By Jon Garland
The tragic case of the murder of Angela Wrightson in Hartlepool in 2014 generated a great deal of media coverage in the spring of 2016 when the trial of those accused of killing her finally came to court. Wrightson, a 39 year-old with alcohol dependency issues, was subject to a brutal and sustained attack from two teenage girls who were subsequently convicted of her murder and given 15-year custodial sentences. However, while the media – and especially the tabloids – focused on the two girls, luridly describing them as ‘she-devils’ (Mirror, 08/04/16) and ‘evil Snapchat killers’ (Sun, 08/04/16) in a similar way to the public demonization of the very young killers of James Bulger over 20 years before, what passed with little comment was how similar the circumstances surrounding the victim’s life and death were to other cases that have occurred in the relatively recent past, when those with mental health issues living on their own have been subject to exploitation, assault and murder.
The phenomenon of the abuse of those in vulnerable situations by those who’re supposedly their friends has (perhaps erroneously) been described as ‘mate crime’ as a way of highlighting that it is a form of hate crime perpetrated by those in the victim’s social circle. The exploitation of those with mental ill-health living on their own has been referred to by criminologists as ‘cuckooing’, a form of crime which is receiving increased academic attention. Angela Wrightson, who was well-known to social services and had spent time in prison, was small in stature and widely described in the media as ‘vulnerable’ and a ‘lost soul’. She apparently led a chaotic lifestyle, often being involved in drunken altercations and being found unconscious in the street. During the trial of her murderers it emerged that local youths would often congregate inside her house, and she would buy them cigarettes and alcohol which they would then share with her. Money and mobile phones were stolen from her, and among those who’d frequently visited her previously were the two that killed her.
And yet prior to this sad case there have been a number of similar ones that have featured the targeting of those living independently and in vulnerable situations for criminal exploitation and physical and verbal harassment. Keith Philpott (2005), Raymond Atherton (2006) and Michael Gilbert (2009) were all harrowing examples of those with mental health issues, learning difficulties or whom were described as ‘vulnerable’ who were murdered in similar circumstances to Wrighton’s. All of these events could arguably have been prevented if those agencies who should have been protecting them from abuse had recognised the criminal nature of what was occurring at an early stage, and intervened then.
There is, however, some controversy surrounding the use of the term ‘vulnerable’ to describe those with physical disabilities or mental ill-health. For many of those involved in the disability rights movement, labelling those with disabilities as ‘vulnerable’ is unacceptable as such a word brings with it connotations of weakness and lack of individual agency. While these concerns are acknowledged here it is undoubtedly true that those like Philpott, Atherton, Gilbert and Wrightson, socially isolated and with mental and physical health and alcohol dependency issues, are in very vulnerable situations and at a heightened risk of exploitation and assault. I also feel that the targeting of those in these circumstances should be recognised for what it is – a disability hate crime – and that criminal justice (and other) agencies should respond to them as such. Early and decisive intervention in these cases can prevent them from spiralling into physical violence that results in the kinds of terrible cases like Wrightson’s. However, this requires agencies to be able to recognise the true nature of what is going on when the harassment and abuse may be more ‘subtle’ and less obvious, and not simply dismiss it as ‘anti-social behaviour’ or a ‘neighbour dispute’ which isn’t related to the systematic targeting of those in vulnerable situations. If they can do this then the lessons learned from the death of Angela Wrightson may help to prevent similar tragic events in the future.
Please note: Blog entries reflect the personal views of contributors and are not moderated or edited before publication. However, we may make subsequent amendments to correct errors or inaccuracies.