Christopher Kapessa: A mum’s fight for justice for her son
By Cherry Wilson, BBC News, 13 July 2020
Alina Joseph remembers sitting with her son Christopher Kapessa in their living room watching the 2018 Fifa World Cup on the telly.
It was a scorcher of a day but Christopher was glued to the screen watching Cristiano Ronaldo playing for Portugal.
He knew his mum wasn’t really a football fan but he couldn’t resist telling her which team was the best, what the rules were and who his favourite player was.
When she went upstairs to have a lie-down, it wasn’t long before she was woken up by the huge racket coming from downstairs.
“Mum, mum, they won, they won!” Christopher shouted.
“He had so much passion for football,” Alina tells me. “His younger brother misses him so much, especially when it comes to football, because Christopher was teaching him how to play.”
Christopher was 13 when his body was found in the River Cynon in Rhondda Cynon Taff, south Wales, on 1 July last year.
He’d been out with a group of other young people on a really hot day when it happened. He was the only black child there.
Within 24 hours, South Wales Police had told his mum there were no suspicious circumstances surrounding his death – it was a tragic accident.
But the family and their lawyer raised concerns about how the investigation was handled and it was taken on by the force’s major crime unit.
Then in February this year, Alina got a letter from the Crown Prosecution Service.
It said there was “clear evidence” that Christopher – who couldn’t swim – had been pushed into the river.
It said there was “sufficient evidence to support a charge of unlawful act of manslaughter” but they weren’t going to prosecute the 14-year-old suspect because it wasn’t in the “public interest”.
Christopher’s family have accused the police and the CPS of institutional racism.
“If this had been 14 black youths and a white victim we have no doubt that the approach of the police and outcome would have been different,” Alina said at the time.
I’m chatting to Alina on the phone a day before the first anniversary of her son’s death.
Three days earlier, I’d been at a remembrance event where friends and family gathered to share their memories of Christopher.
His 14-year-old friend Coby spoke through tears as he described how much Christopher meant to him.
“Christopher wasn’t just a friend, he was more or less family. He was always cheeky – in a good way,” he told the crowd.
I’ve reported on many stories about people who’ve died – and there are some that just really hit you without warning.
I was there writing notes of what Coby was saying when I just had to stop because I welled up.
This young lad was so upset but from somewhere he found the strength to speak up for his friend.
“To see the same joy that he gave me as his mum, he was able to give to somebody else’s heart – that was deep,” Alina tells me.
At times, you can hear the pride in Alina’s voice when she talks about her son – it feels just like a very normal conversation.
She tells me how he loved watching YouTube videos about history and how he had this certain way of saying “Mummy” which meant he wanted a fiver from her.
Then there were the constant arguments with his six brothers and sisters over sharing the PlayStation – because he wanted to play Minecraft and Fortnite.
Oh, and then there were all the times he broke his glasses.
“He slept with his glasses, we’d have to go in and take them off,” Alina tells me.
“Everybody knew we needed to help him with his glasses because we were sure that the opticians had had enough.
“I remember one time he was in the shower and he was having a shower in the glasses. I said ‘Christopher!’ and he said ‘Mum I can’t really see properly’.
“Christopher was just funny in his own way.”
It was a sunny morning when Alina woke up on the day Christopher died.
“I don’t like beautiful mornings anymore because it’s like you know something bad is just gonna end up happening,” she tells me.
The memory of that day must be so strong in her mind – she talks me through it in such detail.
Christopher had come in from school and a few minutes later he told his mum he was going out to play football.
Alina agreed he could go – but never got to say “see you later” or “goodbye”.
“I hate that word now, or goodnight. What’s good about it?” she says.
Later on, Alina was on the phone to her sister in Africa when there was a knock on the door.
“We were chatting away, we were laughing – he was there dying,” she says through tears.
It was Christopher’s sports coach. “We can’t find Christopher, apparently he’s jumped off a bridge,” he told her.
Time is a bit blur for her after that.
Alina started to go down to the river where he was last seen, but the roads were blocked off and she was told to wait at home as the police were on their way.
But the officers couldn’t tell her anything so she tried to keep busy by washing the dishes. Eventually some news came in.
“We need to go to the hospital. We’ve found him,” an officer told Alina.
As we continue talking about it over the phone, the emotion of it all just overwhelms her.
Hearing a mum wail down the phone for her son is absolutely heartbreaking – and we take a little break from the interview.
But then she agrees to carry on – she’s ready to tell me what happened next.
“I was blocking it, saying that he’s fine, everything’s fine. I’m actually gonna tell him off,” she recalls.
“I was sweating like mad and every sound of that siren just made the situation even worse.”
Alina was taken into a grey room – the atmosphere was so bad. No-one could give her any information about Christopher.
Frustrated and angry, she left and set off down the hospital corridor.
