Jacob Dunne loved getting into fights. Every weekend he and his friends would go into Nottingham city centre to start a ruck. One night in the summer of 2011, the 19-year-old threw a single punch. He immediately sensed it was different. There was no resistance, and the victim swayed back. “I knew something bad had happened as soon as I hit him,” he says today. Dunne didn’t hang around. Without a word to his friends, he fled the scene.
A month passed and he began to forget about the incident. If something terrible had happened, he would have heard. But then friends who were out with him that night got in touch. They had been questioned about it. It was inevitable his turn would come. In fact, the finger was already being pointed at him. He discovered that one of his friends had given the police his name.
One day, the police arrived at his mother’s house. He was out, so they called him and told him to hand himself in for questioning; nothing serious. When he turned up at the police station, he was arrested on suspicion of murder. Dunne discovered that 28-year-old trainee paramedic James Hodgkinson, the man he had hit, had died after spending nine days in a coma.
Dunne was jailed for manslaughter. Because he admitted to his crime and there were mitigating factors (despite his predilection for fighting, he had no criminal record, no weapon was used, and James’s bleed to the brain resulted from his fall rather than Dunne’s single punch to the jaw), he was only sentenced to 30 months in jail, of which he served 14. At the time, Dunne thought he was unlucky. All he had done was throw a random punch on a night out scrapping with his mates. Others thought he was obscenely lucky. Some, including Hodgkinson’s parents, suggested he should have received a far longer sentence.
Ten years on, he has written a book about the punch, and how it changed his life and the lives of others. Right from Wrong is part mea culpa, part love letter to his mother, and part manifesto on how to help children from difficult backgrounds to avoid the lifestyle he led. At its heart is the theme of restorative justice. Dunne has been able to rebuild his life largely thanks to Hodgkinson’s parents, Joan Scourfield and David Hodgkinson, who wrote to him and eventually met him in an attempt to understand the incomprehensible – why a stranger ran out of nowhere to throw the punch at their beloved son that killed him. It resulted in an extraordinary and complex relationship.
When he threw the punch, Dunne had no qualifications and sold drugs to make a living. Today, he has two young children, a first-class degree in criminology, and talks in schools, universities and prisons about conflict resolution and restorative justice.
We meet at his home in Nottingham. Dunne, now 30, is preparing his children for bed. Peppa Pig is muted on the TV while he reads to the kids. There are fancy-dress outfits on a clothes rail, toys galore and a children’s library. It’s an image of chaotic domestic bliss.
Dunne carries the children upstairs, one in each arm, and returns a few minutes later. He puts the kettle on, and asks if we can go into the garden so he can smoke a cigarette. He is a warm, quietly spoken man. He appears relaxed, taking everything in his stride, but it doesn’t take long to discover the intensity bubbling underneath.
How is he feeling about the book? “I’m excited and anxious,” he says. Why is he so anxious? “Because I’m so honest in it.” It’s true. Nothing is sugar-coated. We hear of his admirable achievements, but he also shows us an unattractive side, when he considered himself almost as much a victim as Hodgkinson was, and was determined to exact revenge on the former friend who he refers to as “the snitch”.
When Joan and David initially asked him to explain why he had punched James, he couldn’t give a satisfactory answer. All he could say was that he had received a call telling him that things were kicking off, and he ran over to support his friends. It made no sense to Joan and David.
So he started to think about his past, about what had made him into that young man. And this is what we are now talking about, sitting at the bottom of his garden on a cold spring evening.
Dunne grew up on the Meadows in Nottingham, an infamous estate blighted by drugs, violence and criminality. By the time he was seven and his younger brother, Sam, was 18 months old, his parents had split up. His mother, a functioning alcoholic who worked as a registered childminder, did her best to bring them up. Young Jacob found it difficult to focus, but he got through his early school days easily enough.
At secondary school, that changed. He befriended troubled kids from the Meadows, many of whom came from criminal or dysfunctional families. He couldn’t settle, acted the class fool, told teachers he wasn’t interested. He was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and told he was on the autistic spectrum. At 14, he was permanently excluded from his school, which said it could no longer support his education. He had never been violent, just a nuisance.
