14th October 2020

Joan Scourfield on facing the man who killed her son and the profound impact of restorative justice

Marina Cantacuzino talks to Joan Scourfield, the mother of James who in 2011 was killed when a young man called, Jacob Dunne, threw a fatal punch in an unprovoked attack in Nottingham, England. A few years later Joan and her then husband David came face-to-face with Jacob in a restorative justice meeting. In Episode 4 of The F Word Podcast Marina gets to hear Jacob’s story.

Subscribe, Listen and Review

Support Us

The Forgiveness Project is a small charity and if you like what you hear, please do support us.
Donate Now


Marina: Welcome to the F Word Podcast – a podcast series which examines, excavates, unpicks and reframes Forgiveness through the lives of others. I am Marina Cantacuzino, a journalist from London, Founder of The Forgiveness Project Charity and I’ve built my career investigating how those who face the most complex and devastating things in life find a way through. I will be talking fortnightly to a guest who has experienced something very difficult or traumatic in their life but who rather than respond with hate or bitterness has embraced or at the very least considered forgiveness as a response to pain.

My guest today is Joan Scourfield. Well, Joan and I have met but we have never really had a proper conversation even though I actually know a lot about Joan’s story. So, a very warm welcome to you Joan today and it is just great to have you here today and to be able to talk about your story and what happened.

And the reason I do actually know a lot about Joan is due to some very sad and tragic circumstances which also involve a young man called Jacob Dunne. Jacob is one of The Forgiveness Project storytellers and he also works as a facilitator on our Restore Prison Programme.

And it was Jacob, who in 2011 killed Joan’s son, James, following a drunken, unprovoked one punch violent attack in Nottingham.

So, Joan, I think it would be fair and I really want actually to start today to talk about James. To tell me and us a little bit about who he was, what he was doing and then perhaps to lead up to what actually happened on that day when he was fatally attacked.

Joan: OK. James was my older son. I have two children. He was a very loving child but he had a mischievous side and also a very daring nature. He did a lot of adrenalin sports which used to worry me sick. He would go skiing, be dropped out of a helicopter to get it fast enough to do somersaults. He loved travel. He worked hard as a paramedic. He was also a volunteer and he volunteered for under-privileged children which we didn’t really know a lot about until after his death. He loved to get home for parties at weekends and meals out. He was just a normal child really.

Marina: What led up to this? It was totally unprovoked, wasn’t it?

Joan: Yes, it was unprovoked. He went out with his dad and his brother and a group of friends and he travelled up to Nottingham to go to Trent Bridge to the cricket and they spent the day at the cricket. They had had a few beers and watched the cricket.

After the cricket they decided to do a bit of a pub tour into Nottingham. They ended up in the centre of Nottingham at a bar where they met up with another group or gang of lads and they just chatted and sort of messed about in the pub. When it was time to go home, they were all going to get a taxi back to my son’s. When they went out they were talking to the group about the taxi and different things and this other young lad who hadn’t been in the pub that night came over and for no real reason hit James in the face.

James just had the one blow, one punch to the chin and he fell backwards and banged his head. He was taken to Queens Medical Centre where he was put onto life-support and died after nine days.

Marina: What was the first you heard about this?

Joan: I worked in Suffolk at the time. I had a phone call in the morning about half-past ten to say that James had got a bleed to the brain, he had been attacked the night before and could I get up to Nottingham hospital as quickly as possible.

Marina: So your then husband, David, was with him and your other son?

Joan: Yes.

Marina: And you went and were you pretty certain when you saw him that this was going to be a fatal injury or was there hope at that point?

Joan: He didn’t look injured. There was no physical signs of injury. He had one small bruise on his chin and that was it. But obviously, all the injury was inside and they operated and they drained what they could. They put him in a coma, a drug induced coma and when they tried to take him out of the coma the pressure just built up in his brain again.

I was called at three in the morning to say get back to the hospital because he was going back to surgery but they weren’t sure if he would make it. So, back to hospital we went. He recovered from that and back on to the life-support but then they just felt that every time they tried to bring him round or to stop the breathing machine he couldn’t breathe for himself.

