The trial of Boy A
'I was 14 and didn't know the difference between stuff'
By Mollie Simpson
She’s wearing her school uniform for Notre Dame Catholic College in Everton, her hair neatly plaited and tucked behind her ears. Standing in the drive outside her home, her grey socks are pulled up to her knees. In her right hand, she’s holding a phone that looks much too large for her 12-year-old hands.
Since she was murdered on the night of 25th November last year, Liverpool has known Ava White through that photo. What else do you need to know? A child went out with her friends to see the city’s Christmas lights being switched on and by midnight she was dead, at the hands of another child. The next morning, that photo was everywhere to be seen — in Facebook posts and media stories and on reports on breakfast shows. Nine days later, it was held by family and friends at a vigil at the spot where she was killed on Church Alley, alongside candles and cards.
It tells you everything and it tells you nothing. As I’ve sat in the public gallery of courtroom 4.1 at Liverpool Crown Court for the past fortnight during the trial of Ava’s 14-year-old killer, I’ve sometimes wondered: what do we need to know about this tragedy that you can’t see in the picture?
A killing on tape
It began with an argument over a Snapchat video. Ava was out with friends for the Christmas lights switch-on in the city centre. She got a piggyback from a friend, and as they walked from the bus stop in Queens Square to the high street, she was dancing and singing. Wearing a black puffer jacket with the hood pulled up and her hair tied back, in the framing of the black-and-white CCTV footage shown to Liverpool Crown Court, her face looked like a small moon.
There were some older boys there that she didn’t know, and a couple of them filmed her while she was messing around. She wanted them to delete their videos. One boy accepted and showed her his phone screen as he erased it. But when another refused, she became frustrated. She didn’t know he had a knife, but when she ran to confront him, he was holding something in his hand.
The footage is hard to make out — the camera was positioned up high on the back of the Primark building, so you can just about make out two grainy silhouettes colliding, but you can’t quite see the stabbing. One moment, Ava’s hands are suddenly holding her neck. The other figure starts to run.
Ava was just about alive when paramedics took her to hospital. At one point she woke up and became distressed. But then she was unconscious again. At 22.19, she was pronounced dead after a major haemorrhage. Blood flowed into her airways and she stopped breathing. That night, her mother, Leanne White, identified her body.
She is believed to be the youngest victim of youth knife crime in the UK since Damilola Taylor in 2000. In the days after her death, the family were besieged by the press. A public post on social media asked reporters to respect the family’s privacy and let them grieve. They didn’t release a statement except to thank people for their donations and kindness, and her dad, Robert Martin, said he was devastated and heartbroken.
At her funeral, reporters huddled outside the Metropolitan Cathedral to capture photos of the family as they carried her coffin inside, followed by the Archbishop of Liverpool. It was just before Christmas, one month before what would have been her thirteenth birthday. A note she once wrote saying “all my life I have loved you” was tattooed on the wrists of two of her family members.
Boy A on trial
After three other teenage boys were arrested and then released in connection to Ava’s killing, it was a 14-year-old boy from Toxteth who was charged with her murder and possession of a bladed weapon. He became known as Boy A.
At the trial, most of the evidence came from children — the youngest being an 11-year-old boy. The oldest witness was a vulnerable adult. He gave evidence in a recorded police interview, where he sat holding someone’s hand. When he was asked to clarify whether he saw Boy A holding the knife in his left or right hand, he said: “I don’t know what side it is because I don’t know my lefts and rights”.
The information on Boy A was scant. There were no previous convictions. He had a diagnosis of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, known as ADHD, and the judge allowed him to play with a fidget toy while appearing in court to help him concentrate.
He told the court he was carrying the flip-knife because “I thought I was big”. After he fled the scene and while Ava was in hospital, he was buying butter for crumpets and went to a friend’s house to play Call of Duty. The media seized on the detail that he took a selfie in the hours after her death. In the concluding statements, Newell said his behaviour after the stabbing showed a “callous disregard” for his actions.
Homicides involving child offenders are extremely unusual in this country, and the courtroom was filled with local and national journalists. We spilled out into the public gallery and a couple of us sat next to the family. Conscious that I was somehow invading their space during the hardest moments of their lives, I tried not to glance at them too often to see their reactions.
On the second day, the family were informed we were about to watch CCTV footage of the moment Ava was stabbed. Mrs Justice Yip said they could leave the courtroom if they needed: it was brief, but upsetting to watch. One woman left, her eyes filling with tears. Everyone else chose to stay, sitting together tightly.
“The audio is slowed down because what happens, happens very fast,” prosecuting QC Charlotte Newell told the jury. It was a few minutes past half past eight, and they were near Primark and the soaps and cosmetics shop Lush. A pop song is playing and you can hear animated chatter.
After the stabbing, there is screaming. The court officer rewound the video and we watched it again. And again.
