After 13 years in prison for murder, John Crilly’s release in April was “bittersweet”.
Even though his conviction was quashed, he has beaten a heroin addiction, embarked on a law degree and is set to start work in a legal role for Cambridge University, the 47-year-old feels the law he was imprisoned under is “just wrong”.
He was convicted under joint enterprise, a legal doctrine that means someone who was an accomplice to a crime can be treated the same as the person who committed the act itself.
Crilly was sentenced to 20 years for the murder of 71-year-old Augustine Maduemezia, who ran a light haulage business and was described in some reports as an African tribal chief, during a burglary in Manchester in 2005. He and his co-offender David Flynn took a mobile phone and a blender, and Flynn punched father-of-five Maduemezia in the head, leading to his death.
Crilly, an addict and dealer at the time, says the pair had known one another for just 12 weeks when Flynn convinced him to take part in the burglary.
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Last month, Crilly became only the second person to have a joint enterprise murder conviction quashed since a landmark Supreme Court decision in 2016 found it had been “misinterpreted” for three decades.
But the law, like the deep remorse Crilly still feels over the pensioner’s death, still bothers him.
In part, it is why he started a law degree in prison, chipping away at it for seven years, and why he’s now determined to help others overturn their convictions too.
“It’s just wrong. I don’t need to have a law degree to know that,” Crilly told HuffPost UK from his sister’s Manchester home where he is finishing the last 3000-word essay he needs to complete his Open University degree.
He should then move on to a job co-ordinating a law course at Cambridge University from September.
“I met quite a few young kids who are locked up on joint enterprise... there’s still hundreds of people still in there and nobody seems to be listening. It is a bittersweet feeling [being released],” Crilly said.
“I can’t just sit back and not do anything.”
He is now helping challenge joint enterprise laws with the justice group Jengba (Joint Enterprise: Not Guilty by Association) and MP David Lammy, who called for it the law to be reviewed in February. Senior Tories also support a review and the matter was debated in Parliament in January.
Jengba supports over 800 joint enterprise prisoners. The youngest is just 13. Jengba spokeswoman Jan Cunliffe’s own son, Jordan, is serving time for murder under the law.
Joint enterprise has been criticised for being “unfair and racist,” with it often being used to jail black and ethnic minority men for decades, especially in deaths framed as gang-related. Last year it was used to incarcerate ten young men and a boy of 14 for a combined 170 years over the death Abdul Wahab Hafidah.
Crilly was a petty felon in his teens, but went off the rails at 18 after his mother died in a car accident. At the time he had a job on a building site, a one-year-old son and a girlfriend, but grief had made him “mental”, he says.
“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.”
He was a dealer and heroin addict at the time of Maduemezia’s murder, after racking up “hundreds” of convictions for petty crimes. For a decade he had been in and out of jail “three or four times a year”.
At the time of Maduemezia’s death, Crilly had drugs on him, so he didn’t need to steal to feed his heroin habit, he said.
“I just wanted to get out of there... it seemed pointless, then we came across [Maduemezia] and all that kicked off... it all happened so quick”.
“I never wanted to hurt anyone,” he said. “I was never about that. I just went along on a burglary with someone who I didn’t know the extent of his... whatever... and then I ended up being done for murder.”
After Crilly’s murder conviction was quashed, he admitted manslaughter, and was released as he had already served enough time.
On Crilly’s release Maduemezia’s family said in a statement to the BBC: “It was sickening to hear that he was walking away without completing his sentence for his part in the murder of our father.
“These High Court rulings which lean too favourably towards the offenders and virtually casting aside the opinions, consideration and feelings of victims and their families, help to corrode and undermine public confidence in the justice system.”
They added: “We are led to understand that [Crilly] has turned his life around whilst in prison and has even acquired a law degree. At least he is alive. We wish him well but also wish that our father were alive and free to live his life.”
Crilly has not spoken to the family, but says the guilt haunts him.
“Obviously I just have to try and put myself in their shoes and if it was me, I’d want proper justice and the truth, and the truth is what has finally occurred.
“And I don’t know how to... obviously, I feel for them so much. I would do anything to help, if I could. But the fact is I never intended to kill. I’d want to know that.”
The University of Cambridge said that once Crilly finishes his Open University degree in the near future, he is “expected to help coordinate future Learning Together courses”, which he undertook himself while in prison in 2015/2016. The position is subject to a funding application for the course to go ahead, a spokesperson added.
While underplaying the offer (“it is positive, yeah,”) Crilly is unsure what use a law degree will be given his criminal record: “I ain’t got a clue. You tell me what can I do with it?”
Crilly was 34 when he was jailed for murder. He’s 47 now and his life is unrecognisable. “It’s two different worlds. [Before] I was running around for drugs all day, every day. That was the be-all and end-all I guess. Just depressed and shit and not knowing what to do.”
Two and a half years into his murder term, Crilly finally got clean 33 years after his first taste of Class A drugs. He says he’s found what he was seeking all along - contentment.
“I feel happy now, I’m content. I’ve got hope for the future, which I never had, which is one of the main things. I’m never going to go back [to prison] again. I just want to help people who are back there.”