Out of school, he had time to discover drink and drugs. He wasn’t tough, but he soon learned how to fight. “I felt a failure because I had failed in school, but I masked that with the bravado of being a lad’s lad. As I became more exposed to people who were hard, I became harder.” Did they make him prove himself? “Yes. They’d start a fight and expect you to join in. If you didn’t, it would be like, ‘What the fuck? Why didn’t you back me up?’ Or they’d say, ‘You’re not really about this life, are you?’ and give you an ultimatum. It was all about being tough; earning respect through intimidation.”
He had been a keen athlete – the best hurdler in school, a decent basketball player and a competitive footballer. But after being kicked out he gave up on sport and the opportunity to be mentored by positive role models.
His mother managed to get him into the local church school just before his GCSEs. But having missed 18 months of school, he didn’t stand a chance. “I didn’t turn up to do my GCSEs. I was, like, I know I’m going to fail and feel even more shit about myself.”
With no qualifications, there were few career options available to him. And he didn’t much fancy a regular nine-to-five job. So by 16 he was selling drugs. Was he a good dealer? “Not really.” Did he make decent money? “Not really. The only thing that makes you a massive amount of money is crack and heroin, and I wouldn’t sell that because I would have had to have had it in my mum’s house and she was a childminder.” He wanted to protect his mother, whom he adored, which makes what happened later even more painful. “I could sell an ounce of weed and make £100. I sold cocaine, but more so I could use it for free.”
At weekends, he and his friends would drink alcohol and snort cocaine. By the evening, they were sufficiently fuelled for a fight in town. Why did he get such a buzz from scrapping? “It was the adrenaline, and the sense of belonging. As you develop those friendships and values, the roots of those values go deeper and you struggle to see anything else.”
Had he hurt anybody seriously before Hodgkinson? “Not seriously. Usually it was large groups fighting. You might fall and get kicked by 20 people, or stamped on. It was like a melee a lot of the time.” There was something cartoonish about the violence, he says. However hard people were punched or kicked, they always seemed to get up and walk away.
Eventually the leaders started to carry knives. Was he one of them? “No, I was never a hardcore member, and I never wanted to kill anybody.” Did those who carried knives want to kill people? He thinks about it. “No, I don’t think they did. I think it was more bravado.”
I ask if he ever got badly hurt. “I got bottled a few times and was unconscious on the floor. I used to have a shaven head, so you’d see a few scars in the hairline.” Did he get an adrenaline rush when he was getting battered? “Yes, the scars were all badges of honour. Another story to tell to your group.”
By the time of the incident, he says, he no longer believed that violence had consequences. It was all just a brutal game. “We were oblivious to the fact that the stuff we were engaged in could seriously harm somebody. We had become desensitised to violence from a young age, particularly once we started drinking alcohol. Nothing really bad happened, especially because for a long time nobody carried knives, so the violence became normalised.”
Saturday 30 July 2011 had been a gorgeous sunny day. Dunne and his mates were celebrating a friend’s 18th birthday and they started early with a few lines of cocaine. One of the older boys was flush with cash and took them to a bar where they drank champagne in the afternoon. They went from pub to pub, drinking and snorting all day long. One of his friends popped half an ecstasy pill into his drink to add to the mix. As the evening wore on he became separated from his friends, but continued drinking. At about 1am he got a call saying things were kicking off on Old Market Square, a couple of streets away. By now Dunne was steaming for action.
Meanwhile, James Hodgkinson had enjoyed a boozy Saturday at Trent Bridge with his father and brother watching England play India in the cricket Test. The three had drunk steadily through the day and gone on a mini pub crawl in the evening. They were at their final stop, exhausted but happy and peaceful. James’s brother’s sunglasses had been taken by a friend of Dunne’s. James had gone outside to ask for them back, and Dunne’s friends didn’t take it well – they were spoiling for a fight. That’s when Dunne received the call asking for help. He ran over to the pub, saw his friend butting heads with James, fist clenched ready to punch. Dunne’s friend’s girlfriend pulled him away. That was when Dunne ran in and threw his fatal punch. After Dunne ran away and James fell to the ground, David Hodgkinson, James’s father, gave chase, but Dunne escaped.
