Blind injustice: Jordan Cunliffe's story

(Originally published by the Big Issue in the North)

In 2008, 15-year-old Jordan Cunliffe was sentenced to life in prison for murder. Although the judge accepted he was blind and took no part in the violence that led to the victim's death, he was convicted under a controversial law known as joint enterprise. Mischa Wilmers speaks to his mother about the fight for justice and why her campaign for urgent legal reform is gathering momentum. 

Jordan was 15 at the time of  the murder
Janet Cunliffe is sitting on the living room sofa anxiously awaiting her son’s prison call. “Jordan phones home every day at six,” she says, adding that he rarely talks to the media and is unlikely to make an exception for me. Suddenly the phone rings and she answers it. They chat for several minutes before she mentions that a journalist wants to speak to him. It’s obvious he’s reluctant, but after some persuasion she hands over the phone.

We exchange pleasantries and I ask what life is like in prison. “Boring. Every day is the same,” he replies. Is he hopeful about the future? “No.” Why not? “There’s nothing to be hopeful about.” He sounds shy and despondent, answering each question with a single word or phrase. After a few minutes he asks to speak to his mother again.

Jordan is entering the seventh year of a life sentence for a violent murder he claims he had nothing to do with. In August 2007 47-year-old father of three, Garry Newlove, was kicked to death outside his family home in Warrington following a confrontation with a group of teenagers he believed had tampered with his car. The crime appeared to match the dominant tabloid narrative of the day perfectly: ‘Ferrell youths’ were running wild, terrorising neighbourhoods across Britain. Newlove’s death was the last straw and the headlines called for an example to be made of the perpetrators.

On the day of the murder Jordan, who was 15, travelled to Warrington with his brother Gareth to celebrate finishing their GCSE exams. Jordan, who suffered from a degenerative eye condition known as Keretaconus saw the trip as a rare opportunity to meet up with old school friends.

“His vision had deteriorated to the extent that he couldn’t go to school but I taught him from home as best I could,” recalls Janet, “it was about giving him a little bit of independence in a life that was quite miserable really because he couldn’t go out very often.”

That evening Janet received a phone call from the boys telling her they had missed the last train home and would be spending the night in Warrington. She went to bed as normal but was woken by another call at 1am, this time from the police. Both brothers had been arrested following a violent attack. “I was told not to worry; at least 25 people had been brought in. They said ‘it clearly isn’t one of your children.’”

Over the days that followed, Janet was present with her sons during the long hours of police interrogation. “By the end of it I’d kind of worked out what had happened and who had done what,” she says, “So when my two sons were charged with murder I just thought, ‘but you know who’s done it! And you know it isn’t these two!’”

In fact Jordan and Gareth were never accused of being involved in the violence. During the trial it emerged that two other boys, Adam Swellings and Stephen Sorton, had punched and kicked Newlove in the head and neck causing his death. The case against the two brothers was instead based on the law of joint enterprise under which a person can be convicted of murder if it is established that they had ‘possible foresight’ of the crime occurring. In other words the jury had to be persuaded that the brothers were at the crime scene when their friends kicked Newlove to death and that they could have foreseen the murder would take place yet did nothing to prevent it.

Gareth was able to prove he was further down the road when it happened. Jordan was unsure of his exact whereabouts, though he never denied being close to the scene. His defence argued that even if he had been present he could hardly have anticipated the murder - still less done anything to stop it - since his visual impairment rendered him unable to see what was happening. But the prosecution treated Jordan’s claims of blindness with scepticism, insinuating they were exaggerated in order to get him off the hook.

In the end even the testimony of a medical expert who informed the jury Jordan was officially registered blind wasn’t enough to save him. After 10 days deliberation a verdict was reached. Janet had no idea what to expect. “The jury came in and half of them were crying and looked traumatised. They then said ‘guilty’ for Jordan and he made a weird animal noise and turned around and grabbed hold of his brother.”

Gareth was exonerated but Jordan was convicted along with Sorton and Swellings and sentenced to life with a minimum tariff of 12 years. Restrictions imposed by the judge prevented the media from reporting the fact that Jordan was blind, even after the trial was over. Instead the headlines declared justice had been done and the case became a cause celebre for those advocating a strong clampdown on street gangs.

The Sun launched a national campaign under the banner: ‘YOU decide how we stop thugs.’ David Cameron invited Helen Newlove (Garry’s widow) on the general election trail in 2010 and made her a tory peer when he became Prime Minister. Baroness Newlove became the new face of Conservative justice, appearing on national TV insisting that ‘life should mean life’ for her husband’s murderers.

Meanwhile the Cunliffe family were forced to come to terms with Jordan’s fate.

