Shortly after celebrating my 30th birthday in 1998, I was driving through Cumbria when I got a call from my father. “Simon’s been murdered – you need to come home.”
Simon was my identical twin brother. It’s hard to describe what happened next. We knew very little, other than the fact that Simon had been beaten up and drowned, and that the police were conducting a murder investigation.
About 10 days after Simon’s death, the story had reached the national media; I was set to go on Crimewatch when the police caught his killers. Sixteen years later, I would come face to face with one of these men and find out exactly what had happened, in the most excruciating detail. But at the time it was a case of trying to piece together what had happened that night.
Simon had gone to a nightclub with his friends. CCTV showed him leaving alone and heading to stay with a friend who lived nearby. He then bumped into the two young men who would later murder him. Both were previous offenders who were well known in the area; one had been released from a young offender institution that morning. They had been drinking and smoking cannabis all day. Simon had also been drinking, so probably wasn’t fully aware of the danger he might be putting himself.
The two men saw an opportunity to rob him. Simon, being Simon, wouldn’t have fought back – neither of us was like that. He had no money on him, only his cash card, so they beat him to try to get the pin number. They stamped on him and kicked him unconscious. (I remember seeing him in the mortuary afterwards; his head was black and blue.) They then threw him in a nearby pond, where he drowned.
The case took almost a year to come to court and was extremely upsetting. When the pathologist described the trauma to Simon’s head, my mum had to run out of the courtroom. Both the accused pleaded not guilty, but the verdict was unanimous. One of the offenders was 19 at the time, and he received a life sentence, of at least 12 years. The other, who was 16, was jailed for at least 10 years.
Those early years after the trial were very tough and I had a lot of counselling. My mother suffered from alcoholism as a result. She’s recovered now, but she’s lucky to be alive.
During those years, the victim liaison service kept us informed as the offenders passed through the prison system; and, in 2012, we started attending their parole hearings, where we were able to read out our victim impact statements. It was the first time since the trial that we were able to see Simon’s killers and to tell them, face to face, about the impact their actions had had on us; it was a very powerful experience, especially when it came to the younger offender, David.
My mother read out her statement first; when I walked in, David was in tears. As I read my statement, I looked him straight in the eye and told him how hurt I was.
To us, all those years ago, when David had been sentenced, he was just a 16-year-old low-life who had no understanding of the enormity of what he’d done. Although he was the younger of the two, we felt he was the ringleader.
That day in the parole hearing, I saw someone completely different – a grown man who was trying to recover. He’d spent the best part of his life in jail, and for all those years I’d imagined him to be an evil monster. I realised then that I really wanted to meet and talk to him; I came out that day determined to explore restorative justice.
In August 2014, the victim liaison officer put me in touch with Mandy and Jenny, two people from victim support who would help me through the process of meeting David. Mum and Dad didn’t want to be a part of it, but supported me nonetheless. My wife was very involved, and she was there on the day. She had never really got to know Simon or had the chance to understand our relationship as twins. That was a loss, and something she needed to express to David.
The meeting took place in the prison chapel. There was a circle of chairs and a small, screened-off area in case I needed time out. When Mandy asked if I was ready, I felt tears welling up – I was very emotional. Then David was brought in.
At that stage, I hadn’t even heard his voice. Mandy began by inviting David to talk about what had happened. It took only a minute or two before the conversation began flowing. I talked about my background, Simon, and everything that had led up to that day. I showed David photographs of our 30th birthday, three weeks before Simon died. He spent a lot of time reflecting on them – we found out after the meeting that the pictures of Simon helped bring home the impact of what he’d done to our family.
I wanted to get answers to some of the details about Simon’s death, and I was prepared to go very deep. I also wanted to hear David say how sorry he was – something that I felt he, too, wanted to express. I made it clear the meeting was not about me forgiving him, because I was not ready to do that (that door may open at some stage in future). It was more about me getting answers to many questions, unknowns that I had reflected on over the last 16 years.
Finally, I asked David how he had killed Simon. He looked me in the eye and took me, step by step, through what had happened. He talked about Simon crying and begging them to stop beating him. He said at one point: “I can’t use the word ‘sorry’ to make up for what I’ve done – it’s hollow, and it’s got no meaning. I was an evil person when I killed your brother, and I can’t take that away.”
I also got a deep insight into David’s background, which helped me understand how damaged he’d been when he killed Simon. It wasn’t an excuse, but it helped partly to explain why he’d come to be where he was that night. He said to me: “I was just so angry – it wasn’t Simon I was kicking, it could have been anybody.”
When I walked out of the prison I was on a high; I felt as if I wanted to go straight into another meeting with David. It was exhausting, though.
To get the connection I had with David took time and a willingness to have an open mind. I don’t feel like a victim any more. I’m just a human being who has experienced, and now lives with, the impact of a serious crime on my family. Restorative justice allows you to “close” and lose the victim tag. The hurt will never go away, of course, but I’ve shown the courage to step up, face and talk to the offender: it’s an incredible piece of closure.
As the killers of my brother started to go through the process of being released, I wrestled with the question of whether they deserved a second chance. The older offender was released in 2017, though David remains in prison. Restorative justice helped me understand that all people can make a serious mistake and be given a second chance – even murderers. Even the murderers of my twin brother. I’ve always thought that I wanted something positive to come out of Simon’s death, and the starting point was saying to David: “If you can prevent just one family going through what we’ve been through, then that’s a success.”
My experiences have spurred me to give back and help others. I now volunteer in prisons as part of the Sycamore Tree programme, where I speak to offenders. My story helps them understand what it’s like to be on the other side, and how much impact and hurt they cause. But it’s also a positive story, in the sense of my meeting with David; and through it, I help them realise that acceptance, understanding and connection is possible on both sides. Simon’s legacy has been to help many offenders recover, and live clean and meaningful lives on release.
• David is a pseudonym; as part of the continuing process of restorative justice between the two men, the writer has agreed not to identify David in the article. For more information, visit Restorative Justice Council