Alina Joseph’s son, Christopher Kapessa, died in 2019. She is still searching for justice.
Editor’s note: This story is part of CNN’s commitment to covering issues around identity, including race, gender, sexuality, religion, class and caste.
Cardiff, Wales — Alina Joseph needed a change of scene. Looking for more space for her seven children, fresher air, and a new job, she moved her family from the bustling area of north London where she had lived for most of her life, to the South Wales valleys.
Once there, the family labored to fit in, but Joseph, 40, said it didn’t take long for their fresh start to become toxic. At first, they lived in the small — and largely White — village of Hirwaun. “They called us the only Blacks in the village,” bus driver and single mom Joseph recalled.
Six years after the move to Hirwaun, they moved eight miles down the Cynon Valley, to the Fernhill Estate in Mountain Ash, a terraced, public housing development. But their life was about to take a tragic turn.
One hot July afternoon in 2019, Joseph’s 13-year-old son, Christopher Kapessa, told her he was going to play football with friends. He never came home.
Hours later, rumors began to spread in the close-knit community that something had happened to her son in the nearby river. Kapessa’s older sister heard from friends that Kapessa, who could not swim, may have jumped into the water; others alleged that he had been pushed.
The police came to her home that afternoon and searched it, telling Joseph that Christopher was missing and they needed to check if he was hiding in the house, she told CNN. Hours later, at around 7 p.m., an officer told her they had found Christopher and they needed to take her to the local hospital.
Once she reached the hospital, Joseph realized that her sweet, bespectacled “cheeky boy” was dead. He had drowned in the River Cynon, near a bridge a mile from their home.
There was no time for Joseph to grieve — instead her shock quickly turned into anger when she says it became clear that the scene had not been cordoned off, and that her son’s belongings were missing.
When she asked a South Wales Police officer for answers the day after Kapessa’s death, she said the force appeared to have come to the conclusion that her son had slipped into the river. She said the officer told her she needed “to accept the fact (that) Christopher died as a result of a tragic accident.”
That was not the case. “It was a homicide,” Suresh Grover, director of the Monitoring Group, an anti-racism charity that is helping Joseph, told CNN.
Grover said police bungled their initial investigation into Kapessa’s death. The force failed to cordon off the scene during its two-day investigation, and only interviewed four out of more than a dozen witnesses, he said.
In a statement to CNN, South Wales Police Assistant Chief Constable Jenny Gilmer said the force had referred itself to the police regulator, the Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC) “who have examined the initial response and investigation into Christopher’s death.”
“While we await the findings of the IOPC investigation to be published, at the start of the investigation, based on initial information available, the IOPC found no indication that any police officer may have acted in a manner that breached professional standards,” she said.
Kapessa is seen in family photos kept by his mother.
A trophy Kapessa received while playing for the Mountain Ash Junior Football Club.
‘You can almost get away with taking a Black child’s life’
After the Monitoring Group helped Joseph make a formal a complaint against the police, the force’s major crimes unit investigated the case, interviewed all the witnesses, and provided evidence to the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), the agency responsible for criminal prosecutions in England and Wales. CNN has reviewed the complaint and made extensive efforts to interview members of the tight-knit community about the incident.
The CPS said in 2020 that Kapessa had been pushed into the river while playing with a group of 16 children. He was the only Black child there, said Grover.
Despite having a “realistic prospect of conviction for manslaughter,” the CPS decided it was “not in the public interest to prosecute” the suspect. It said Kapessa’s death was the result of a “foolish prank, with nothing to suggest that the suspect intended to harm him.”
The statement added that the suspect’s age (he was 14 at the time), “good character,” and there being “no suggestion that the suspect would commit further offences,” played into the decision not to prosecute him.
“The seriousness of the incident and its impact on Christopher’s family has to be balanced against the guidelines which state that the best interests and welfare of the child or young person must be considered,” it said. “A prosecution and conviction will have a significantly detrimental effect on the suspect’s education, employment and future prospects.”
Joseph believes the decision reflects “institutional racism” in South Wales Police and the CPS. The CPS has denied any racial bias, saying last year that “as part of the public interest, prosecutors are reminded that it is more likely that prosecution is required if the offence was motivated by prejudice, including on the grounds of race.”
“There was nothing in any of the statements of the young people which suggested any racial issues or that this was a hate crime,” it added.
A sign warning people to keep away from the river and the old mining grounds is seen near the spot where Kapessa died.
Evidence showed Kapessa was pushed into the river, according to the Crown Prosecution Service, but no one was prosecuted in his death.
