می 25, 2024

At 17, I was jailed for a murder I didn’t commit – and spent seven life-changing years in prison | UK news

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The first Sam Hallam heard of the crime that would cost him seven years of his life was when two girls approached him in the street. They told him that they knew what had happened – there had been a street brawl two days earlier in east London involving about 40 people and he had attacked a young man who was now dead. Hallam, then 17 and with no criminal convictions, was bewildered. He hadn’t even been there, let alone attacked the victim, a popular 21-year-old trainee chef called Essayas Kassahun. It worried him enough to ask his brother whether he should talk to the police. His brother told him it was just a groundless rumour, and advised him that there was no need to go to the police but he should steer clear of the area.

It was a week after the incident in October 2004 when four or five police officers turned up at his mother’s flat. He told them that he knew why they were there and that it must be a mix up. He was arrested and taken to Belgravia police station. “That was devastating for me,” Hallam says. But he wasn’t worried about the outcome. He simply wasn’t there. He would explain everything, tell them what he was doing and be released in a couple of hours.

But that didn’t happen. It turned out he was mistaken about his alibi – he had said he thought he’d been playing football with his friend Timothy Harrington, but Harrington told the police he’d not seen him that week. The police said he had deliberately provided a fake alibi. He was held at the station for two days, then charged and remanded to Feltham young offender institution, where he spent a year. “I got charged and that was more devastating. Then I got remanded and that was even more devastating. It was just devastating event after devastating event.” What kept him going was the knowledge that his case would come to trial and he would be cleared. There was no evidence, no CCTV footage, and he’d heard that witnesses who claimed to have seen him at the scene had changed their story.

Eight people stood trial for the murder of Kassahun. The jury at the Old Bailey heard that the attack was an act of revenge by a group of youths, known as the Hoxton Biker Boys because they rode BMX bikes, against another group who lived a mile away in Whitecross. The murder was a tragedy in multiple ways. Kassahun, whose fatal head injuries were caused by a knife or a baseball bat with a screw protruding at one end, was not the target of the attack. He had simply tried to save a friend who had apparently “stared down” one of the group in an earlier incident.

In court, the prosecution called two witnesses who had placed Hallam at the scene in statements given to the police. One of the girls who had confronted him in the street said she had seen him walking away from the fight, but under cross-examination she admitted that she couldn’t be sure it was Hallam. A friend of the victim, she said that somebody had mentioned Hallam’s name and she “just wanted someone to blame”. In 2012, a play was made about Hallam’s case called Someone to Blame.

The actor Ray Winstone pictured with Sam’s mum, Wendy Cohen, fronted an episode of ITV’s Tonight programme in 2007, insisting Hallam was innocent. Photograph: ITV Plc

The second witness was also a friend of the victim. In his first police statement he described a white boy on a silver BMX who pulled out a baseball bat with a protruding screw. Hallam did not even own a bike at the time. This witness later gave a second statement also naming Hallam. But in court he repeatedly said he had not seen the attacker’s face because he was wearing a hoodie or top wrapped tight around his face, and all he knew was that he had blondish hair. (Hallam’s hair is brown.) When asked why he had named Hallam, he said he was upset because his friend had just died and he’d been given Hallam’s name by the first witness.

Harrington, called as a witness for the prosecution, told the court he had made a mistake and now thought he actually had been with Hallam on the night of the murder. The prosecution then treated him as a hostile witness, cross-examining him and exposing his inconsistencies. Hallam still believed he couldn’t be found guilty – the case against him was nonsense. But after seven weeks he was convicted of murder, conspiracy to commit grievous bodily harm and violent disorder and sentenced to a minimum of 12 years in prison. Twenty-year-old Bullabek Ringbiong was also convicted of murder. “My legs collapsed after the first verdict,” Hallam says. “I can’t remember anything else that was said. That night I started to process it in Feltham. I was thinking: I’m going to be here for a long time.”

Eighteen years later, we meet at the offices of Appeal, a charity and law practice that fights miscarriages of justice. He is accompanied by his lawyer Matt Foot, a co-director of Appeal. Hallam is wearing a smart jacket, has a sharp haircut and at 36 could pass for a man in his mid-20s. He admits he is young for his age – he never got the opportunity to grow up as he should have done.

As a 17-year-old in jail, he was small and naive, the perfect target for bullying. “I was a kid, just out of school. No life experience at all. People saw my vulnerability when I got there. That made it worse for me because they preyed on the vulnerable. People take advantage of that, try to get stuff out of you – for example in the canteen. I got beaten up a lot.”

