Show caption Jade Akoum at home, a picture of her brother Yousef behind her. Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian Crime ‘Some days I really struggle’: Jade Akoum on the killing of her schoolboy brother Three years after the fatal stabbing of 17-year old Yousef Makki, his sister is still disgusted by the way he was depicted at the murder trial Michael Segalov Mon 21 Mar 2022 10.00 GMT Share on Facebook
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Three years have passed since 17-year-old Yousef Makki was killed on a suburban Manchester street, but for his sister Jade Akoum, he remains a constant presence. At her home in Burnage, a portrait of Yousef has pride of place on the living room wall; her youngest son, now 18 months old, was named after him. On the last anniversary of his death, the family set up a foundation in Yousef’s name, to provide financial support for other local working-class boys with dreams like his.
And thoughts of her brother consume Akoum’s every waking hour. A lengthy murder trial has already come and gone, but, like the inquest that followed, Akoum believes it raised more questions than it answered.
“We feel fed up with the system,” she says, a numbness to her voice. “I don’t trust any more. I don’t have faith in the police, in the courts. The idea that we’re all equal and are treated the same regardless of class and money? I’m naive to have believed it.”
It’s a grey March morning and Akoum is sitting on her sofa, tea in hand, with Mazen, her husband of 14 years, while their toddler pops in and out of the room. Yet again, she finds herself going over the circumstances surrounding her brother’s death: how he was stabbed on the evening of 2 March 2019 and the series of events that followed, which she feels resulted in a string of prosecution and police failures. At the inquest last November, the coroner announced that the circumstances of Yousef’s death were so unclear she couldn’t even deliver an open verdict.
“Sometimes, I don’t mind talking about it at all – it’s like I need to,” Akoum says. “Other days I can’t face it and really struggle.” But it is a burden she has to shoulder. On Monday, Killed By a Rich Kid – a Channel 4 documentary two years in the making – will bring the story of Yousef’s death back into the public eye. When the documentary team got in touch, she didn’t hesitate about taking part. “It was our only way of getting someone to really investigate, with proper resources, what happened.”
Akoum, Yousef and their two siblings grew up just down the road from where she lives today. They were a tight-knit family. While Akoum was 11 years Yousef’s senior, their bond was precious. “I mothered him quite a lot,” she says, “always lecturing him and telling him what to do. Yousef was an amazing child – he was about three when we noticed he wasn’t like most other kids. He was mature for his age, always thinking of others.”
Yousef was sporty and academic, and teachers at his state primary school believed he would thrive at one of Manchester’s competitive – and expensive – independent schools. “We come from a working-class area,” says Akoum. “None of us had been to them, we knew so little about them. We were all so hopeful for him.”
Yousef Makki, centre, with sister Jade and his mum, Debbie, after graduating from primary school and getting a scholarship to Manchester Grammar. Photograph: Jade Akoum
Their mum, Debbie, didn’t believe Yousef could pull it off. “They made a deal,” Akoum says with a brief smile. “If Yousef got into one of those schools, she’d find the money to pay for a fancy car to pick him and his friends up on their final day of primary.” Sure enough, Yousef and his classmates clambered into a chauffeur-driven limousine at the end of summer term. He had been awarded a full scholarship to the prestigious Manchester Grammar school. It may have been just a couple of miles down the road from the family home, but with fees of more than £13,000 a year it was a world away; without a full bursary, it would never have been possible. Still, finding the money to pay for the uniform and other trappings was far from easy. “We got to know Paul the loan man pretty well,” Akoum says. “He’d come round collecting the debts he was owed. But Mum never let it faze her.” This was an investment in Yousef’s future. The plan was to study medicine, with talk of Oxbridge.
Yousef spent the evening of 1 March 2019 training at his boxing club. The next morning, he woke up feeling unwell; his mum said he could spend the day in bed recovering. “I think he just fancied a day at home,” says Akoum, “because, by lunchtime, he was asking to take one of my kids for a walk to the shops.” It’s a fair reflection of Yousef, Akoum believes, that he saw equal value in his education and being an uncle. “Later in the afternoon, Yousef asked to go on a bike ride with a friend. He had a shower, caught the tram and said goodbye. That was the last time I saw him.”