‘I didn’t know the difference between stuff’
Boy A appeared in court via video link. Smaller than I expected, I wrote in my notes, possibly reminded of a detail that struck me from reading about the James Bulger case: that in the courthouse, special platforms had to be built so the ten-year-olds charged with his murder and abduction, Jon Venables and Robert Thompson, could see proceedings.
Boy A was thin and wore a black Nike t-shirt, with hair swept across his forehead. He was visibly anxious and spoke in a high-pitched voice. His arms were crossed, and occasionally his head rested on one balled up fist.
At first, he had pleaded guilty to possessing a knife, but denied murder and an alternative charge of manslaughter. In early recorded police interviews he was defensive and when police suggested he stabbed Ava, he became agitated and tried to leave the room. In a second recorded interview, police suggested he would feel better if he told them what happened. He asked if that would mean he would be put into care.
In the early days of the trial, the jury heard he accepted some responsibility for her death but still denied the charges. But on the last day of evidence, he seemed to know he was running out of time. Two women from Ava’s family sat forward in their seats. One woman itched at her knee and stared fixedly at the screen, where Boy A was about to be cross-examined for the last time.
“What did you think the police were looking for you for?” Newell asked. “It was probably because I stabbed someone, but I didn't mean to, I promise you,” he replied. Newell asked him why he told his mum on the night of the killing that he had done nothing wrong. “I didn’t mean it and I just couldn’t get it out to tell her,” he said. He seemed to accept stabbing Ava at this point. Newell asked why he didn’t tell the police where the knife was in his police interviews. “Because I was scared, but now I’ve told the truth because I know I didn’t mean it,” he said.
If it was really an accident and he didn’t mean it, why didn’t he tell the truth in the first place? “I was 14 and didn’t know the difference between stuff, and I was just scared to be honest,” he said.
When Nick Johnson, QC, defending, later asked him to clarify, Boy A said he didn’t understand the difference between murder and manslaughter. “I kind of knew what self defence was but…” he trailed off. There was an audible intake of breath in the courtroom. That completed his evidence. Concluding statements were delivered the following Monday.
A question of responsibility
Infamous trials involving even younger defendants, like that of Mary Bell at Newcastle Assizes in the late 1960s and of Bulger’s 10-year-old killers Venables and Thompson in the 1990s, have prompted searching legal debates about age and criminal responsibility.
The minimum age of such responsibility in England and Wales is 10 years old, compared with 13 in France, 14 in Germany and 15 in Sweden, Finland and Norway. After Bulger’s killing, a panel of experts from the legal reform group Justice recommended that the age of criminal responsibility in this country should be re-examined with a view to bringing it into line with countries like France and Germany. They also said children under the age of 14 should not face public trials before a jury.
In her seminal 1999 book about childhood criminality, Cries Unheard: the Story of Mary Bell, the journalist Gitta Sereny argued that “anyone below fifteen must be considered, tried, judged and sentenced as a child.”
Some child psychologists advocate for similar measures to this day, arguing that maturity develops slowly throughout our teenage years and that some young offenders are unlikely to understand what they’ve done. Mike Berry, a forensic psychologist with expertise in serious criminal behaviour, told me that he’s assessed 17-year-old boys charged with murder who seemed young in their years and couldn’t recognise the consequences of their actions and 14-year-olds who were much more adult in their behaviour. How are we, as a society, supposed to treat young people on this uneven cusp of adulthood?
The killing of Ava White will probably forever be remembered by her name and that photo, because of her age and because the name of her killer will only be released after the bulk of this story’s media coverage has passed. But in the courtroom, I spent most of my time thinking about Boy A. What did he think was happening? When did he realise? What in his life led to this moment? Soon he will be sentenced as one of this country’s youngest ever killers, and no doubt his details will be added to a dreadful Wikipedia page I’ve been reading recently called “List of youngest killers”. Not many people of his age have committed homicide in this country, and some of those who have done so committed their offences alongside older siblings or accomplices.
During this trial, the prosecution worked hard to make sure age would not become a mitigating factor for Boy A. “He is not a babe in arms, he knows right from wrong,” Newell told the jury. “He was capable of making the decision to carry a knife. He was capable of deciding to use it and he was capable of lying about it over and over and over again.”
When the jury re-entered the room on Tuesday, they had been deliberating for just two hours and eight minutes. They found Boy A guilty of murder. Ava’s family cheered and applauded. “Get in,” someone shouted. Some of the family caught themselves and apologised. Others were wiping away tears.
Boy A was crying. After a short break, Mrs Justice Yip returned and told him she could only impose a life sentence, but would decide what the shortest amount of time he would have to serve would be. She asked him if he understood and he said he did.
Yip warned the family that whatever she decides when the verdict is announced on 11th July, the sentence “will seem far too short”.