I’ve never been to court before to see justice meted out, and I’m guessing most of you haven’t either, especially in a murder trial. But last Friday I went to Birmingham Crown Court to witness the final day in the trial of Bradley Davies for the murder of Ben Bebbington, Shrewsbury artist, poet, busker and general well-liked man about town. Davies had been convicted two days before. His friend Stuart Doran had pleaded Guilty to murder and been convicted earlier in the year. Both of them were awaiting sentencing.
I first heard Ben’s story when I visited the Shrewsbury Ark, where he’d been a regular, and again when interviewing Radio Shropshire’s Jim Hawkins, who was a friend of Ben’s. Now, outside the court, Ben’s family shared with me some photographs. Here they were as children - summer’s day, wheat field, big grins, laughing. Here around the table at some family event, the dreamy young man in the foreground, with his gentle, handsome face, managing to smile through the camera rather than directly at it. And now here they were again, transported to Court No 5, cheek by jowl with Doran and Davies’s families, seated parallel to the men in the dock, facing the judge in his wig and red robe.
No one had slept well the night before. Ben’s mum, Patricia, had taken a sleeping pill. Ben’s sister Karen had opened a bottle of wine. For two weeks they’d been attending court, hearing all the evidence, representing Ben in the only way left to them. And now they faced the final day.
These are the details of the case, as spelled out in court before sentencing took place. On the night of 6th September last year, two boys, Stuart Doran and Bradley Davies, encountered a drunk and plainly vulnerable Ben Bebbington on Ditherington Road, outside the One-Stop shop. They made derogatory remarks about him, questioning what he was up to with the young lad accompanying him. One of them, Stuart Doran, threw down his bike. Ben’s being in the company of a much younger boy became a flimsy excuse for violence. The boy in question went into One-Stop to warn staff that trouble was brewing outside. He then cycled off, but returned after a few minutes to find Ben heading down Old Canal Lane, also known as the Cut, with Doran and Davies following him.
The time was 10.10pm. Ben was very drunk. Doran and Davies confronted Ben on a flight of steps leading to a lower path. Ben was on the third step. Doran pushed him down the rest. He and Davies shouted at the boy to leave. In the darkness on the lower path, they attacked Ben. Stuart Doran started it by kicking him in the chest. Further kicks followed. Ben was also stamped on the head. His screams could be heard over music coming out of a local pub.
At 10.20pm, Stuart Doran and Bradley Davies reappeared before a small group that included the boy, who had all heard some of what had been going on. Within the next twenty minutes, Doran and Davies returned to check on Ben, and finding him staggering along the path, launched a second attack. It’s not known at which point Ben was fatally injured by a boot-blow to the head, but at some point he made it to the upper path, where he collapsed. He was discovered by a cyclist at 1.10am. In the darkness, the cyclist couldn’t see what he had hit. He could hear laboured breathing though, and thought at first he’d collided with an animal.
Ben was taken by ambulance to the Royal Shrewsbury Hospital. C.T. scanning revealed serious damage to his skull and he was transferred to Stafford where doctors discovered that surgery wasn’t able to help him. Ben’s life-support was switched off at 8.35am, and he was pronounced dead. The marks of two trainers on his head were photographed. A Post Mortem on 8th September found that Ben died off an acute subdural hematoma. Extended injuries were mentioned too, including two lacerations to Ben’s scalp, which could have been caused by a glass bottle.
That’s what happened to Ben. Following the attack, this is what happened to Stuart Doran and Bradley Davies. The attack happened on Thursday evening. On Friday, at Bradley Davies’s house, they attempted to burn their trainers in an oil drum in the back garden and wash their clothes in a washing-machine. Bradley then put pressure on his mother who drove him into Shrewsbury to buy an identical pair of trainers that he was able to present to the police as the ones he’d been wearing on the night in question. With Bradley, his cousin and another person who can’t be named because of reporting restrictions, his mother drove up to Lyth Hill, where her son hid the charred remains of his trainers, along with one of Doran’s, in a hedgerow. Later the same day, the two boys, accompanied by the unnamed other person went to the police to tell a concocted story about having been attacked by Ben and having pushed him down steps in an attempt to defend themselves.
All of this, as spelled out in court last Friday, was what happened on the night of September 6th last year and over the following day. These are the events as they took place. In addition, the two boys’ barristers brought before the court a variety of mitigating circumstances. In Davies’s case his youth was mentioned, him being only just eighteen at the time of the attack, as were the facts that he’d had no intention to kill and had never sought to deny playing a part in what happened. In Doran’s case, it was put forward in mitigation that once the lie about Ben initiating the attack had been uncovered, Doran had come clean and pleaded guilty. This was described as an act of courage on his part.