So there was no way forward for him. He was failing three out of five things to live. So, I, myself, asked for the machine to be turned off.

Marina: That must have been absolutely devastating.

Joan: I felt guilty to put him through anymore.

Marina: During that time when you were so focused on your son did you at any point have any place in your head to think about the person who had done this?

Joan: In that time we didn’t know who it was. The police weren’t interested. It was only GBH so in that time we were given a police liaison lady. When I asked for the machine to be turned off obviously the police liaison lady was in the waiting room and she must have phoned the police.

When we turned the machine off it wasn’t long, ten minutes, something like that and I stayed with him and the minute I walked out of the intensive care to tell the others that he had actually passed away, the homicide team were waiting for me and we were all taken into a room to talk about how the handover from the GBH to the homicide team…..

Marina: It must have been so difficult

Joan:..and everything was going through my head.

Marina: Yes, because you didn’t even really have space to be quiet and to grieve. Instantly you were on to a case that the police were heavily involved with.

Joan: Exactly.

Marina: Was that in any way helpful that it sort of diverted your attention? It was something to focus on.

Joan: Obviously it was helpful for them. They wanted to get on with it now this had happened but for me, obviously you just wanted your space…..

Marina: There are other things you never think about when you hear appalling stories like this. Other things that 28 year old James lost when he was killed suddenly in an unprovoked attack in a Nottingham Street in July 2011.

Joan: James was also robbed of …. He was a blood donor and he desperately wanted to be an organ donor if anything happened to him. He was robbed of that because of the way he died. Because he had to go for a full post-mortem he wasn’t allowed to donate anything and I just felt he was robbed of that because at 28 obviously there would have been useful organs.

Marina: Of course. So the months that followed were you able to grieve or were you too focused on the evidence that was being collected by the police.

Joan: First of all the next thing was he had to go for a post-mortem within Nottinghamshire. Then he had to go for a post-mortem in Sheffield. Then because it proved that he had died from the head injury his brain had to come into London to wait to be analysed and that has to be a long wait. So we weren’t allowed the funeral for 11 weeks. So that 11 weeks was another torture.

Marina: I can imagine.

Joan: Because it was hard to focus on anything at that time.

Marina: At what point did you hear of the name Jacob Dunne?

Joan: James died on the 9th August and that is when the homicide team took over. They quickly started getting all this CCTV footage from all around Nottingham city centre and then we went home back to Suffolk because we were living with my other son’s at the time and they came down to Suffolk, just before the Bank holiday weekend, and they said we know the person whose done it and we will have them after the weekend. Jacob, I think was on holiday.

Then after the weekend they phoned us and they said we have Jacob Dunne and he is going to stand and plead guilty.

Marina: Did that help the fact that he was owning up to the guilt of having thrown that punch.

Joan: Yes, it helped me tremendously for him to plead guilty because if he hadn’t have pleaded guilty there would have been a full trial and my other son would have had to give evidence and they just tear you to bits, don’t they?

Marina: So Joan was very thankful that they didn’t have a long drawn out court case. The court hearing was all over in a matter of hours and Jacob was handed down a four year sentence for manslaughter. It was manslaughter and not murder because there was no instrument, no intent. But, actually he served much less than that because one year was taken off for him pleading guilty and a further six months was taken off because he was under 21 plus English Law means you only serve half your sentence.

Joan: He was only put inside for thirteen months.

Marina: which you may have thought this and certainly others would have thought that thirteen months for a life is not very long.

Joan: I felt my son’s life was worth more than thirteen months. The police at the court were very annoyed with all the work they had done but I thought what deterrent is that for others? You are going out and have a fight and kill somebody the worst you are going to get is thirteen months it is not really a deterrent. That is how I felt at the time.

Marina: How strong was that anger?

Joan: Very bitter. I was very bitter at that time.

Marina: Was that what you were most – obviously you were very angry with what had happened.

