents were afforded an interview in the Sunday Times magazine, where they talked at length about their own trauma in the face of another boy's death at the hands of their son? Why was Joshua able to film a video just moments after being acquitted in which he made stabbing motions to the camera and experience no repercussions?
It seems likely that in the hands of boys from a different demographic, a knife would not be viewed as a ridiculous attempt to lead a ‘double life’, but as a destructive and criminal choice, consistent with a certain background. In boys from a different demographic, a video making stabbing motions at such a sensitive time would be seen as proof of criminal leanings. We know that poverty and knife crime are linked; it is not the boys who attend private school who are typically the most at risk of falling into this trap of violence. Instead it is those who are most vulnerable to involvement in knife crime who are treated as criminals. Yet the crime committed by the boys with no ostensible reason to pick up knives is viewed as an inevitable mistake.
Our justice system has a chequered history of acquitting those convicted of crimes by deferring to their personal circumstances. Consider the Oxford medical student, Lavinia Woodward, who stabbed her boyfriend with a bread knife. She was given a suspended sentence after the judge in her case ruled that spending time in prison could damage her career. The judge argued that if the stabbing was a ‘one off’ then it would be a shame to prevent Lavinia from entering the medical profession as she had desired to do.
Or consider the case of Mutafa Bashir, who hit his wife with a cricket bat. Bashir misled the court and said that Leicestershire County Cricket Club had offered him a contract. Judge Richard Mansell QC allowed this information to cloud his ruling, and decided that Bashir should not spend time in prison as this would prevent him from accepting the offer. Bashir’s sentence was reviewed after it transpired that he had been lying to the court.
In all cases, relative privilege, wealth or success led to relative leniency in sentencing and reviewing the facts of these crimes. Consider that Joshua Molnar's assertion that Yousef had pulled a knife on him first was accepted by the court, despite the fact that no independent evidence or DNA exists to suggest that Yousef had a knife as well. This is not the way the justice system is supposed to work. Whether you agree with them or not, prison sentences are designed to be a punishment that can be applied to a range of individuals; they are not supposed to punish only a segment of society.
While it is hard to judge the exact details of a case from outside the courtroom, it does seem that in the context of how the British justice system has historically worked, the killing of Yousef Makki may have been judged selectively because of who the accused were. And if this is the case, then it is a very sad reflection of a justice system desperately in need of modernisation.