Standing in the cemetery between her mother’s and brother’s well-tended graves this week, Jade Akoum didn’t care who saw her laughing, then crying, as she delivered news she knew they would both want to hear.
She had just won a four-year legal battle to clear her brother Yousef Makki’s name and have it put on public record that the brilliant 17-year-old was ‘unlawfully killed’ by teenager Joshua Molnar in 2019.
Molnar, a public schoolboy, who was also 17 when he stabbed Yousef, had previously been acquitted of murder and manslaughter, having claimed he acted in self-defence – something the family simply did not accept.
After sitting through four days of evidence and legal arguments at a Manchester coroner’s court – including testimony from Molnar himself – Jade couldn’t wait to get to nearby Southern Cemetery where both Yousef and their mother, Debbie, are buried.
Debbie died three years ago, after begging her daughter to take up the mantle in the battle for justice for her ‘golden boy’. ‘I used to feel guilty when I visited the cemetery, like I was letting both my brother and mum down, but last week I had a real sense of peace,’ says Jade, a serene but highly focused young woman, who admits the fight took so much out of her she came close to giving up.
‘I turned to Yousef’s grave first and said: ‘We’ve done it! We’ve finally proven, publicly, that you didn’t carry a knife or threaten anyone.’ Then I turned to where my mum lies and said: ‘I kept my promise and didn’t give up, Mum. Everyone now knows what happened.’ Debbie had campaigned valiantly to this end before her death, aged 55, from sepsis. She’d spent the previous 14 months struggling to eat or sleep as she mourned her son’s death while battling to prove he was an unarmed ‘peacemaker’ that fateful day. In the end, she was simply too weak to beat the infection that overwhelmed her.
Yousef was one of four siblings raised on a council estate in Manchester by this single mum. His intelligence won him a bursary to £15,000-a-year Manchester Grammar School.
He was a straight-A student, being prepared for the Oxbridge entrance exams and set on studying medicine with ambitions to become a brain surgeon. Yet this promising life was cut short when he was stabbed through the heart by Molnar after a row between the pair and their mutual friend, 17-year-old Adam Chowdhary, on March 2, 2019, in Hale Barns, an upmarket village on the outskirts of Manchester, where Chowdhary lived.
In a devastating verdict for Yousef’s family, Molnar, a former pupil at £33,000-a-year Ellesmere College, was found not guilty of murder or manslaughter after the jury concluded he acted in self-defence. He was handed a 16-month detention and training order after admitting possessing the knife which inflicted the fatal injury, and perverting the course of justice by lying to police at the scene.
Chowdhary, meanwhile – a close friend of Yousef who spent a lot of time at the Makki family home – was acquitted of perverting the course of justice and given a four-month detention order after admitting possession of a flick knife.
I spoke to Debbie that day, in July 2019, when the sentences were handed down. What she found hardest to bear was that the verdict implied someone had been forced to defend themselves against her ‘gentle giant’ son, who had no truck with weapons.
‘Yousef had big dreams – and every ability – to be a brain surgeon and set up free hospitals in the developing world,’ she told me, tearfully. ‘He said he would achieve such amazing things that his name would be all over the newspapers one day.
‘Never in my worst nightmares did I imagine it would happen like this.’ So, understandably, it was the sweetest music to Jade’s ears last week, when coroner Geraint Williams ruled that Yousef was ‘not being violent or threatening’ before he was killed, nor was he holding a blade, adding: ‘I conclude he was not acting in self-defence. What Molnar did amounts to manslaughter.’
Pete Weatherby KC, who represented Yousef’s family, stated publicly that they had ‘not been served well’ by the justice system until this week’s verdict. Jade, 32, believes ‘classism’ – Molnar was from a very privileged background – affected the way the case was dealt with. ‘But this verdict has restored my faith a little bit, that if you keep trying, you will finally get justice.’
Jade, a primary teacher and mother of four, with the unerring support of her husband, Mazen, 37, raised £68,000 to pay for the legal fees for a judicial review, which led to the original verdict being quashed, paving the way for the second inquest.
The result – an ‘unlawful killing’ verdict – was what she had hoped for but how, I wonder, must it have felt for Jade to sit at Stockport Coroner’s Court and bravely look Molnar and Chowdhary in the eyes as they gave evidence, for the first time since her brother’s death. Chowdhary bought the knife used to kill Yousef. It has never been suggested he was involved in the altercation which led to the death.
‘They couldn’t see us up in the public gallery during the trial but there was no avoiding us [she and Mazen] this week,’ says Jade. ‘It was hard, but I felt a sense of relief too because looking them in the eye as they recounted Yousef’s final moments is something I’ve wanted to do since this happened. I could tell when Josh was giving evidence that this has affected his life. He got quite emotional and broke down when he was talking about Yousef.
