4am, 2 January 2003, Aston, Birmingham, UK. Two teenage girls are standing outside the Uniseven hair salon on Birchfield Road. 17 year old Letitia Shakespeare and 18 year old Charlene Ellis have spent the evening at a nightclub celebrating the New Year and now they have come to an after-party at the salon. It is hot, overcrowded and stuffy, so the two friends go outside for some fresh air. There is a small crowd of people standing there.
Two cars driving along the road slow down as they approach the salon. Suddenly, there is a hail of automatic gunfire from an Ingram Mac-10 submachine gun, known on the streets as the “Spray and Pray” gun. Within seconds, five teenage girls, including friends Letitia and Charlene, are lying on the pavement in a pool of blood amidst 37 empty cartridge cases fired from three different weapons. Letitia and Charlene don’t survive.
Within seconds, five teenage girls are lying on the pavement in a pool of blood amidst 37 empty cartridge cases.
Within weeks, West Midlands Police have arrested and charged several men with the murders of the two girls. The police say that the girls were killed in a gang-related drive-by shooting gone wrong in a feud between two Birmingham gangs, the “Johnson Crew” and the “Burger Bar Boys.” The police say that the bodged hit was in retaliation for the murder of Yohanne Martin a month earlier, alleged to have been associated with the Burger Bar Boys.
Three of the men charged with the murders of the two girls were in HM Prison Woodhill when I arrived there in August 2004. Alleged associates of the Burger Bar Boys, Marcus Ellis and Michael Gregory were there. Being a Category A prisoner myself, I naturally found myself mixing more in the company of other Category A prisoners, including these two men. Our movements within the prison were together, we worked out at the gym together and we often congregated on the top landing while waiting in line for the two Category A telephones.
As per prison etiquette, I never asked the two about their cases and they never asked me. In prison, only rats ask for details on other people’s cases. I only got to know them and deal with them as human beings. Marcus Ellis was the quieter, serious one and Michael Gregory the more lively, jovial one. I would see the families of both men come to visit them in the visits hall. While waiting in the holding cells after visits, we would ask each other how our visits went.
Occasionally, there would be minor disputes over noise. Both ways. One day it might be Marcus’s neighbour unhappy about the volume of his rap music. The next day it might be Michael unhappy about a Muslim prisoner banging the taps when he got up to pray in the night. But these were minor issues that were resolved by talking to each other in a friendly manner. The men got along fine with the other prisoners on the unit. I never had a problem with either of them.
Just before their trial in the spring of 2005 the two were joined by Nathan Martin, whose younger brother Yohanne was shot dead in a drive-by shooting in West Bromwich in December 2002. Years later in prison I would meet the alleged rival gang-member from the “Johnson Crew” who was accused of killing Yohanne. As I describe in my book, I saw the outcome of this man’s trial in a dream three weeks before it happened.
The police claimed that the hit outside the Uniseven hair salon was in retaliation for the killing of Yohanne Martin. The trial was rife with controversy, with concerns over the use of the “Joint Enterprise” law, in which someone can be found guilty for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Nevertheless, on Friday 18 March 2005, the three men, and one other, were all found guilty of the murders of the two teenagers. The breaking news hit the headlines all over the country. It was around 7pm as the three men were brought back from Leicester Crown Court to the HMP Woodhill. At the time I was the neighbour of Nathan Martin. I was sitting alone in my cell, reading, when I heard an officer open and shut Nathan’s cell door.
Minutes later, I heard the flush of a toilet followed by the dull thuds of the push-button taps on the sink. Then I heard his bed creak as he sat down upon it. Only a few seconds had passed before I heard the voice of the Jamaican reggae singer Jah Cure. All the black prisoners listened to Jah Cure. Since Jah Cure had recorded some of his albums while serving prison time in Kingston, Jamaica, the prisoners felt that he could relate to them. I know about Jah Cure because I once asked a black prisoner why I heard the same music in every prison that I went to. The song played:
“It was yesterday. Oh yesterday. It was yesterday. It was yesterday…”
And that was it. He didn’t turn on the TV to watch the news. He already knew the news because the news was about him. He knew what the news meant about his future. Now all he could do was to think about yesterday.
I thought about the two teenage girls who lost their lives. I thought about this 26 year old man who first lost his brother and now he faced the rest of life in prison. His mother had lost two sons. Whether he was actually guilty of what he was convicted of is irrelevant. His life was over.
As I lay down to sleep that night, I thought about the saying of the Chinese philosopher Confucius:
Before you embark on a journey of revenge, dig two graves.
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