Joan: I was upset at what happened but I was very bitter about it. I thought where is the justice?

Marina: It just compounded the pain.

Joan: It compounded it, definitely.

Marina: And your son and your then husband felt equally angry about it?

Joan: Yes, definitely. And what happened, we had victims’ support came regularly and through talk and victims’ support the same thing came up. How can they only get this amount of time? What can we do? And after a few months he said I am not recommending this because it doesn’t work for everybody and we don’t know if it would even work for you, but the only way you are going to get some of the questions answered and relieve some of this business is try Restorative Justice.

Marina: Had you heard of Restorative Justice?

Joan: Never heard of it. Didn’t know what I was letting myself in for.

Marina: So Joan and Jacob’s story is a really powerful example of Restorative Justice. Of how harm can be repaired through dialogue, negotiation and mutual respect. Restorative Justice is incredibly effective and an extremely well-evidenced process that gives victims a voice and holds offenders to account by helping them take responsibility and make amends in a way I don’t think punishment ever really can.

So, then I went on to ask Joan how the people who were facilitating her Restorative Justice took this forward.

Joan: They just said that they would contact Jacob. It would have mediation. Jacob would be contacted first of all to see if he would agree to answer some questions about the night and about if he had learnt anything from prison. That was what we wanted at the time.

So, we were referred to a Restorative Justice remedy in Sheffield.

Marina: An organisation which helps victims meet their offenders or correspond with their offenders.

Joan: Yes. They were very good. They would come to us and what questions would you like answered and all this and I asked. I wanted to know how Jacob was. What had he learned in prison? Had he achieved anything? And it really didn’t come back very good. He hadn’t had any support really in prison and he had just either just been shut away or left to roam about.

Marina: How long had Jacob been out of prison at this point?

Joan: When we started with him he had only been out of prison about three months.

Marina: Were you shocked? Disappointed that nothing had been done to try to rehabilitate him in prison?

Joan: I was very disappointed that nobody had actually spoken to him and tried to get him into education or anything and he had also been let out of prison with nowhere to live, nowhere to go, and I could just see the same thing happening again to somebody else.

Marina: So, was it done through letters?

Joan: Mostly it was done through mediation. The ladies would come and speak to us and then they would go and speak to Jacob and relay the questions.

Marina: And they would relay what he said to you. And was there a point when you thought I am ready to meet him? Was it always on the cards that you might meet him or want to meet him?

Joan: No, Well Jacob started to turn his life around. He had felt the victim which obviously shocked me at the time.

Marina: Can you explain that?

Joan: I just couldn’t understand why he had felt the victim in prison. He felt the victim out of his gang. That his gang hadn’t stood by him. They weren’t there at the court. They weren’t seeing him in prison. And it was just very hard, you know, to understand how he could feel worse than I felt.

Marina: But, actually, I am not surprised by this. In The Forgiveness Project we have run a prison programme called Restore for many years and something I learnt early on is that prisoners are often an angry group of people, angry at society, angry at authority. Obviously, angry at the people who have hurt them in their childhood. Angry at their friends who didn’t support them and even angry at their victims who some perceive as being to blame for putting them in prison in the first place.

So, the way we have worked with this anger is by first and foremost asking prisoners to listen to the stories of victims really in order to build empathy and understanding which in a way is what happened when Joan and her former husband, David, reached out to Jacob to have their questions answered.

So, then I went on to ask Joan what was Jacob’s reaction to this and also to the fact that it was his victims’ parents asking how he was.

Joan: He couldn’t understand why I cared about what he was going to do. How he could change his life. So with that he did start and he got a job packing in a warehouse and he started his GCSE’s and then we waited until he had a break. He had done his Essex University course and then is when he said we will meet. He felt ready and we felt ready. We didn’t want to pressurise him. We felt it was better that he started on his journey of education. Then we decided to meet it was very hard.

Marina: So, Joan tell me about that meeting that was so hard.

Joan: You don’t know what you are going to say or how you are going to react at all.