James was unconscious for 15 minutes, then sick five times in the ambulance. In A&E, they didn’t treat his head injury initially, saying he had drunk too much alcohol and should sober up overnight.
The next morning, the hospital rang and said there had been a bleed on the brain and James needed surgery. When David arrived, James was unconscious. His last words to his son were: “You’ll be all right, it’s going to be fine.” After nine days in a coma, the family were told his brain, heart and lungs were failing. They agreed to turn off life support.
Two years ago, Dunne made a moving BBC podcast series called The Punch. In it, he talked to James’s parents about how they had managed to build a relationship. “If I’d got hold of you in those early days, I would have tried to kill you, no doubt about it,” David Hodgkinson told Dunne in the podcast. “The anger and rage inside me were terrible.”
Dunne admits he was also raging at that time. But he was more bothered about the friend who had ratted on him than the fact that he had killed a man. He was thinking about revenge. His lawyers had provided him with the statement his friend had made to the police implicating him. Dunne showed it to gang leaders and friends in the hope they would exact revenge on his behalf. His actions could have resulted in another tragedy.
What were you thinking about, I ask. He shrugs. “It’s all centred around ego and pride. It’s just awful. Now I spend my time in schools trying to dispel all the contradictions that gang culture and that perspective on life has because none of it makes any sense.” Even though it was a ragtag gang, their code was based on the mafia’s omertà – ultimately the only thing that mattered was remaining loyal to each other.
His mother showed him a different perspective. “She was worried about James’s parents. She was crying for them. She was going, ‘I can’t believe there’s another mum out there who’s lost a son.’” How did you react to what she said? “I was like, ‘Fuck, that’s the last thing I want to think about, Mum.’” He looks away, ashamed.
Dunne was jailed in a young offender institution. He would tell fellow inmates about the snitch, and they would say that as soon as he got out, he needed to get his revenge. “My prison experience was counterproductive – it made me worse emotionally and mentally.”
When he was released, he was homeless and jobless. He sought out the person who had given the police his name, and they agreed to give him £2,500 as payback. When he describes this in the book, it becomes clear how little he had learned from prison.
While he was in jail he discovered Ofsted had stripped his mother of her registered childminder status because he had a conviction for violent crime and had been living with her. As a result, she got behind with her mortgage payments and had to sell her home. “I felt ashamed, but even then I continued to blame the snitch for what had happened.” It wasn’t until he began communicating with Joan and David that he accepted he was to blame rather than the friend he felt had betrayed him.
When Dunne was released, his mother was living in rented accommodation. When he went into prison she had been a functioning alcoholic. By the time he was released, she was no longer functioning. A year later, she died. Dunne was heartbroken. Did he feel guilty? “Yes. I failed her. She believed in me; that I could achieve, and I never lived up to those highs.” He pauses. “Well, I did when she was gone.” Does he feel she might be alive today if he hadn’t killed James? “I think she would have gone, but maybe later,” he says quietly. After she died, Dunne belatedly developed a sense of responsibility. It was agreed with social services that his brother, Sam, then 15, would move into his one-bedroom flat because he was the person best placed to bring him up.
Hodgkinson’s parents had been unhappy that Dunne received such a short sentence and unsuccessfully appealed against it. “I felt James’s life was worth more than you served,” Joan told Dunne in The Punch. They felt they had been short-changed by the justice system and that serving 14 months in prison for killing somebody was no deterrent. Their victim support team suggested they consider restorative justice, whereby victim and offender communicate through letters or meet with a mediator in order to help both parties come to a better understanding of what happened and the impact of the crime. (Government research shows that restorative justice provides an 85% victim satisfaction rate and a 14% reduction in reoffending.) They were also told that Dunne had little incentive to engage with it because he had already been released.
