On the 2nd of March 2019, a Manchester teenager was stabbed through the heart and killed. Yousef Makki, an Anglo-Lebanese 17-year-old who attended prestigious Manchester Grammar School on a bursary, had dreams of becoming a surgeon. He was attacked in the Cheshire town of Hale, popular with Premier League footballers, and where most of his school friends lived. His killer was Joshua Molnar, also 17, from an affluent family. Working class Yousef had recently met Joshua through a classmate.
Joshua was charged with murder and manslaughter, while another teenager on the scene, referred to as Boy B, was charged with conspiracy to rob and perverting the course of justice (Boy B was acquitted of both charges but admitted possession of a knife). The prosecution claimed the two friends had lied to police at the scene. Boy B was later cleared of lying to police.
Throughout the four-week trial, Yousef’s mother Debbie Makki says the prosecution continually reassured her that there’d be enough evidence for a murder conviction. But on the 12th of July, Joshua Molnar was acquitted of both murder and manslaughter after a jury accepted he acted in self-defence. Afterwards, Manchester MP Lucy Powell tweeted: “You do have to ask if these defendants were black, at state school and from, say, Moss Side [a predominantly black working class area of Manchester] whether they would have been acquitted.”
It’s mid-October in Manchester, a week after Yousef Makki’s killer has been named in a lengthy Sunday Times magazine article, told from the perspective of Joshua’s family. Wearing Manchester United red, as a nod to Yousef’s favourite football team, Debbie Makki is making a speech at a knife crime summit and launching the Makki family’s GoFundMe campaign, to raise £100,000 for a civil claim. Many of the night’s speakers, including former chief prosecutor for the north-west Nazir Afzal, who also tweeted about racial prejudice and Yousef’s case, talk about knife crime being a national emergency.
Indeed, police figures show a 7 percent rise in recorded offences since last year and Debbie is at the event to call for tougher sentences. But she also wants to read out the victim impact statement she never got to make after the ‘not guilty’ verdict was announced. With her daughter's hand on her back in support, her voice breaks as she describes a policeman knocking at her door, being driven to hospital alongside her other teenage son Mazen and upon arrival, being told Yousef was dead, his body not to be touched because it was now evidence. A civil trial would allow the Makki family to say a lot more about Yousef’s character than was permitted in the criminal trial, and ask the defendants questions they weren’t able to in June.
The day after the summit, I meet Debbie at her flat in south Manchester, where she moved a few weeks after Yousef was killed. She tells me that her son had been very popular, not only on the council estate in Burnage where they lived and at the local boxing club, but also among classmates at Manchester Grammar School and with the children who he tutored in maths. After he was killed, people would come round daily to pay their respects. While Debbie was grateful for their condolences, she decided the reminders of her loss weren’t conducive with trying to come to terms with Yousef’s death, so she moved.
During the trial, Debbie, her family, and Yousef’s teachers and friends were made to sit in the public gallery, without enough seats or headsets between them. “The Crown Court was disgusting,” Debbie recalls. “Because they were on bail, we used the same door, we used the same toilet." She goes on to describe watching Joshua Molnar arrive, "flanked by men". Meanwhile, single mum Debbie says her family were told that they couldn't claim back for expenses incurred during the trial.
I contact the Manchester-based PR company who say they had been hired by the Molnars prior to Joshua’s identity being made public when he turned 18. The company say that the Molnar family do not wish to respond to a request to comment, and instead provide a statement from Joshua’s mother, Stephanie Molnar: “Joshua fully accepts responsibility for Yousef’s death in the act of self-defence and the impact of this acceptance is massive. He will have to live with the responsibility of his role in this for the rest of his life. We are also acutely aware that the hurt and loss that Yousef’s family is experiencing are infinitely greater than anything we are going through and nothing I can say can make up for or change that.”
On the 8th of October, a few days after the publication of the Sunday Times magazine article, Manchester MP Lucy Powell brought the case up in Parliament. She said it stands in stark contrast to those involving black men from Moss Side, serving life sentences under joint enterprise (where you can essentially be found guilty for another person’s crime). “Given that his government's own race audit and Lammy Review found that there were burning injustices in our criminal justice system when it comes to race, background, class and wealth, what is the Government doing to address these very different outcomes in the same cases?" she demanded.
Some might consider that regular teen boredom and isolation is exacerbated by an easy access to cash and knives (sometimes bought online) – Debbie mentions the latter during our conversation. So what can be done? Nazir Afzal suggests peer-to-peer education might be the key. Immediately after the Manchester knife crime summit he tells me: “My view is that young people listen to other young people. There’s some really great examples around the world, Sweden for example, where young people are paid to go into schools and colleges, to talk about community safety issues. But the other aspect is we should pay young people to do that. Too often we expect people to volunteer. Actually, if you pay, it means you’re valuing it.”
It’s a view shared by Preston-based activist Byron Highton, who lost his brother Jon-Jo to knife crime five years ago. As part of the resource delivering Safety Guide Foundation, he now gives talks, educating young people on the reality of knife crime: “Many young people don’t realise that their lives can change within literally 30 seconds,” he tells me, after giving an emotional performance of a prayer song at the summit. “Stabbing someone in the leg can be just as fatal as stabbing someone somewhere else,” he asserts, saying educating young people on the human body is just as important as schooling them on joint enterprise.
Before the summit comes to a close, a friend texts me to say another stabbing had just taken place in Manchester that evening, on a bus route popular with young people and students. Nazir Afzal had heard about it too. I ask him if it’s time we stopped talking about knife crime as a London problem. “I said that when my nephew was murdered February this year in Birmingham,” he agrees. “The reality is it’s a national problem and therefore needs to be treated as a national emergency.”
For Debbie though, the challenge starts with getting some form of justice for Yousef. Her other son Mazen has dropped out of school, telling her he doesn’t see the point in trying, believing that it’ll just lead to getting killed like his brother. At the same time, he wants to put what’s happened behind them: “There’s been many a time where my son says to me, ‘I’m sick of hearing about the press and TV and people ringing you all the time. Why can’t we be normal again?’” Debbie says, then takes me to her bedroom, where a painting of Yousef’s school photo hangs on her wall. While Debbie wants to help her surviving son get over his grief, until she gets justice, she can’t move on. “If I stop this now, I will never recover from it,” she says then pauses as we look up at the lifelike portrait of Yousef. “I won’t rest until I know I’ve done all I can.”