A spokesperson for South Wales Police said the decision not to prosecute was made by the CPS, not South Wales Police. The spokesperson also pointed to the force’s “significant investments in training and education, including diversity, equality and inclusivity training” to “ensure that our officers and staff understand topics such as Black Lives Matter, white privilege and disproportionality.”
But activists say the CPS’s decision not to prosecute sets a dangerous precedent. Dorothea Jones, co-director of the Monitoring Group, told CNN it suggests “that Black life is cheap, and it is not important; you can almost get away with taking a Black child’s life.”
“There would have been a totally different outcome if there had been 14 Black teenagers (playing that day) and a White teen had died,” she said.
The local Member of Parliament, Labour’s Beth Winter, has championed Joseph’s cause. “There are three words that encapsulate why I felt I had to support (her): Truth, justice and reconciliation,” she told CNN. “I feel strongly that unless due process is followed, the truth of the situation for all parties concerned will never be established.”
Joseph is fighting the CPS’s decision. She won her bid for a judicial review of the case, and the Monitoring Group is crowdfunding to cover her costs. If the judicial review fails, Joseph will look into a private prosecution, Grover said.
CNN has reviewed the judicial review filings. In a statement to CNN, the CPS said it “would not be appropriate to comment further” pending the judicial review.
Joseph said she is not seeking revenge, “all I want is the justice system to do their job and, so far they have not done so.”
This isn’t the first time Joseph has felt let down by Welsh authorities. She says her family experienced five years of abuse and racial violence when they first moved to the region: racist graffiti was twice daubed outside their home, “dogs were set on the kids,” hateful letters calling the family monkeys were posted through their letterbox, and some of her children were urinated on.
In 2017, Kapessa “was left in a pool of his own blood” after being beaten up outside a local supermarket, Joseph said.
Joseph said the family — weary at what they saw as a lack of action — did not bother to report some of the incidents. On the occasions when they did call the police: “They’ll stand in my kitchen in their uniforms, thumbs stuck into their vests, and say, ‘There’s nothing we can do,’” she said.
In a statement, South Wales Police — the largest of Wales’s four police forces — said it condemned “all forms of hate crime and nobody living in our communities should be subjected to such abhorrent behaviour.” It added that the force took hate crimes “extremely seriously.”
South Wales Police’s perceived apathy is just one of several problems campaigners say ethnic minority groups have endured at the hands of the Welsh criminal justice system — which remains largely under the control of the UK government.
A report by an independent government commission in 2019 found that “the people of Wales are being let down by the system in its current state.” It called for control of the justice system to be devolved and “at the heart of” the Welsh government.
In a draft race equality action plan released by the Welsh government in March, many minority groups complained about the “shortcomings in prosecution systems,” the “indifference towards victims of crime, and perceived a reluctance by the police to engage with and process race hate crimes.”
Being Black and Welsh
Wales is one of four countries that make up the United Kingdom. “As a nation, Wales is a fantastic place to live, to work, to grow up,” said Ali Abdi, lead coordinator of the National Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic Youth Forum at the Race Council Cymru. “Cardiff is a fantastic place for multiculturalism.”
But campaigners like Abdi say diversity is often overlooked in the country — stereotyped for its rolling green hills, love of rugby, and strong sense of national identity.
Ali Abdi is the lead coordinator of the National Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic Youth Forum at the Race Council Cymru.
A view of the Butetown District in Cardiff. The Welsh capital is home to one of Britain’s oldest Black communities.
People from ethnic minorities make up an estimated 5.6% of the Welsh population, with many living in urban areas of South Wales. The capital, Cardiff is home to one of Britain’s oldest Black communities, with records from the 18th century noting a Black presence in the city.
Ray Singh, Wales’s first ethnic minority judge, said racism in Wales is far less overt today, compared to the days when he was a barrister in the 1970s, but that structural racism has not gone away.
“For instance, when I first came to the (UK) people (said): ‘Oh, don’t touch that with a Black hand,’” he said. Today, Black and Brown people in Wales are overpoliced and are also disproportionately affected by Covid-19 due to inequities linked to institutional racism, he said.
Last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests cast a spotlight on the problems faced by Black and Brown people in the region.
The demonstrations also highlighted the overrepresentation of ethnic minorities in the criminal justice system, and the long road to justice for ethnic minority people, like Kapessa, according to Welsh charity the Ethnic Minorities & Youth Support Team (EYST) in a recent report on the criminal justice system in Wales.
Kwabena Devonish, spokesperson for BLM Cardiff and Vale, told CNN her experience of growing up in Cardiff had been a positive one — apart from the occasional microaggression around how to pronounce her name.