“I just started walking. I started crying. I just started walking, not knowing I was even actually walking in the right direction.
“Everybody was just lined up. The more I approached, they had their heads down. He was asleep. The only difference was he didn’t have his glasses. And I knew.
“I tried calling his name. Normally he’d be like ‘Yes Mama, I’m OK, Stop fussing, Mama. Mama, I didn’t do it, it wasn’t me.’
“Nothing like that was coming out.”
Alina then goes on to tell me how the family had so many questions that weren’t getting answered.
Where exactly did he jump off the bridge? Why wasn’t he wearing the same clothes in the morgue as he had been when he had left the house? How many people were actually there when Christopher fell into the river?
It took seven months for Alina to find out exactly what evidence there was about how her son had died.
“There was clear evidence that the suspect pushed Christopher in the back with both hands causing him to fall into the river,” the letter from the CPS said.
“That push was an unlawful act and it was clearly dangerous in that on an objective standard it created a danger of some harm.”
It said that the evidence suggested the push was “not in an effort to harm someone” but “ill considered” and the suspect was “mature and intelligent for his age” and had a “good school record”.
It said the suspect “will have learnt the very harshest of lessons from this experience, which will act as a deterrent from further offending”.
It also explained the decision not to prosecute had considered the best interest of the suspect and the adverse impact on his future prospects.
“Christopher had so much going for him, so for that to be taken away and then to be told that somebody else’s future is of more value than of his, that’s very painful,” Alina told the BBC at the time.
During our chat, Alina told me her family had experienced racism since moving from London to south Wales in 2011.
They’d had “hate letters” sent to the house, her children have been “peed on” and once Christopher had been left in a “pool of blood” after being attacked in a shop.
I’ve seen the comments some people have posted on Facebook about this case and they’re honestly tough to read.
“Pulling the race card is disgusting, total disrespect for the emergency services, sadly the boy has lost his life. People have donated thousands of pounds for his funeral, a little bit of gratitude is in order,” one woman wrote.
“It’s more of a worry that mum gave the boy permission to go swimming and he couldn’t swim. It wasn’t as if it was a swimming pool where lifeguards could have been at hand,” another wrote.
“Sad to hear this, but pulling out the race card cheapens and demeans the issue and loses respect,” said one man.
And these are not from anonymous trolls. They’re from people from around the community where Christopher lived.
The lack of compassion and nastiness that comes across in the comments must be so difficult for Alina to get her head around.
She’s a mum who has lost her 13-year-old child. Imagine if it was your son, your brother, your nephew? Would you just accept what had happened?
Christopher’s mum has been supported by anti-racism charity The Monitoring Group ever since the tragedy happened.
“This isn’t playing the race card,” its director Suresh Grover tells me.
“This is the lived experience of a large number of black people which tells you that when there are a large number of black people or children in the majority, and there are accusations of crimes, inevitably, they’re mostly charged.
“And when black people are in the minority and suffer racial violence with a group of white people, we have cases which show that white people are never charged.
‘I think for those people who say it’s the ‘race card’ I just would say stop denying the reality that is so prevalent for black people in this country.”
Suresh says there are still so many questions the family want answering.
“I think racism is a factor that can’t be taken out and has to be examined by the police.
“For us, what’s important is what exactly was said to Christopher before he was pushed in? What are the circumstances that led to his death? Was he afraid before he was pushed in? Was he being goaded before he was pushed in?
“What’s very clear is that had Christopher been the only white person, I think the investigation wouldn’t have come to the conclusion so quickly that it was an accident.”
Christopher’s family have asked for the CPS’s decision not to prosecute the suspect to be reviewed. They’re currently waiting for the outcome.
A crowdfunding page has raised nearly £20,000 to help with the family’s legal fees and an online petition demanding “Justice For Christopher Kapessa” has more than 50,000 signatures.
“For Alina, justice looks like having confidence in the police to investigate properly and for the CPS to put the evidence in front of the jury, and for her boy’s life to be treated on equal terms with any other person, not as somebody who has less worth or less value or less rights,” Suresh says.
I contacted the CPS but they told me it couldn’t comment because its decision not to prosecute the suspect is still under review. They wouldn’t tell me when the family might hear the outcome.
South Wales Police said it’s also waiting for the decision to be made.
It added: “South Wales Police has also referred the investigation to the Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC) who will examine our response and subsequent investigation into the tragic circumstances surrounding Christopher’s death.
“We will be absolutely committed to implementing any opportunities for learning by South Wales Police.”
The IOPC said its investigation has made “good progress” but is partially suspended while the CPS’s decision is under review.
For now, Alina just has to wait.
I think back to Christopher’s remembrance event and there’s one thing that his friend Coby says that really sticks out in my mind.
It’s something I think is important to remember, whatever happens next.
“Christopher Kapessa was an amazing person and he didn’t deserve this.”