But he did agree to the process. Why? “It was a lifeline. I was tormented by the impact it must have had on James’s parents. Even though I knew what I was going to hear would be awful, it was the only way I could understand the impact.” He says the first letters he received were “harsh and brutally honest”. Gradually the tone softened. They told Dunne about what James was like (fair-haired, slender, sporty, smiley and hugely loved) and asked him what he hoped to do with his life. “It astonished me that they wanted me to make something of myself. It gave me a lot of strength,” he says. Joan told him they had lost one person, there was no point in losing two. Dunne said he hoped to go back into education and get some GCSEs. David and Joan said they would like to meet him in person, but only once he had made a commitment to education.
Dunne did GCSEs in English, maths and psychology. He got A* in all three, including 100% in one English paper and 92% and 94% in his psychology papers. They were the highest marks in his college. He then did an access course to get into university without A-levels.
Two and a half years after they first wrote to him, Dunne met Hodgkinson’s parents on neutral territory. He was terrified, but by then Joan and David realised he was not the young man who refused to make eye contact with them in court; that he had worked hard to rehabilitate himself and had shown huge remorse. “I told them I wanted to go to university for them. Joan said, ‘Don’t spend three years of your life doing something you don’t want to do, you’ve got to do it for yourself. Going to university will give you a better career, but it won’t make you a better person.’”
They have kept in touch and have seen the changes in Dunne as he married, had children, graduated with top honours in criminology, and taught vulnerable children about alternatives to violence. At the end of the podcast, Dunne asked if they could forgive him. Joan said: “In the beginning I wouldn’t have even attempted to try to forgive you. Part of me was, like, if I forgive you, it’s like James wasn’t worth anything. But working with you, and releasing the bitterness felt about everything else, I think forgiveness has come.” David told him he respected him for turning his life around, that it had taken guts to tell his story and that he knows James would have wanted the outcome they had reached through restorative justice. “But I can’t say, ‘Jacob, I forgive you for taking my son from me.’” he said. “The loss of my son is too great to be able to forgive.”
Two years on, their relationship is delicately balanced. Dunne sent them Right from Wrong to get their approval. What did they think? “They didn’t have many comments. They didn’t like the fact I’d taken money from the snitch, so we agreed that if any funds are generated from the book, I’ll donate that amount to a charity. That was their suggestion.”
David and Joan have told Dunne they want to withdraw from the media and try to get on with their own lives. But he is aware the book may cause them renewed pain. Dunne is in an uncomfortable position: he has managed to rebuild his life, while David and Joan grieve. He has been able to present a successful podcast and publish a book because he killed an innocent man.
Has he talked to them about how they feel about him profiting from his crime? (He received a £20,000 advance for the book, though that includes payment for his ghost writer and agent.) “The thing came up about the snitching, but other than that, no. I would happily give any profit to charity, but I would rather use it to develop my own community projects.” He hopes to show young men alternatives to violence and crime, not just by talking but by doing activities with them. “I want to get a minibus and take young people from the inner city out hiking. I want to sit down and have grownup chats, and show them what being a responsible male is.”
His wife comes home from work and brings us pizza. We eat and chat while the kids sleep upstairs. Dunne talks about his plans. He has been working part-time as a driver for his father-in-law while finishing the book, and now he’s exploring how he can use his degree and lived experience to make a difference.
In his van on the way back to the station, it emerges that things are not quite as rosy as they appear. Life at home is proving difficult, but he and his wife are trying to make things work. He has depression and post‑traumatic stress disorder. He doesn’t know where he is heading next career-wise, and is anxious that his book could bind him to his crime rather than help him move on.
But he is sure of one thing. He wants to do some good with his life, for the sake of his mother, for Joan and David, and for James. We talk about the 18-year-old Jacob and the anger and self-pity he felt after killing James with that single punch. How does he feel about his younger self now? “I want to give him a hug because he didn’t have a clue what was going on and he didn’t have the tools to try to navigate any of that stuff with any likelihood of a positive outcome.” Back then, he felt he had been dealt a terrible hand by fate and the friend that betrayed him. Would he say he was unlucky now? He shakes his head. “No, I’m lucky. I’ve got a lot to be grateful for.”
Right from Wrong by Jacob Dunne is published by HarperNorth at £16.99. To support the Guardian and the Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.