Yousef had arranged to spend the night at the home of a schoolfriend, Adam Chowdhary, in the affluent Hale Barnes suburb. The boys had been close since year 7; their parents had spoken to confirm the arrangements. That evening, Akoum was putting her kids to bed when her phone rang. Her mum was calling. All she said, clearly in a state of distress, was: “Get down to the hospital.”
The following afternoon, Akoum stood in a freezing mortuary, confronted by the body of her “invincible” brother. “I wanted to hug him and to hold his hand, but they told me I could only touch his face,” Akoum recalls, “because there was ‘an ongoing murder investigation’.” Only then did she start to question what had happened. “His hair was gelled just as he liked it. I kept expecting him to jump up and say: ‘Surprise! I tricked you’ … But he didn’t.”
Just 15 weeks later, a trial began at Manchester crown court. To the family – with no experience of the justice system – it felt a surprisingly short window between alleged crime and prosecution. Asked to comment, the Crown Prosecution Service stated: “As is common practice with cases involving youths, the court decided this trial should take place as soon as possible. We ensured the case was in the strongest position ahead of the trial.”
Yousef, aged 17, a month before his death. Photograph: Jade Akoum
In the dock were two friends of Yousef’s, both of whom were then still 17. The first was Josh Molnar, charged with murder, perverting the course of justice, possession of a bladed article and conspiracy to rob. The other? Adam Chowdhary, the friend from the sleepover, charged with the same offences except murder. Both boys came from wealthy families; they were defended by three senior QCs and a well-respected junior.
Akoum says the family had been instructed by the authorities not to speak to the press or to make public statements. “I remember snippets of the case starting,” she says. “The police saying the boys had gone to buy cannabis; that Molnar had been beaten up for some reason by some other lads. And then there’d been some tension between these three boys in the aftermath, which somehow had led to Yousef’s stabbing.”
Memories of the three-week trial aren’t just blurred because of the long and agonising days. After the first day, Yousef’s loved ones were told to sit upstairs in the public gallery. It meant they could barely keep track of what was happening.
“My mum was disabled. Yousef’s dad has a bad back and uses crutches, so they struggled to make it up there,” says Akoum. “We couldn’t hear or see anything, either.” The court gave family, friends and teachers only three headsets to share to listen in with. “We complained every day, but nobody took any notice.”
“It was the first time we’d felt let down by the justice system,” says Akoum, “but we’d been assured by the police and CPS that the case was solid and they’d succeed.”
The location where Yousef had been stabbed was in a CCTV blank spot, and the prosecution case, as Akoum understands it now, hinged on a complex narrative that these three boys had indulged themselves in a gangster fantasy, ordered flick-knives online and plotted a robbery at a low-value drug deal. Prosecution lawyers alleged that once the plan failed, Molnar became angry and attacked Yousef. The defence, meanwhile, claimed that Yousef was the aggressor, and that when Molnar stabbed him in the heart, he was acting in self-defence.
“It felt like both sides were attacking Yousef’s character to sell their own version of events,” Akoum says. (Because Molnar’s case was that he acted in self-defence, the judge allowed his legal team to present “bad character” evidence about Yousef.) “But the picture they painted wasn’t one anybody who knew him recognised.” Something didn’t add up, she felt. “Yousef was presented as this aggressive, knife-wielding working-class lad with a temper amid two wealthy boys from good families, which just wasn’t true. We expected it from the defence, but I didn’t understand why the prosecution was trying to tarnish him.
“We asked if we could submit a character reference about Yousef to the court,” Akoum continues. “We wanted to show the real Yousef to the jury. The school offered to write one – one of us could, too – but we were told, no, you can’t do that for the deceased. It felt so unreasonable.”
On 12 July, both defendants were convicted of being in possession of a bladed article; Molnar alone of perverting the course of justice. Molnar was sentenced to a 16-month detention and training order, while Chowdhary was given a four-month detention order. When it came to the murder and manslaughter charges, however, the jury found Molnar not guilty.
“The foreperson stood up,” says Akoum, “and I just heard all these not-guilty responses. The room spun; we were in shock. Dad shouted: ‘There’s no justice for my son’ before collapsing.” Even now, she struggles to believe it.