‘There was some solace in knowing that my brother’s death has had an impact, not just on us, but on him too. I realised in that moment that trying to live a normal life with the weight of what he’s done on his mind might be more of a punishment than going to prison for killing Yousef.’
Jade and Mazen, a former pharmacist who now works supporting young people in care, many of whom are mixed up in knife crime, held each other’s hands tightly as they awaited the coroner’s verdict.
She recalls: ‘I’d been holding it together throughout the hearing, so when he said the words ‘unlawful killing’, I just burst into tears. Mazen, who has been so amazing throughout, cheering me on when I didn’t think I could keep fighting for justice, just hugged me.’
The verdict has also led to the issuing of a new death certificate stating that Yousef was ‘unlawfully killed’. The previous one said he died from a ‘stab wound to the chest’.
There is also the possibility of a retrial of Molnar – Greater Manchester Police is to ‘carefully review’ the ruling, together with the Crown Prosecution Service. However Jade is not getting her hopes up.
She has been advised that the inquest verdict will not be enough in itself and they would need new evidence or a new witness. Furthermore, while a coroner can make findings based on the balance of probabilities, a jury at a criminal trial must be sure of guilt to the higher standard of ‘beyond reasonable doubt’.
‘The most important thing for our family has been protecting Yousef’s memory,’ she says. ‘Those who knew him knew he wasn’t a violent person and would never threaten or wield a knife at anyone, but we worried that the jury’s verdict gave that impression of him to others.
‘But, finally, on public record, the coroner has said Yousef did not have a knife in his hand, he didn’t threaten anyone and he wasn’t violent at any point that day. That’s such a big and important thing for us.’
The irony is that Debbie, a former nurse, had felt reassured when her eldest son – she also had a second daughter and a younger boy – won a place at Manchester Grammar. She thought Yousef would be safe hanging out with wealthy schoolfriends, far from some of the ‘anti-social behaviour’ on the estate where she raised her family in Burnage, south Manchester.
Yet at the trial, jurors heard how Molnar was fixated with knives, living out ‘idiotic fantasies’ of being a middle-class gangster, keeping his cannabis and ‘shank’, or knife, in an Armani man-bag.
When first interviewed by police, Molnar blamed Yousef’s death on a man in a grey/blue hatchback and then claimed ‘four black guys’ were responsible, before admitting inflicting the fatal wound.
He claimed Yousef had pulled a knife first and somehow pushed into the one he was holding. At the first inquest he contradicted this, saying he was unsure who was first to draw a knife.
More contradictory still, Chowdhary told the inquest that he had taken a flick knife, still retracted, from Yousef’s inside pocket, as he lay dying, and disposed of it.
He’d bought two illegal flick knives over the internet from China. During his conclusion, coroner Mr Williams said Molnar was angry at Yousef for standing by when he had been beaten up earlier in the day by two ‘heavies’ and his expensive bike thrown over a hedge during a meeting Chowdhary had arranged with a drug dealer. Molnar was also in a rage with Chowdhary for setting up the encounter then fleeing the scene – and later took his jacket ‘forcibly’ as a surety until the bike was found, the inquest found.
He was further enraged when Yousef called him a ‘p***y’ for wanting to go home, leading to the fatal stab wound.
Jade, as her mother had before her death, still lives in hope that Chowdhary, who expressed his ‘condolences to the Makki family’ while giving evidence at the inquest, will get in touch. ‘I have so many questions: What did Yousef do that day, before he died? How was he in the aftermath [of the stabbing]? Was he scared? Was he asking for his family?
‘I still have terrible nightmares about it, tormented by vivid dreams about what happened to him, as was my mum. I believe she died from a broken heart so there’s some solace thinking of her now reunited with Yousef.’
Jade believes if either Chowdhary or Molnar helped her fill in these gaps about Yousef’s final hours it would go some way to her finding some peace.
Having stayed strong since the deaths of her brother and mother, pursuing justice, Jade now hopes to be able finally to grieve their loss. ‘I now want to remember the happy times with Yousef and my mum,’ she says.
‘Yousef was an incredible young man, our golden boy, but humble with it. He had a great future which he won’t get to realise now, but I’m determined to treasure the time we had together.’
Jade and Mazen, who took on a fatherly role with Yousef after his parents separated, even teaching him to shave, are looking at setting up a charity in his memory.
The Yousef Makki Foundation would raise money to give grants for laptops and trips to disadvantaged children in Manchester. ‘We want to do something positive in Yousef’s memory, to help children like him, whose families struggle to provide some of the privileges others enjoy,’ says Jade.
If her brother and mother are looking down, they must be beaming with pride at what this determined young woman has achieved.