“The first three years were the worst, I think we all cried every day,” says Janet. “When Gareth first got to visit Jordan the first thing he said to the prison officer in the room was ‘can I do six years for Jordan and then you’ll get 12 out of us both?’ The prison officer looked like he was going to cry when he explained that it doesn’t work like that.”

Jordan received a full corneal transplant while serving the first part of his sentence in a young offender’s prison. Two years ago, aged 21, he was transferred to an adult prison where he feared the notoriety of his case would make him vulnerable to attack. Instead he adapted well and befriended numerous older inmates who look after him and ensure his safety.

His first appeal was dismissed in 2010 on the grounds that there was no new evidence to cast doubt on his conviction. Since then his case has been taken on by a new legal team who are in the process of compiling new evidence for submission to the Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC). The file includes a video created by medicals experts from Moorfields Eye Hospital which simulates the blurred images Jordan saw at the time of the attack with vision of just 1/60. They hope this will lead to a referral to the Court of Appeal.

From the beginning Janet dedicated her life to raising awareness of his plight. She soon found she wasn’t alone, meeting hundreds of other family members who claimed their loved ones had suffered a similar injustice. In 2010, she helped found Joint Enterprise Not Guilty by Association (JENGBA), an organisation which campaigns for legal reform and represents around 500 inmates in the UK who have been convicted of murder.

Though she knows it could be years before her son is released there is a definite sense that the wider campaign against joint enterprise is gathering momentum. The screenwriter Jimmy McGovern, a patron of JENGBA, recently penned a TV drama loosely based on Jordan’s case which aired on the BBC in July. Soon afterwards Janet debated the issue on Newsnight and this month (September 4th) testified before the Justice Select Committee in the House of Commons.

Her impassioned style and knowledge of the law make her a natural spokesperson for JENGBA. She would like joint enterprise to be scrapped, pointing out that it exists purely in common law with no statutory basis and that the felony murder statute which amounted to the same legal principle was abolished in 1966.

“It allows the courts to convict people of very, very serious crimes without any evidence and that blows my mind,” she says. “If it was just me alone going into the court room the burden of proof would be so high that the judge wouldn’t even let it through the door. However if you put more than one person through that case, you don’t need any evidence at all – fingerprints, forensics, CCTV footage – except speculation and perhaps a bit of hearsay.”

Her concerns over the broad scope of joint enterprise are shared by many legal experts. A recent study by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism found that around 17.7% of all homicide charges in England and Wales relied on the joint enterprise doctrine. The detailed assessment concluded that between 2005 and 2013 up to 4,590 people were prosecuted for murder in a charge involving more than four people.

Janet visiting Jordan in prison
Testifying in front of the Justice Select Committee alongside Janet, Dr Matthew Dyson, from Cambridge’s Faculty of Law argued that joint enterprise undoubtedly causes mistakes to occur: “Absolutely it produces miscarriages of justice,” he said. Dr Ben Crewe, of the Institute of Criminology at Cambridge University, concurred and cited the findings of a study conducted by the Institute which showed young black men are three times more likely to be convicted by joint enterprise than the average: “The threshold for culpability is very low but the penalties are so high.” The consensus among those testifying was that the law of joint enterprise is in need of review.

For the Cunliffe family and hundreds of others that review can’t come soon enough. Until then, the focus is back on Jordan’s appeal which offers him a source of hope and a reason, however small, to continue fighting.

 “It’s got to the point where he’s thinking of just letting it all go and just doing the next 5 years without the stress of it all,” Janet says. “But he’s realistic. He knows he’s at the back of the list for everything but as long as there’s something to look forward to it keeps him going.”


Anonymous said…
Ridiculous should never have been jailed in the first place and the sentence farcical wouldn't get half that for actual murder and wouldnt serve half the time just cos it went public outrageous injustice
Anonymous said…
Good on Jordan's Mum fighting for justice, kids all over the country are being done by this so-called law - it's not even a law, it's a 300 year old doctrine. Time people woke up and realised innocent people are going to prison and one day it could be one of their kids.
Jan said…
Another great article. A lie is half way around the world before the truth has even put its boots on. Thank goodness the truth is now getting out there. Too many children, men and women having their entire lives destroyed by a very flawed illogical legal doctrine. Its the 21st Century, not medieval Britain, so stop the destruction of innocent lives, stop lying to the masses and lets put justice back into our courtrooms.
Anonymous said…
This particular case is disturbing, but one wonders what was the prosecution evidence against Jordan, the jury apparently accepted? However, the suggestion the entire legal doctrine should be overturned and the confused reference to felony, meaning the statutory abolition of the former distinction between felony and misdemeanour, is misguided. Joint Enterprise is very necessary in some cases and it is unlikely to be abolished. However, Jordan's case is overdue for review and the Appeal is the best approach.
Anonymous said…
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