December 01 2023

John Crilly: ‘I’m out – but everyone else is still suffering’

John Crilly: ‘I’m out – but everyone else is still suffering’

John Crilly this month became the first successful ‘joint enterprise’ appeal since the Supreme Court ruled that the law had taken ‘a wrong turn’. Commentators talked about the Jogee ruling in 2016 ‘opening floodgates’ and campaigners hoped it might; however six months later the Court of Appeal denied leave to appeal to 13 defendants in six separate cases. Since then not one case has been overturned – until last week.

John Crilly was sentenced to life for the murder of a pensioner and robbery with a minimum term of 19 years; last week he pleaded guilty to manslaughter. He has already served 13 years and so was released from prison.

How does it feel to be the first post-Jogee appeal?  ‘Of all the cases I have known and heard about, I felt that I wasn’t the worthy one,’ he tells me. Crilly, who is close to completing a law degree, has written about the unfairness of the common law doctrine of joint enterprise and supports JENGbA in their campaign. ‘There are a lot of people more innocent than me who should be getting out as well. It is bitter sweet.’

Crilly, a heroin addict with a long history of previous convictions prior to being sent down for murder, compares his present state of mind to ‘survivor’s guilt’. ‘I’m out but everyone is still suffering. It’s just horrendous. As far as I am concerned the issue has always bigger than me. It’s about the principles.’

As reported on the Justice Gap yesterday, Crilly and his co-defendant, David Flynn broke into the home of 71-year old Augustine Maduemezia in order to commit burglary. Crilly rang the doorbell to see if anyone was in. Maduemezia did not answer the door. After the door was broken down, Flynn demanded money and punched Maduemezia once. Maduemezia was killed by the punch. The pair left with only a mobile phone and blender.

‘I tried to stop it happening but Flynn was going nuts. Murder is all about intention – and my intention was just to get out of the house, just to leave. Flynn wasn’t having it,’ Crilly told me. ‘I don’t know how hard this is to believe but my intention was to get [Flynn] out of there. I had drugs on me. I didn’t need anything. I wasn’t that desperate.’

Crilly claims to have barely known his co-defendant. On his account, his dealer suggested that they partner up and told him that Flynn was an armed robber. In fact, Flynn had a previous similar conviction from 1997, when he punched and bit a disabled and partially blind man during a robbery.

Flynn and Crilly bumped into each other in prison at the doctors early on in their sentence. ‘He attacked me and I kicked the shit out of him,’ Crilly says. After the attack, Crilly was moved to another prison.

Sir Brian Leveson sketch by Isobel Williams

John Crilly, now 38 years old, claims to have turned his life around. He kicked his habit two and a half years into his sentence. ‘I had had enough. I put myself on the numbers [i.e. with the vulnerable prisoners] because there are a lot less drugs there. When I went back, I started educating myself.’

Crilly has stuck with his studies and is now one essay shy of completing his law degree through the Open University. He is doing well.

Cambridge University has offered him a job teaching prisoners law as part of a its Learning Together programme. ‘They bring some students from Cambridge together with 10 lads off the wing for a series of lectures. The professors come in. There is a graduation to show that we can do as well as other people. That we aren’t that different. It’s an amazing initiative.’

His seemingly successful rehabilitation is due in large part to having spent four years at HMP Grendon, the only therapeutic prison in the UK. ‘I found myself again. I found that I was not that bad a person,’ Crilly said. He describes the regime as ‘more relaxed but it’s hard work’. ‘You have to open yourselves up and listen. There are sex offenders on the course as well. It’s not something you do lightly.’

During his time at Grendon, John Crilly wrote a letter addressed to ‘Manchester Crown Court’. He wanted to extend an invitation to the judge who sent him down for murder to see if he would visit him on a social day.

Rather amazingly, Sir Brian Leveson, currently president of the Queen’s Bench Division, took him up on his offer.

Sir Brian wrote about his experience in an article he shared with his fellow judges. ‘In the course of my career, I have visited many prisons but in my 15 years on the bench – 30 if you count my time as a recorder – I have received precisely one invitation to visit a prison from someone on whom I passed sentence,’ he began.