Marina: Where did it take place?

Joan: It took place in Suffolk. So Jacob was brought down in a car so when we left home I knew Jacob was on his way because at the end of the day he could have just turned around and said I am not doing this.

Marina: Yes.

Joan: He could have pulled out at any time. We arrived at the building and we were taken into a room and Jacob was in a different room. When everybody had settled they brought Jacob through. And I think it must have been the hardest thing for him to walk through that door and see us.

Marina: Yes, and very hard for both of you.

Joan: Yes very hard for both of us, yes.

Marina: And there was a facilitator or mediator there helping you? How does it start? What do you say to each other?

Joan: Well, we were introduced obviously by the facilitator and then we just talked about what had happened. What had happened on the night and how he felt and just chatted about….

Marina: Was it useful?

Joan: Very useful, yes. Seeing his face you realised he didn’t mean to do it. It wasn’t his intention and there was hope that he will turn his life around.

Marina: Because they talk a lot about genuine remorse and I am presuming what you saw was genuine remorse and I must say that I met Jacob a little after that and he seemed like a broken man. There was no question that this was someone who was shamed and deeply apologetic for what had happened.

Did you feel that?

Joan: I felt that. He said to me I’ll say “Sorry to you but Sorry I know is not good enough. I don’t know what else I can do”. We just said if we could just work on the one punch and maybe some Restorative Justice and build a future together with things like that it would help.

Marina: When you say work on the one punch what do you mean?

Joan: Well, just make an awareness about it really when we talked. Just make an awareness about one punch because I think boys get into fights all the time. They just don’t realise that life can go just like that.

Marina: They don’t understand the consequences of how that might unravel. I have spoken to quite a few people who have had Restorative Justice meetings and they often talk about leaving the room feeling a little lighter or sleeping better that night or just…..

Joan: Yes, you feel a bit lighter. I felt more hopeful that Jacob was going to turn around after meeting him.

Marina: And that meant so much to you, didn’t it?

Joan: Yes.

Marina: Can you just unpack that a bit. Why does his rehabilitation and redemption in a way help you in your grief?

Joan: Because he is a good person underneath. We have found a good person. We have given him a way forward with it. He couldn’t see a way out of the gang and I just think if you can do that for one person it gives you a different hope. It gives you a different outlook.

I don’t feel bitter anymore about the fourteen months. I don’t say it is right because I don’t think it is a deterrent. I don’t feel bitter about it because I think that we have done more for Jacob than the prison have done.

Marina: And do you think in some ways because of what happened it actually took Jacob down a different path, in a way allowed him to create a positive and more meaningful life for himself.

Joan: Oh yes, yes, definitely. He said to me if we hadn’t have gone through Restorative Justice and he had done what he had done but he had only gone through the prison, he would now be dead or in prison again because he said you can go in prison and you can steal one bike and come out and steal a hundred because he said you live off everybody else’s negativity.

Marina: I totally get that and I saw a really interesting play called “The Listening Room” and I know you saw it as well. Jacob was interviewed for it, it was Verbatim Theatre and his character which is performed by an actor but speaks exactly Jacob’s words where he describes the difficulty and the loneliness in having the responsibility to you and your family to keep strong and to keep going and to keep positive.

Almost like he knows he can’t fail and in that moment I felt a real empathy for him actually that while nothing that you and your family have done has asked him to be like that it is inevitable that he can see how it has helped you, his restoration if we can call it that, then he can’t fail.

Joan: He can’t fail now.

Marina: But it is a lonely place in a way because he can never get away from what he has done and you sense that about him.

Joan: I know that, yes, because when we did the first television programme we done, we filmed it and we filmed our part, he filmed his part and then we filmed some together. Then there was all the bits from Restorative Justice, this sort of not the hype, but you know, “everyone it’s going to be on air soon”, I all of a sudden had to phone Restorative Justice and said “are we putting Jacob in danger? You are putting his face on the television saying “I killed somebody”. You don’t know what people are out there, the media, Facebook, all these things nowadays are recorded and clicked. You just don’t know.