Doran had previous convictions, as it turned out. Battery. Public Disorder. Actual Bodily Harm. Three convictions, spanning the years 2006 to 2012. He wasn’t proud of these convictions, his barrister said, and in the case of Ben Bebbington, he didn’t want to minimize what had taken place. He wished to make an unvarnished apology and had written to the judge expressing his remorse. He knew he faced a custodial sentence and hoped to spend his time inside educating himself and becoming more mature. He didn’t intend to go back to the old habits he’d exhibited to date. He asked the judge, in sentencing, to take account of the 263 days he’d already served.
The barrister acting for Bradley Davies pointed out that not only had his client been only just eighteen at the time of the attack, but a naïve and immature eighteen. The co-accused was three and a half years older than him, and exerted considerable influence. It had been a case of follow-my-leader, in which respect Bradley Davies asked the Judge to sentence on the basis of the blow in the second assault being no more than one of passive support. Certainly there had been no intention to kill. In addition, the barrister pointed out that Bradley Davies had never disputed the primary facts. At the police station he had admitted participating in the attack. From that early stage there had been no attempt by him to deny his involvement. Though he had engaged in a cover-up, that had only been done to protect his mother.
Ben Bebbington didn’t know the young men who attacked him, and they didn’t know him. For them, what happened was a matter of random violence. For Ben, it was a matter of death. I don’t know why young men might be angry enough to kill a stranger on the street, but last Friday in Court 5, after the barristers had finished speaking for the boys, this is what the Judge had to say:
Ben Bebbington was a man aged forty-three, who had never done any harm and had led an at time sad and at times full life. He had touched many people for good. On the night in question, he had been at a low point in his life. He was drunk, and not in a good way. For anybody meeting him, there had been two ways to deal with the situation. One was what the young boy had done, showing compassion and trying to help. The other was the thuggish option, taking advantage of Ben’s condition and attacking him in a violent way.
Stuart Doran and Bradley Davies had taken the latter option. Their offence was one of murder, and it was compounded by there having been two of them, and by the gratuitous level of the violence, using their feet as weapons. ‘Ben Bebbington was vulnerable,’ the Judge said, addressing them both directly. ‘You picked on him. It would have been bad enough if you’d done it only once and gone on your way, but fifteen to twenty minutes later you went back and had another go.’ Not only that, but next day, discovering that the man they’d attacked was dead, they’d attempted, along with members of Davies’s family, to conceal evidence, and then had concocted an untrue account of what had happened, which they presented to the police.
‘I am asked,’ said the judge, ‘to find no intent to kill, and in the strictest terms there was none. However, the behaviour of Doran and Davies was so sustained, and the level of gratuitous violence so great that intent in this case is less important than in some others. The degree of mitigation here is small.’ He was asked, the Judge said, to accept that both were immature and young, and that in Davies’s case it had been Doran who initiated the violence. It was he who had pushed Ben down the steps, he who’d administered the first kick in the chest. Davies was just a follower. However, said the Judge, he was a follower who had taken a significant part in the attack, and he had done so twice.
On this basis, Stuart Doran and Bradley Davies were both sentenced to life. Taking into account Doran’s having pleaded guilty, he would serve sixteen years and whether he’d be released at that point would depend on the parole board and on his own behaviour.
Stuart Davies was sentenced to fourteen years. He gave his family a thumbs-up as he was sent down.
After this, Bradley Davies’s mother, cousin, half-brother and one other person were placed in the dock. They had been found guilty of perverting the course of justice and making false witness statements. Their barristers presented mitigating circumstances on behalf of each of them. Davies’s mother’s barrister presented the Judge with three references and a letter from her medical practice. The Judge read them and said ‘yes’ twice. Mrs Davies, said her barrister, acknowledged that what had happened had had a greater effect on the Bebbington family than on hers, however she wanted it to be known that she was a hardworking mother who had been employed all her life, who had worked to raise her family and whose life had fallen apart. When the news came through, she had acted without thinking out of shock. She did not encourage the burning of the trainers, nor did she participate. Despite asking her son to surrender, he put her under pressure to take him to buy new trainers. Out of misguided loyalty, and without thinking, she agreed to this. In addition, she provided the police with a false witness statement. The effect of this on the investigation had turned out to be minimal, but she would live with the burden for the rest of her life.