“The whole way through the trial we’d been told not to speak to the press,” says Akoum. “Not to give our side of Yousef’s story. Then, as soon as the trial was over – which we could barely understand – it was like the story had already been decided. But I knew it wasn’t the truth. I was certain. First Yousef was killed, then his character was trashed.”
In the years since Yousef’s death, the family, and the support base they have built up, have tirelessly campaigned to expose what they believe to be a miscarriage of justice. They argue it was a consequence of poor decision-making and inequalities in the legal system. They allege there were a number of identifiable failures in the way the prosecution was handled – not least that the “botched drug deal” may never have happened. As the head of Greater Manchester police’s (GMP) major crime review unit, Martin Bottomley, put it at the inquest, his “firm view” was that the incident that preceded that stabbing was “not a drug deal gone wrong” but a “revenge attack” on Molnar.
An internal report by GMP, which has been seen by the Guardian, found further problems with the investigation. According to the report, gaps in intelligence were left unfilled and inconsistencies in some witness statements were not fully explored. This was a complex murder investigation being conducted in a short period of time, yet GMP’s major incident support unit was not engaged to work on it. Unusually, given the seriousness of the charges, Molnar was granted bail.
And, after the police were called to the crime scene, only one of the two boys present was initially detained, despite – as the Channel 4 film highlights – inconsistencies in their initial accounts. For two and a half hours, Chowdhary was left unsupervised by police before he was arrested, during which time mobile phone data was deleted. As the report states: “There is no way to know what material had been deleted from [his] phone and was unable to be recovered.”
A spokesperson for GMP told the Guardian that while the review raised “learning points, mainly in relation to internal practices, [it] concluded that there was nothing the investigation team could have done differently which would have necessarily affected the outcome of the trial”. As the inquest verdict has been referred for judicial review, GMP stated it would be “inappropriate to comment on specific details”.
In April 2020, the Independent Office for Police Conduct dropped its own investigation into the GMP’s handling of the case after finding no evidence of “potential misconduct by any individual officer”.
“We tried to appeal the sentences,” says Akoum, “but it didn’t happen. There was also talk of trying to fundraise for a private prosecution through a civil case.” But they were told they would need £100,000 to proceed. “If we’d been rich, we might have been able to do it.” It was only with the help of a lawyer acting pro bono that an inquest was ultimately granted.
Yousef at 15, with Jade. Photograph: Jade Akoum
At the inquest last November, the coroner recorded a narrative verdict, finding that Yousef died from “complications from a stab wound the precise circumstances of which cannot, on the balance of probabilities, be ascertained”. She said she could not, on the balance of probabilities, conclude his death was unlawful killing, accidental death or misadventure, or even deliver an open verdict.
After the inquest, a statement issued on Molnar’s behalf by his solicitors said the conclusion was “consistent with the evidence and the verdict of the jury”, adding: “Josh has accepted responsibility for his involvement in Yousef’s death. His remorse is genuine and heartfelt. He will live with this for the rest of his life. This was a truly tragic incident between friends.”
Akoum and the family’s legal team, however, have requested a judicial review of the coroner’s conclusion, not in the hope of seeing Molnar and Chowdhary’s sentences – now served – extended, but to clear Yousef’s name. And they hope to highlight how the justice system favours those with cash, whether defendants or victims.
“Class played such a big part in what has happened,” argues Akoum. “These were rich families who had money for the best lawyers, suits and publicists. If Yousef had been the one accused, we couldn’t have paid for an expensive lawyer. We just know he’d have been found guilty.” Had the tables been turned, Akoum argues, Yousef would never have had the privilege of being seen as a promising young man caught up in a tragic accident.
“We understand [Yousef’s family] are frustrated about the outcome of the trial,” the CPS says. “While we did everything we could to secure a murder conviction, we respect the jury’s verdict.”
“Even if this is painful, I don’t want to one day look back and regret not doing more,” says Akoum. “I know that if I don’t carry on I’ll feel guilty for ever. That’s not something I can live with.”
Killed By a Rich Kid is on Channel 4 at 9pm on 21 March.