How did he cope? He didn’t initially, he says. For the first time in his life, he experienced depression, though he didn’t know what it was back then. “I wouldn’t eat, wouldn’t get of my bed, wouldn’t wash.” Then he started to fight back – literally. That was the only way. “I got jumped in the first two months I was there, and that’s when people said: ‘You need to say sorry,’ and I was like: ‘I’m not going to say sorry for being jumped!’ Once I stood my ground nothing happened to me after that. If you give in to them, they’ve got you where they want you.”

Matt Foot and Sam Hallam.
‘He was portrayed as a liar by the prosecution’ … Matt Foot and Sam Hallam. Photograph: Jill Mead/The Guardian

Hallam had another advantage – his fellow prisoners believed he was innocent. Some of those who had been at the fight that ended in Kassahun’s murder were now in jail alongside him. They knew Hallam hadn’t been present and spread the word. Over time, he made friends. Initially he had assumed his fellow inmates were “the worst of the worst” but his opinion changed. “Many of them committed bad crimes but were good people. You can’t judge them for the crime they committed otherwise you wouldn’t have anyone to talk to. If I hadn’t had other people around me when I was in there, I wouldn’t have been able to survive. I got through because of the friends I made in there.”

It’s not surprising that people looked out for him. Hallam is likable, ebullient, polite and funny. Whenever he gets the chance to laugh (telling me how his nine-year-old son Thierry, named after the Arsenal legend Thierry Henry, has just become a Manchester City fan; or explaining that his cat Jéff’s name is pronounced with a soft J and has an acute accent because he looks French) he explodes into a joyous cackle.

Away from prison, family and friends fought for him, led by the miscarriage of justice campaigner Paul May, whose investigations helped get the convictions of the Birmingham Six and Bridgewater Four overturned. They did all they could to keep the case in the news. When Hallam was moved to Aylesbury prison in Buckinghamshire, they turned up outside the prison in an open-top bus to celebrate his birthday. “That didn’t go down well at the prison. It rained that day, too!”

The actor Ray Winstone, an uncle of his best friend, fronted an episode of ITV’s Tonight programme in 2007, insisting Hallam was innocent. He interviewed witness after witness who confirmed Hallam wasn’t at the scene and explained how easy it is to get your alibi wrong.

The thing is, Foot says, Hallam didn’t even say he was definitely playing football with his friend. “Sam said in the statement: ‘I believe I was playing football with my friend Timmy.’ I don’t think it was a bad statement, but then he’s portrayed as a liar by the prosecution.”

Family and friends fought for Hallam.
Family and friends fought for Hallam. Photograph: Mike Hornby/PA

Did Hallam think the campaign to free him would be successful? “By now I was not fully confident I was going to go home. I couldn’t be after everything that happened to me. I’d already been arrested, charged, convicted and lost an appeal.” His first appeal, a year after conviction, was on the grounds of lack of evidence and witnesses changing their story at trial. The appeal court judges believed that the witnesses had been telling the truth initially despite what they said in court.

At the age of 21, Hallam was moved to Bullingdon prison in Oxfordshire. He says the environment was less violent than at previous jails. “People took me under their wing. Older men in their 40s and 50s such as my friend Bez, who’s 55 now. Me and him did everything together – we got a job together and went to the gym together.” He got an NVQ Level 3 in printing and worked as a lithographic printer for three years in prison. The routine – food, work, gym – helped him get through the days.

But it was a struggle. While he was in prison both his grandmothers died. In October 2010, Hallam hit rock bottom when his father, Terry, took his own life aged 56. For Hallam, the timing made the tragedy even worse. The previous day, the Independent had reported that Hallam was likely to be cleared at a second appeal; his father was found with the newspaper cutting in his pocket. Sam’s mother, Wendy Cohen, has said that the suicide was a result of the pressures of dealing with their son’s wrongful imprisonment. Hallam was told of his father’s death by the prison chaplain and he attended the funeral. “He was breaking his heart and couldn’t even wipe his eyes or nose, because he was handcuffed both sides,” Wendy told me in 2013.

Hallam can’t find the words when I ask him about his father’s suicide today. “Just confusing … confusing … Yeah.” He comes to an anguished stop. “I don’t know if I’ll be able to talk about this. Sorry.”

A month after his father’s death, astonishing information was uncovered. Although the police had taken Hallam’s phone for evidence, they had not bothered to search through it. The new investigation by Thames Valley police did the basic work that the Metropolitan police failed to do in the first place.

The phone contained photos that Hallam had taken at his grandmother’s house on the afternoon of the murder and photos of him with his father at the local pub in the evening. Neither Hallam’s father nor his grandmother had remembered this, making Winstone’s point about alibis all the more pertinent. His phone also revealed that he and Harrington had been playing football that week – but one night later. Finally, the phone showed that while his co-defendants had been in touch with each other multiple times just before the incident, Hallam had spoken to only one of them over a three-month period. The campaign to free him uncovered nine witnesses who said he was not at the scene.

