Interview with the mother of a wrongfully convicted murderer

Six years ago Wendy Cohen’s life was turned upside down. It was October 20, 2004 and she had left her 17-year old son Sam Hallam alone in the family’s Hoxton home to re-paint her bedroom, while picking up her daughter from school.

When she came back Sam was nowhere to be seen. Instead there was police searching all the rooms, and she was greeted by a plain clothed police officer that assumed she already knew the nature of their errand, “But I had no idea about anything, which he could see on my face. He said he didn’t want to say anything in front of my daughter, it was horrible, I had to run away to some friends”.

She soon found out by her sister that her son had been arrested for the murder of Essayas Kassahun, a 22-year old trainee chef who had been beaten to death by a large gang of youths in Old Street, in Shoreditch ten days earlier. “My whole body started shaking, but I did not for a second doubt that my son was innocent”.

Sam had been taken to Belgravia Police Station where he was not allowed to have any contact with his family. “I thought that they would just let him home. But then we weren’t even allowed to see him or speak to him during his whole time in Belgravia, then we found out that they were going to charge him for murder.”

She recalls her first visit as a nightmare experience “The first time I went to see him, it was awful. I had to take a Valium before I went in, he was just a little boy of 17 and I couldn’t stop crying.”

Sam was held on remand at Feltham Young Offenders’ Institution, west London until he faced trial in September 2005, “The trial made me ill. When they took Sam we thought they would just release him as soon as they found out he was innocent but Sam’s name kept coming up in court”. Things got worse as the two main witnesses kept changing their vague statements.

On October 26 in 2005, the day of the sentence, a crying Wendy took the bus to the Old Bailey alone for the first time during the trials, her brother unable to face its torments any longer. To Wendy’s extreme anger and disappointment Sam was sentenced to life, refusing to confess any crime, “They wanted someone to blame. Now I know how corrupt the system is. I have learnt so much I never thought I would learn, I had never even been in a court before this happened, there is so much that just gets brushed under the carpet.”

When Sam was found guilty Wendy started searching for an organization that could help her family. That was when Paul May, the man who successfully campaigned for the release of the Birmingham Six and the Bridgewater Four came into the picture.

He now organizes the Sam Hallam campaign, which aims to draw as much attention to Sam’s case as possible and has handed in new evidence claiming to prove Sam’s innocence to the Criminal Cases Review Commission. The whole experience has changed her views on life as well as the criminal justice system. “There are so many innocent people out there not being heard,” Wendy says “My mom was a Catholic, but I never used to believe in God, but now I believe there is a God because there is Paul May. He is Sam’s guardian angel.”

Wendy said the family had been ‘destroyed’ by what happened to Sam. She added “I was not this person before, I was a wreck when it happened but the campaign keeps us strong. It’s mad, I’m strong now but I will never be the person I was before again. It has changed my three other children as well, it has ruined them. In a million years I never thought we would end up where we are today. If it was not for Paul May how could we go any further? Campaigns do really work.”

The local support for Sam has always been strong and Wendy fondly remembers how the campaign local public house in Hoxton was so crowded when Sam lost his appeal in 2007 that it was impossible to get inside. Although she does not have much trust left for the British Justice System after what happened, she has not lost her faith in it completely “Our justice system is the finest in the world, because even though it locked him up, it will free my Sam.”

She hopes that Sam will get a fresh hearing and be released “this year”. She goes on “We have to stay positive. He was just a boy when it happened, but he is a man now. I don’t know how he copes with prison, he just does it. I also think that he finds inner strength in knowing that he is innocent.”

Campaign meetings are held the last Thursday of every month and are open to the public.

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