Could YOU forgive the man who killed your beloved son?

Could YOU forgive the man who killed your beloved son? That’s the extraordinary decision one heartbroken mother made… Now, she and the man who stole her paramedic son’s future tell of the enduring friendship that has transformed both their lives

They meet often, share a common purpose and work towards similar goals. She in her floral dress and cardigan, he in smart casuals, they sit in the summer sunshine in her garden, his arm placed protectively round her shoulders.

Joan Scourfield’s unlikely friendship with Jacob Dunne has sprung from the most unpropitious beginnings. He is a former gang member; she is a nursing assistant with two grandchildren. Yet a fondness has grown between them.

And the most extraordinary thing of all is that Jacob killed her son.

Jacob Dunne with James’s mum Joan. They meet often, share a common purpose and work towards similar goals. She in her floral dress and cardigan, he in smart casuals, they sit in the summer sunshine in her garden, his arm placed protectively round her shoulders

Jacob, now 27, admitted to the manslaughter of 28-year-old James Hodgkinson. He killed the promising trainee paramedic with a single punch to his head — and after he had served his prison sentence Joan wanted to meet him. Today, she talks movingly about how she came to forgive him.

‘It took me a long time, ‘ she says. ‘To begin with I was bitter and angry, mostly at the justice system. Jacob had been inside for just 14 months of his 30-month sentence. I thought James’s life was worth more than that. What kind of a deterrent was it for other gangs? When I first saw Jacob in a police mugshot he looked like a thug. But then, two-and-a-half years later, I met him and he just seemed a very vulnerable young man who really needed my support.

‘I wanted him to do something constructive with his life, to stop him going back to his old ways — but for a while I thought that by helping him I was betraying James. But that isn’t so. I still love and miss James just as much. I just couldn’t carry the resentment with me any longer. And when I forgave Jacob it felt like a release.

‘Jacob’s crime is not a big focus any more. What matters is that he has turned his life around and we’re working together to prevent conflict. I’m proud of what he has achieved.’

Joan, 57, a former A&E nurse who now works in mental health, is an unassuming woman with a heroic capacity for kindness. With her encouragement, the transformation in Jacob’s life has been astonishing.

James Hodgkinson (pictured) was killed with a single punch to his head 

Articulate, intelligent and thoughtful, Jacob, now married with two young children, describes how Joan and her ex-husband David (James’s dad) helped bring about the miraculous change in him.

He says: ‘I had no purpose in life other than a misguided ‘gang’ mentality: loyalty to so-called friends who equated respect with fear and intimidation. I came out of prison with no qualifications, no fixed address, no hope or prospects. I felt doomed to a life of crime. I had a label. I was a violent person.

‘I was so taken aback by Joan and David’s courage in wanting to make contact with me. It was a lightbulb moment. You don’t ever expect to be in a room with the parents whose son you’ve killed, but their kindness was heart-warming. It gave me faith in humanity. I became determined to change for them.

‘The two people I’d harmed the most judged me the least. I wanted to honour their son’s life by changing and setting a good example.’

Jacob took GCSEs, achieving top grades, then an access to university course for which he earned a distinction. He went on to gain a first-class degree in criminology and now works with Joan to educate young people on the dangers of violence. They give talks on the redemptive power of forgiveness, too — and Jacob mentors young offenders, encouraging them into education.

His life now could not be more remote from the destructive and aimless one he led when his and James’s paths crossed with such tragic results in July 2011.

Joan remembers her elder son, a life full of promise ahead of him: ‘He was a trainee paramedic, tall and handsome; he lived life to the full. He loved skiing, skydiving, cycling in the Alps. And he was very much a family boy; he’d be home for all our birthdays, he’d phone regularly. Everyone loved him.’

James had been out with his dad, his younger brother Phil and a few friends watching the cricket at Trent Bridge, Nottingham. Afterwards, they’d gone for drinks in the city centre, dressed in pirate costumes, in high spirits, when someone took James’s sunglasses.

Jacob says: ‘I’d been drinking and I remember my friends arguing — they’d argue with anyone — and I vaguely remember some girls trying to pull them away from a group of lads. I took it upon myself to get involved.

‘I didn’t know what I was doing. I just used to enjoy the adrenaline rush of it all. The expectations were subtle yet powerful. You had to prove yourself through violence.

‘I remember punching James, just once, on the jaw and seeing him fall over. There was no motive, no provocation. He hit the ground. There was an instant awareness.

‘He was unconscious and I didn’t want that to happen. I ran away. I was scared.’

Joan, who then lived in Suffolk, adds: ‘I’d been working nights and I came home and went to bed. At about 11am I got a call to say James was in hospital with a bleed on the brain. I had to get to Nottingham at once. Nothing seemed real. My sister drove me to the hospital and by the time I arrived James had gone into the operating theatre.

‘Jacob had punched him once and the blow had caused a blot clot in his head. He fell and cracked the back of his head, but they were hopeful that, by draining the clot, he would be OK. He was a fit, young man. We assumed he’d pull through.’

But James’s injuries proved catastrophic. His brain swelled; he did not respond to treatment. More blood clots formed and he was put on a life-support machine. He could no longer breathe unaided and nine days later Joan made the heartbreaking decision to turn off the machine.

‘The moment I walked out of intensive care to tell the family that James had passed away, the homicide team were waiting for me,’ she says. ‘From then on, instead of being able to grieve and bury James, our focus had to be on the investigation.

‘I longed for my own space but post-mortems followed which meant we couldn’t have the funeral for another 11 weeks. It was a kind of torture. I was divorced from James’s father, David, but grief united us.’

