In 2011 Jacob Dunne fatally punched a man in an unprovoked attack. As a result he received a two-and-a-half-year custodial sentence for manslaughter of which he served 14 months. On leaving prison Jacob found himself homeless, unemployed and struggling to get his life back on track. With the encouragement of his victim’s parents, he endeavoured to get his life back on track.
My life changed forever the day I handed myself in at the police station where I was told I was being arrested on suspicion of murder. Sitting in that holding cell I felt shocked, scared, confused, and very angry.
A month earlier I had been out celebrating a friend’s 18th birthday. It was July 2011 and I’d been drinking most of the day with a group of friends who over the years I’d come to respect and care more for than my own family.
In secondary school I had lost the message of education. I quickly became the kid who was problematic, spending most of my days in a room by myself, or skiving class. By the age of 15 I had been excluded from two schools, and didn’t bother showing up to sit my GCSE’s. I developed beliefs and values that were only ever going to get me into trouble, especially a feeling that I always had to defend my friends if they got into trouble. This is how I became immersed in a ‘gang’ mind-set.
Towards the end of that July night, I was drinking alone in a bar when I received a call from one of my friends saying that there was trouble kicking off in town. When I got down there I saw a friend of mine squaring off with another man. That’s when I threw a punch that changed everything. I ran from the scene unaware that the man I’d hit would later tragically pass away. This man I now know was called James.
I put the incident out of my mind until one morning a month later the police started questioning and then arresting my friends. When they finally came for me I was the only one to be charged and to receive a custodial sentence.
In prison I was consumed by anger and began to blame my friends for stitching me up. My overwhelming feeling was one of self-pity, as if I was the only victim of these tragic circumstances. There was no space in custody for me to reflect on what I’d done. No one was there to challenge me and I was surrounded by other inmates who shared the same common criminal values I did. By the time I was released I had become an even worse person than when I went in, with no hope for my future
Two months later however my probation officer contacted me to ask if I had ever heard of restorative justice. She told me that David and Joan, the parents of James, wanted to ask me some questions about that night. It was at this moment that I realised there were people involved in this crime who had been more harmed than me. After some reflection I decided that the very least I could do was help them make sense out of what had happened.
We began to communicate through mediators from the restorative justice charity Remedi, and after several months of letters and hearing in detail what they and their family had gone through, I became so overwhelmed with guilt and shame that I decided I had to move forward in a more positive way.
What amazed me was how much David and Joan supported me in trying to make better choices, and as a result I began to update them on my progress through mediators and letters. During this time I was encouraged to go back into education and over the next two and a half years I succeeded far beyond what I believed I was capable of.
Then finally, after I’d gained access into University to study Criminology, we all felt comfortable enough to meet each other face-to-face.
The meeting lasted an hour and a half. To hear them talk about their love for James and about the type of person he was affected me deeply, and reinforced my determination to make something of myself and to do everything I could to prevent others going through the kind of trauma they’d gone through.
Although I expressed how sorry I was to them, I also had a need to thank them for initiating our correspondence and for having the courage to meet me. If they had never challenged me with those difficult questions I would most likely still be in prison today. It’s extraordinary to think that the people I harmed the most were the people to judge me the least.
In this five part BBC Radio 4 series called The Punch, Jacob retraces the key moments in his life since he threw the punch. It isn’t a straightforward story of rehabilitation but a complicated, often painful journey. Recording himself at home during lockdown, Jacob makes contact with his former parole officer, a prison officer, mentors, and others who have benefited from similar face-to-face confrontations.