But first let me tell you a little about John… . I sentenced him nearly 10 years ago after he was convicted by a jury for his part in a joint enterprise single-punch murder of an elderly home owner during the course of a robbery in which he did not personally use the fatal (or any) force. At the time he was addicted to heroin. Perhaps understandably it has taken many years to come to terms with his guilt but Grendon has helped him do just that. Today, John seems to fully acknowledge responsibility for the death of another human being; he is clear of drugs and appears to be headed in the right direction.
Sir Brian Leveson

The judge was also impressed by Grendon. As he records, nearly all the inmates (95%) were serving indeterminate sentences and had committed serious offences. These were men who had ‘not had an easy time finding themselves in prison’ and around half admitted using drugs whilst at Grendon. ‘Of those who join the community 50% have attempted suicide, two thirds have suffered serious abuse in their history and there is a high prevalence of personality disorders,’ Sir Brian continued. ‘These men who have in the past created problems of management in prison. Yet HMP Grendon is slowly but surely changing these men.’

Before prisoners arrived at Grendon their rates of rule breaches was around eight times higher than other inmates but breaches at Grendon were approximately one fifth of the average. Incidents of self-harm were about a quarter of the number elsewhere and the quality-of-life measure was higher than all 40 prisons it was compared to.

Sir Brian went on to quote a resident: ‘This is a facility that offers a chance to reclaim your humanity and to reclaim responsibility over your past and your future.’ As the judge points out, it is a prison where ‘rehabilitation is working’.

That seems to be true of John Crilly.

‘I don’t know why I wrote the letter,’ he tells me. ‘I guess I had joint enterprise at the back of my head. The first thing he said to me was I can’t discuss your case but he recalled it was joint enterprise which to me implied all sorts of things.’

What was Sir Brian like? ‘He was alright, very nice actually. I wrote to him every year after I finished each module.’ And what did Crilly think of the judge back in 2005 when he sent him  down? ‘It’s the whole system that’s the problem. He is just part of it. It wasn’t personal. The whole thing is fucked.’

John Crilly says his crime-wave was down to ‘drugs and a lack of self-esteem’. He used to steal to fund his heroin addiction. When I ask how many previous convictions he has, he replies: ‘Hundreds’. ‘I was in and out three or four times a year for two months, three months at a time.’ He insists that his lengthy criminal record did not include convictions for violence except a couple of assaults on the police (‘which was basically them battering me’).

‘I was 15 years old when I first tried heroin. I hated it,’ Crilly recalls. ‘When I was 18 I had a one-year-old son and I was working on building sites. I was still nicking cars and messing about but I was at a cross roads.’ He came home from work one day to discover his mother had been killed in a tragic car accident. His relationship with his girlfriend came to an end and he lost the plot. ‘I went mental. I went out had an injection of amphetamines,’ he recalled. ‘I wanted to kill myself and the experience sent me off. I went to jail, got on the gear and lost all confidence in myself. I thought the world was shit and that was it.’

When I ask John Crilly what his ambitions are post-release, he replies ‘to start contributing to society. To be a better person.’

Sir Brian’s PA write to John Crilly saying that the visit ‘gave us a lot to think about’. ‘On return to London, Sir Brian was particularly keen to encourage other judges to visit prisons themselves. So hopefully your kind invitation will not only have had an impact on you and the other residents of B Wing but might also mean the prisons all over the country will receive more regular visits from judges.’ They were ‘very impressed’ by Crilly’s attitude. ‘We know that Grendon is hard but people like you show why it is so worthwhile.’

Augustine Maduemezia would not have died had John Crilly and David Flynn not broken into his house. Crilly accepts his release is likely to cause the family considerable upset. ‘I totally get it. They lost a father,’ he says. He tells me willing to meet with them If that would help. What would he say? ‘There’s nothing that I can say to make it better. It dumbfounds me to think what I could say.’

 This article was first published on April 26