Meanwhile, Jacob had returned from a holiday to find the police waiting for him. ‘They said, ‘We’re arresting you on suspicion of the murder of James Hodgkinson.’ ‘

He pauses, exhales. He says: ‘It was pure panic. Disbelief. Even though I didn’t have much to offer the world, this was not how I imagined my life panning out.

‘My thoughts were selfish ones. ‘Would I be behind bars for the rest of my life? How would I cope in prison?’ I was scared.’ The charge was reduced to manslaughter. Jacob pleaded guilty.

‘I didn’t intend to do serious harm, neither did I imagine I could have killed a man with a single blow,’ he says. Joan and David were in court for the sentencing. ‘I couldn’t make eye contact with them. I wished the ground would swallow me up,’ says Jacob.

Changed man: Police mugshot of Jacob Dunne after he killed James Hodgkinson

Prison only stoked his anger and self-pity. ‘It felt like hanging around with my friends on the outside but they were even more desensitised. They normalised violence more than I did. They made me stay angry and want to blame anyone except myself for why I was there. But, actually, only I was responsible. I threw the punch.’

He left prison with scant hope and no prospects. ‘A few of my old ‘friends’ let me sofa-surf, then I went into a homeless hostel and finally a one-bedroom flat. I didn’t have a job. I didn’t even have a CV, let alone anything to put on it.’

Jacob’s crime had catastrophic repercussions on his family, too. His mum Victoria, a single parent of two sons — Jacob’s brother is five years younger — lost her job as a childminder because of his conviction. Unable to keep up her mortgage payments, she was forced into rented accommodation.

‘We lived in a bad neighbourhood and I was just feeding into the narrative that Mum had done a bad job of raising me, which couldn’t have been farther from the truth. She was a good, conscientious mum. I just let her down.’

Jacob might have continued on his self-destructive path had Joan not thrown a lifeline, two months after his release. Through Remedi, an organisation that allows victims and offenders to communicate, she asked for permission to email Jacob. ‘I wanted to know what was going through his head when he hit James. Was he sorry?’ she says.

Jacob came back with answers. ‘He told us it was a totally unprovoked attack. Meaningless. It made it worse. James had done nothing to anger or provoke him. And when it came up that Jacob was part of a gang we asked, ‘What are you going to do with your life now?’ Jacob said he was sorry and wanted to do anything he could to support us. But I said he had to sort out his own life first, get an education.’

Jacob adds: ‘I became committed to honouring James’s life by changing. It made me more determined. I wanted to change for Joan and David; to do something with my life. One life had been lost; they didn’t want another one to be wasted, too.’

For two and a half years their correspondence continued. Jacob returned to education and excelled, achieving top grades in his college for his GCSEs. But before the results were announced, another tragedy hit: in 2014 his mum died. Joan feared that grief might pitch him back into his self-destructive life. But, buoyed by Joan’s support, he worked even harder.

‘Joan made me realise I didn’t want to go back down the old path,’ he says. ‘Mum’s death made me stronger. I became my 14-year-old brother’s carer.’

Then came the astonishing news that Joan and David wanted to meet him. ‘I was taken aback. Petrified,’ says Jacob. ‘But although it was daunting, it seemed right.’

Joan adds: ‘The night before, I felt apprehensive. My stomach was churning. You’re thinking, ‘He’s turning his life around but at any point he could still drop back.’

‘My emotions were still raw. I was trying to deal with the awful grief of losing James. For a while I felt I was betraying him by meeting Jacob. I didn’t sleep on that night before.’

They met in an anonymous public building in Suffolk. ‘My heart was beating fast,’ says Jacob. ‘I went into the room and Joan started telling me about James, what he was like. That he’d had a girlfriend, was training to be a paramedic, loved doing adventurous things. I think I only began to appreciate the full impact of what I’d done when I learned what James was like and the values his lived by. It brought it all home. I cried.’

‘We all cried,’ says Joan. ‘Then Jacob told us he was going to university to make him a better person and that he wanted to do it for us. We told him it wouldn’t make him a better person, but staying away from the gang would. He said he didn’t speak to them any more.

‘I also said, “Don’t spend three years of your life doing something for us. You must do it for yourself.” I think he was quite shocked that we cared. He got quite emotional.

By then I was starting to warm to him. That was when I cried again. Our memory of him — his eyes downcast in the dock — was so different from the presentable young man in his smart shirt and cardigan in front of us.’

Jacob, who lives in Nottinghamshire, says: ‘When you start to have an honest conversation it produces empathy. The monster in my police mugshot became a different person from the one they’d imagined. I’m more than that one incident. We are not all products of the worst thing we did in our lives.’

Joan, who now lives in Derbyshire, says: ‘I didn’t think we’d hear a lot more from Jacob after that first meeting — but we did.’

‘I think some people are shocked that we’re so friendly,’ says Jacob.

‘It’s a friendship,’ says Joan, ‘After we’ve done our talks we have a cup of tea together. Jacob has invited me to his home. I care about him.’

Jacob married Jessica, 34, now a full-time mum to their two children, aged nine months and two years. His touchstones for parenting are calmness and kindness, the antithesis of his old beliefs. Joan has met his wife and baby girl.

Now, as well as the campaigning work with Joan, Jacob has made a series of podcasts, The Punch, about the incident that changed his life (and Joan’s) irrevocably.

‘It means such a lot to me that something constructive has come from the awfulness of James’s death,’ Joan says. ‘I think he would admire what Jacob has done — and I’m proud of how he’s turned out, too.’ 

  • Listen to BBC Radio 4’s The Punch now on BBC Sounds or go to bbc.co.uk/programmes/m000l0jr.

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