On 16 May 2012, the case finally returned to the court of appeal for a second time. In the morning Hallam’s team, led by Foot and barrister Henry Blaxland QC, argued that the convictions were unsafe. Immediately after lunch, at 2pm, the prosecution announced it would not contest the appeal.

Hallam leaves the court of appeal in London with his mother Wendy after he was freed.
‘It was a very dramatic moment’ … Hallam leaves the court of appeal in London with his mother Wendy after he was freed. Photograph: Mike Hornby/PA

“It was a very dramatic moment,” Foot says. “The whole of the public gallery just went ‘Yeeeeaaaaaaaah!’, like some football roar. I’ve never heard anything like it in court – a mix of anger and relief – and it went on for ages.” He smiles at the memory and looks at Hallam. “Do you remember?”

“Yeah. Just by his body language, I knew what the prosecution barrister was going to say,” Hallam says. “The judge asked if I knew what was going on. I was aware, but I was just in bewilderment really.”

His convictions were overturned. Within a week he had found himself a job and seemed to be coping well. But gradually the enormity of what had happened began to sink in. He had spent seven years imprisoned for a murder he didn’t commit; his father had killed himself while he was in prison; he no longer knew how to function in the free world. Often, he wished he was back in prison where life was less complicated and everybody appeared to be on his side. “This is the weird thing. When I talk to friends who I was inside with, often we’re laughing: ‘Do you remember this, do you remember that?’” There was a camaraderie? “Yes. Yeah, yeah, yeah.” He asks if there is something wrong with a person who misses prison.

Then he was hit with another injustice. By 2014 he still hadn’t been paid compensation for his wrongful conviction. Although the CPS had thrown in the towel at the appeal, justice secretary Chris Grayling had refused any payment under a new test that required proof of innocence “beyond all reasonable doubt” – an impossibly high bar for almost anyone in Hallam’s situation to clear. His legal team is challenging the test on the basis that it breaches the presumption of innocence.

Hallam speaking outside the supreme court in London after losing his fight for compensation in 2019.
Hallam speaking outside the supreme court in London after losing his fight for compensation in 2019. Photograph: Kirsty O’Connor/PA

Despite having his conviction quashed, he has come to feel that the establishment does not really believe he was innocent. The money would be useful, he says – he lost seven years of income in prison, he’s not in a fit state to work now, he needs money for therapy and he has to support Thierry. But, he says, the compensation is about so much more than money. “For me it’s more an acceptance of the wrongdoing and what they need to put right.”

After his release, Hallam’s mental health deteriorated. His post-traumatic stress disorder intensified, he suffered from depression again, became withdrawn, struggled with relationships and was unable to work. “I’ve got really low,” he says. “I have never tried to take my life but I’ve had suicidal thoughts.” Sometimes he only feels understood by people who have also suffered a miscarriage of justice. He mentions Paddy Hill of the Birmingham Six and Patrick Maguire, who was jailed at 14 as part of the Maguire Seven – both had their convictions overturned in 1991. “I can speak to them because I know they’ve been through it.” Last year he went to Scotland to meet members of the Miscarriages of Justice Organisation (Mojo), a support group. “We had a group therapy session and you just feel a connection with everyone there.”

But back home, he says, he has become dysfunctional in ways that he didn’t even realise until it was pointed out to him. “You’ve painted your room grey, like a cell, haven’t you?” Foot says.

“Yes, and I sleep in my living room. I never go to bed. My friend said to me: ‘You’ve recreated that environment to put yourself at peace because that’s become a part of you.’”

But it’s more complicated than that. He has created a cell that he’s desperate to escape from. “I didn’t lock my front door for six months. I took my doors off, too. I did it without noticing.”

Hallam says he will only feel free once the government accepts that he deserves compensation. He has now been to the court of appeal twice, and to the supreme court. In July he went to the European court of human rights, supported by Foot and the eminent civil rights lawyer Marcia Willis Stewart; they expect the judgment next year. “This happened to me in 2004. I’m still going to court for the same case 19 years later.”

To go through what Hallam has been through and to retain your humanity takes some doing. I could imagine him going around the country educating people about miscarriages of justice, I tell him. He smiles. “In the long run that’s what I want to do. If I can possibly make something positive out of what I’ve been through, talking and stuff.” But first of all, he says, he’s got a fight to win. “Until this whole court thing is over I can’t move on.”

In the UK and Ireland, Samaritans can be contacted on freephone 116 123, or email [email protected] or [email protected]. In the US, you can call or text the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline on 988, chat on 988lifeline.org, or text HOME to 741741 to connect with a crisis counselor. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international helplines can be found at befrienders.org

Do you have an opinion on the issues raised in this article? If you would like to submit a letter of up to 300 words to be considered for publication, email it to us at [email protected]

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