Marina: It’s true but I think many people like Jacob and we work with quite a few, they want to do this as part of the reparation. It’s not easy. It would be easier to hide. It would probably in many cases be easier not to meet the victims or the family of the victim but I think it also creates meaning in their life.

The other thing I wanted to ask you about Joan, is this whole thing of forgiveness. It is not an easy word but The Forgiveness Project is very precisely a place where we explore aspects of forgiveness. We don’t preach or promote it particularly, but it is something which seems to allow victims to make peace with the past.

Is it a word that you are comfortable using?

Joan: I am now. At first it was like if I felt if I forgive Jacob I have forgotten James but now I just think Jacob has done so terribly well through the Restorative Justice and on his own back through what he is doing himself. I just think I forgive him. I know from the times I have met him and the things we have said that there was no way he meant to do it and I think that is the big difference.

Marina: Do you think that you were worried that it might mean forgetting James because in some ways forgiveness isn’t about forgetting. You will never forget James but it settles it in a way. It makes you more at peace with what’s happened and maybe it means that you are not endlessly thinking about it. There may be moments of the day when you can not think about it. What does it mean then to you forgiveness because it does mean so many things to different people?

Joan: Letting go is the main thing. Letting go for me the bitterness and the stuff I had towards Jacob and the sentence and everything. Letting go of all that and letting him into my life. Like if Jacob was here now I would sit next to him and chat to him. If you go out of the room we will chat about something else. It is not like “oh I will meet him for that and that it is”. When we first used to meet people would say “do you want to eat in the other room?” Well, no! How could I work with him? It is very hard to explain to other people.

Marina: Has anyone been critical of you reaching out in the way that you have?

Joan: People don’t understand it. People say “oh I could never do it” but I didn’t set out to do this. Obviously, to start with it was just about asking questions about the night and to feel if Jacob had gone out to really hit somebody or whether, as we know now, it was just a big mistake. It was for that. One thing led to another and I am glad that it has.

Marina: When you met him you saw a human being….

Joan: Yes

Marina: and you connected in some way?

Joan: Yes.

Marina: Are you fond of him, would you say?

Joan: Yes, in a way I am. I always want to know if he is OK. I keep in contact with him on Twitter. I don’t intrude.

Marina: When you say you don’t intrude do you think it is important that actually, you don’t get too involved in his life?

Joan: Yes, I don’t want to get too involved.

Marina: For him and for you?

Joan: I think for both of us. I think for both of us we have got to work independently and together when needed I think. We need to do our own things.

Marina: Joan, I know today actually would have been James’ birthday wouldn’t it and you really wanted to come and talk about him today?

Joan: Yes.

Marina: What do you normally do on his birthday?

Joan: Try to go to somewhere he would enjoy or make it about him in some way. Not necessarily his grave. So I just try to do things on his birthday that he would have liked and coming here to London, he loved London, so I have had a little treat looking around.

Marina: Thank you so much Joan. It really is such a pleasure to talk to you. I am really glad to have learnt more about James.

Marina: Thank you for listening to the F Word Podcast. To dig a bit deeper around some of the themes we have talked about do check out the show notes by going to theforgivenessproject.com/FWordPodcast. From there you can also explore The Forgiveness Project website which over the years has collected and shared many more stories of how people have transformed the darkest of situations.

I also want to invite you to join the F Word Podcast Facebook Group especially if you have more to discuss or share. Again, to find the link go to theforgivenessproject.com/FWordPodcast and finally, all these podcasts have grown out of years of trying to shift the narrative of our time away from one of hate and division towards empathy and understanding.

So, if you have enjoyed this podcast please do consider donating even just the smallest amount to help us to continue our wok. All details of how to do this again are on the show notes page of our website.

But, most of all, I hope you will join me again.

Next time I will actually be talking to Jacob Dunne who will share his story and by doing so I am sure shed light on Joan’s story too.

Listen to More Episodes