‘M’Lord,’ said her barrister, ‘I invite you to accept that what she did that day was out of character. It was unplanned and without thought. It was acted out of panic. She has since demonstrated remorse. It has had a profound effect on her mental and physical health.’ He asked for a suspended sentence. The Judge, however, ruled that there had indeed been thought, and a deliberate misleading of the police in the face of the grave offence of murder. He handed down a custodial sentence of two years.
Shock waves ran around the court. There was sobbing in the dock, sobbing behind us in the gallery, a brief moment, a shocked face, a woman being led away. Afterwards, the cousin wasn’t handed a custodial sentence, on account of the help she had given the police, but received a suspended sentence instead - eighteen months, suspended for two years. In addition, if she failed to complete the two hundred hours of unpaid work laid down by the court, ‘You will go to prison,’ said the Judge. ‘Do you understand that?’
A further person who provided the police with a false witness statement didn’t go to prison either, but received a Youth Rehabilitation Order. However, the half-brother was sent down. For his part, he received a sentence of eight months. His loyalty to his family had extended to crossing a moral threshold, the Judge said. The boy half-waved to his family as he was taken away.
Before the judge drew proceedings to a close, he said this to the Bebbington family: ‘This process may or may not have helped you, but it’s the only one we lawyers can engage in. Having said that, I am a parent myself. The most tragic case a parent can face is to bury their own child. I can’t imagine what that’s like. Such cases are always distressing. I offer you my condolences.’
So, was justice served last Friday? And if it was, can justice ever be enough when a son or brother is dead and nothing can bring him back? The night before that final day in court I talked to Karen Bebbington, Ben’s sister. For the last two weeks she and her family had sat in court hearing what happened to Ben on the night of September 6th. Some things they knew. Some things were new to them, and came as a shock. Attending the sentencing, Karen said, was going to be hard. She wouldn’t be there to gloat. She’d be there to put an end to something - that was all.
Since last September, the Bebbington family have been living in a parallel universe to the rest of us. Ben’s death, and the manner of it, has become their life. The police have been the constant in that life. ‘They have been wonderful,’ Karen said. ‘But it’s been like living in a bubble. The rest of the world is normal, but we in Ben’s family are in the bubble - and the awful thing is that it’s happening again. Another family is starting out. The family of Georgia Williams over in Telford. Our hearts go out to them. We know exactly where they are.’
On Saturday the dreadful news came in that a man has been charged with the murder of Georgia Williams, and a body found in North Wales. ‘What’s happening in our society to make young men so very angry?’ Karen asked when I spoke to her. We talked about the recent charging of a nineteen year old youth for the random murder at a cash machine of a Shropshire man, Robert Barlow. Then the Woolwich murder came up, and Karen said it horrified her that the mooted Muslim Prayer Centre in Shrewsbury might come under attack as a result. This wasn’t the Shrewsbury she knew, she said.
‘But then none of this, including what happened to Ben, is the Shrewsbury I know. This is not my Shrewsbury,’ Karen said. ‘My Shrewsbury is a lovely place to live in. It’s beautiful. It’s full of good and kind people. From one end to the other, even amongst the communities where Doran and Davies lived, we’ve found nothing but kindness and support from families like our own trying to look after their children and live good lives. And that’s the Shrewsbury I know. And when things like what happened to Ben come along, I want to know what’s happening and why.’
After everything had been said and done, I sat in the sunshine taking it in. All those rows of barristers, all those files and mountains of paperwork, all that police work and all that grief - a tragedy for all concerned, every member of every family, and none of us, I guessed, any wiser as to what was really happening here, or why. But an attempt had been made to uncover the truth. Details matter in a court of law - and thank God that they do.
More than anything, that’s what I carried away. It wasn’t so much the drama of the situation that impressed itself on me, but the forensic determination to be fair, to take every last detail into account, to be balanced and to get things right.
Back home from Birmingham, I found a message on my phone, sent by Ben’s other sister, Anne-Marie. It’s of Ben in conversation with Jim Hawkins. I listened all the way through. Though I knew Ben by face as a busker on Pride Hill, this was the first time I’d heard his speaking voice. He was reading one of his poems. This is how it ends:
‘There are those who have convictions,
only want to drag you down, though you’re not around.
Still the light is fading out,
and the sun can take the
dream train out of here.
To fade out of here,
across the hills and silent trees.