Still, she said, the “idea that Wales is more liberal than England or that police brutality only happens in the US” is a false one. The disproportionate use of stop-and-search in diverse areas of Cardiff, such as Butetown, and incidents of Black men dying after encounters with South Wales Police suggest police brutality is a very British problem, she said.
Devonish is referring to 24-year-old Mohamud Mohamed Hassan, who was arrested by South Wales Police in Cardiff on suspicion of breach of the peace. He died shortly after being released without charge this January. According to his family’s campaign website, prior to his death, Hassan said he had been “severely beaten by the police,” while in custody.
Kwabena Devonish is a spokesperson for Black Lives Matter Cardiff and Vale of Glamorgan.
A mural celebrating Cardiff’s diversity, painted by Bradley Rmer, features a local mother wearing a Cardiff City jersey.
The police said at the time that “early findings … indicate no misconduct issues and no excessive force.” South Wales Police referred the case to the IOPC, which is still investigating the circumstances surrounding Hassan’s death. Six officers have been served misconduct notices, according to the IOPC, whose spokesman said this does not necessarily mean an officer has committed any wrongdoing.
Hassan’s death has soured relations between residents and the police in Butetown, one of Cardiff’s most ethnically diverse areas.
Race advocates say one way to fix this problem would be to have more diversity in the force. According to the EYST report, only 2.6% of the South Wales Police force come from an ethnic minority background; of the entire force, only six officers (0.19%) identify as Black.
In a statement to CNN, South Wales Police said it had prioritized making its force “more representative of the communities we serve” since 2015, adding: “we have made progress during this time, we accept that we still have work to do, but we are moving in the right direction.”
The Cardiff Five
There is historic precedent for poor relations between Welsh police and non-White communities. The Cardiff Five — five Black and mixed-ethnicity men — were prosecuted for the horrific murder of Lynette White in Butetown in 1988, despite a witness placing a White man with his hand covered in blood at the scene of the murder.
Two of the five were acquitted at trial. The other three were convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison. Their convictions were quashed in 1992, after they were ruled to have been based on a confession obtained by the police “involving bullying, hostility and intimidation at a level that had horrified the three Court of Appeal judges.”
White’s real killer, Jeffrey Gafoor, was caught using DNA evidence in 2003. He is serving a life sentence for her murder. Police officers involved in the arrest of the Cardiff Five were acquitted in 2011 after key documents went missing during a corruption trial.
John Actie, one of three surviving members of the Cardiff Five, told CNN the miscarriage of justice took over his life. Despite being acquitted in 1990, the trauma of being “fitted up” by the police left him mired in drug addiction for around a decade.
He also faced physical reprisals from some members of Cardiff’s White community: “I have been bottled, I have been glassed over my head, I got 87 stitches on my face when someone called me a murderer and stabbed me.”
South Wales Police has since apologized for what happened to him, but Actie still has a dim view of them. Asked if he thinks they have redeemed themselves, he said: “I just don’t think they have — look at what they have done with Christopher Kapessa.”
Being ‘invisible’ yet ‘all too visible’
Like Actie, Joseph has found herself at odds with the criminal justice system. For two years she has battled it to “give value” to her son’s life.
She is also attempting a move to a more diverse area like Cardiff. But the process has been slow as she is reliant on the local authority for social housing, which is in short supply.
Her options are limited, and she worries for her surviving children. The hate incidents have not stopped, and she has had to balance their need for a normal life — letting them play outside, for example — with her fears of further racist incidents.
Last year, a woman from Mountain Ash racially threatened one of Joseph’s sons with violence. She was convicted and jailed for 12 weeks.
MP Winter said Joseph’s lack of trust in the criminal justice system has been compounded by “racist experiences in the Valleys,” but stressed that racism “is not unique to the Valleys — racism exists everywhere.”
There are few data indicators on the extent of rural racism in the UK, but there are plenty of anecdotes that show it is a problem far beyond urban centers, say campaigners.
Joseph’s experience echoes a 2004 study into the experience of minority ethnic households living in rural areas of England. It found that for those families “racism can in fact be more distressing and prolonged as they find themselves living in a ‘double-bind’ situation” of being invisible and not having their needs accounted for, and also being “all too visible to local rural communities as a result of being one of few individuals or families from a minority ethnic background.”
Joseph sometimes wonders why she ever left London for the Valleys. “If I could turn back time, I wouldn’t have put my children here,” she said.
But she is forever tied to the area because of her son’s death. Scarred by that tragedy — and by everything that has happened in its wake — she said: “If anyone asked me about the Valleys, the only good thing I have to say is: It’s green.”