Reading this article was upsetting to me for a few reasons. Obviously my heart went out to the couple -their young son had been murdered and the killers were applying to be moved to an open prison. They had poured their abject sadness and despair into a victim impact statement only to be told that actually, it doesn’t really make a difference but thanks anyway. I do get why this is the case – shouldn’t we rely on the mechanism of the law to deliver justice? (This could be a whole other blog!) Justice cannot be swayed by how eloquently someone is able to communicate the grief and desolation that they are suffering, as sometimes it’s just too difficult to get the words out.
My cousin Toni was murdered by Ryan Backhouse four years ago today. I remember where I was when I found out. While Toni was picked entirely at random in a grubby street in London, I was in Costa Rica, working with a charity to build a school and teach English to give young people better opportunities in life. Unfortunately sensational news – especially bad news – is half way around the world and on its way back again while someone 6,000 miles away is still trying to formulate the right words and explanations. I will never forget the hurried way I found out. I left the building as soon as I could and sat, hidden and alone, amongst the sugar cane to gather my thoughts and will myself to cry. I wondered what was wrong with me – I was expecting guttural sobs and unending floods of tears like you see in the films, but they wouldn’t come. I also wanted distance from people who didn’t know what to say, and from those saying how sorry they were. Irrationally my attitude was to say “Why, did you do it? No? Don’t apologise then” I was angry at these people who were only trying to be kind, and really, who knows how to act when something like this happens anyway? I also wanted to avoid the questions, of what had happened, although I soon realised that all of the brutal details were available for everyone to soak up before a sad tut, a shake of their head about how awful society is these days before turning the page and getting on with life.
I realise now I was in deep shock because all I could focus on were the practicalities. Quickly understanding there would be a trial (and an agonising delay in the funeral) I set about dealing with the only other issues i could; the stories. It was a bleak situation. There was story after story dealing with what read like a Tarantino movie; sensationalised and focussed on the pure viciousness. There was judgemental information regarding Toni’s education, her background from a broken-home, her illnesses – both physical and mental. It read like her murder was almost inevitable and somehow she contributed to it. She didn’t. My hatred of, and campaigning against, Victim Blaming became even more intense. It could have been anyone – he wanted to hurt someone, so he did. It could have been anyone.
On a belated mission to protect Toni, I contacted the BBC, the Guardian and many others asking them to be more respectful, to remember that Toni was a young girl, bubbly, innocent, loved. I lodged complaints, however futile they might have been. Where were the stories about her being an animal lover; how we had horses when we were younger; how she was my Nan’s side kick and was the sweetest little girl with the biggest eyes and an unruly mop of ginger curls? Then there was the illegally obtained video on YouTube – Dear God, why did I read the comments? The unseemly and tasteless addition on a Ghost Hunters website – I was still counting my loss in hours, and someone had already found a way to hustle some money. Dealing with it all meant I had something to do but it left me very numb.
Ryan Backhouse was convicted of murder at Woolwich Crown Court on February 10, 2011. He was jailed for life with a minimum of 15 years before parole. It wasn’t enough.
While I started this by talking about the inevitable futility (perceived or otherwise) of a victim impact statement I wanted to close by saying that this is my alternative offering, as a tribute to Toni. I’ve not really touched upon the personal devastation, as in all of this that is the only thing I can keep for myself and have some semblance of control over. But you can imagine…I don’t intend this blog to spark debate, or garner sympathy. Really I just wanted to share some of the influences that losing Toni has had on my life – to love my family and friends deeply; to accept people for how they are and just ask that they try their best; to understand we are each fighting our own battles and deserve as much kindness and respect as possible. To minimise the ‘Them and Us’ dichotomy. The impact of her death, and the aftermath of it, has changed me greatly. What I try to do, and what I encourage in others, is to look beyond the attention grabbing headline, and the ever important bottom line, and to focus on the human element in the story. Whether you are dealing with policy, data, war, whatever it is, that is someone’s story. It is someone’s friend, family, lover. It could be you, or I. In all that you do, try to ensure that the human element is always of greater significance. Look beyond wealth, nationality, race and religion to see the person.
Always take that moment to think of Toni and remember that above all else, she was Someone.
Rest in Peace, Darling Toni.