Although it now seems like a distant reflection, I was minded to recall working with Paola (not her real name) whilst reading an impressively moving collection of real life accounts of psychotherapeutic work with women imprisoned at HMP Holloway, prior to its closure in 2016.
Before I was allocated responsibility for what was then described as a Home File (a former probation practice direction that amounted to opening a file on anyone charged with murder appearing before the court). I walked past an address close to the probation office where I was then working at and noticed a large police operation which had attracted a group of interested bystanders.
I simply enquired as to what had occurred and someone had blithely commented 'someone got topped in that flat in the tower block'.
A few days later, Paola appeared at the local Magistrates’ Court and had been remanded in custody for trial (at the Old Bailey) at a date to be announced.
At the time, case allocation was usually undertaken at weekly team meetings, and as I had no prior experience of home files, I picked up the case papers. It did appear somewhat anomalous in light of the fact that she had entered a not-guilty plea (on the grounds of self-defence), the victim, being her former partner.
I sent Paola her introductory letter and was a little surprised to receive a prompt response requesting contact. When I visited her at the prison, I was feeling more than a little unnerved (what, I thought, would I do if she was to make an admission and I was then called as a prosecution witness!).
When we met in a pokey interview room, it was clear that she was in a distraught state. Her emotions painfully oscillating between anger at her frightening situation, her loss of liberty and muted sadness at the death of her partner (fatally stabbed after a fierce argument) and the uncertainties as to the outcome of her trial.
I recall trying to make our meeting meaningful and listened intently, wanting at times to close down the discussion, as she recounted in graphic detail the struggle that preceded the fateful moment. I explained that my role was unusual, but without pre-judging any outcome, that if a life sentence was to be imposed after trial, that this professional probation contact would follow through.
A probation officer and a murder trial
On leaving the prison, the cold air of a weekday morning was a refreshing antidote to the oppressive feeling that had gripped me prior to my arrival. I thought hard about the long months ahead for Paola before her trial would start. I was buoyed by the knowledge that I could approach some of my more experienced colleagues at the office to share my anxieties (one of whom reassuringly reminded me of the tolerable legitimacy of having such heightened emotions when faced with such tragic circumstances) and needing to think afresh about this aspect of practice that was then so new to me.
I could not avoid a troubling compulsion to look upwards towards the flat where the death had happened as it was en route to the probation office. This preoccupying thought of violent death was again compounded when I was forwarded a copy of the post-mortem documentation with a visual representation of the 'murder scene' and a cadaverous sketch.
Dead Man's Walk
The date of the trial was announced so I arranged to spend a morning at the opening of the case. I arrived at the Old Bailey filled with uncertain apprehension (what must it be like for Paola, I mused) and ventured into the probation office at the court introducing myself to the venerable senior probation officer then in post. He offered to escort me to see Paola who was now in a holding cell under the building along what was dubbed 'Dead Man’s Walk' into the labyrinth of cells, seeped in the heavy odour of confinement and yet so redolent of Dickensian foul deeds, in one of which she sat impassively staring ahead.
Her face lit up and in a raised and confident voice she uttered, 'Mike, Mike...I believe the jury will see what I did and know I am innocent'. I found it difficult to contain my own fears and misgivings, but aimed to maintain a thoughtful and supportive presence. Wishing her well, I returned to the probation office and proceeded to the court room. The presiding judge gave a stern glance in my direction, sensing perhaps that I was a visitor and matters got underway.
Then unexpectedly, the court proceedings came to a halt as legal argument was advanced and all other parties were requested to leave the room. At this point, I had to return to the office impatiently awaiting an update.
An ambiguous ending
As I was about to leave for the day, a call was put through to me, 'Mike, I have some news for you on the outcome of your case [sic]’, and after a measured pause, continued, 'Not Guilty – self-defence accepted by the crown. Defendant not seen as too busy with other hearings. Oh by the way, her counsel dropped by to say he was pleased at this outcome, he didn’t want the fact that her previous partner had also died violently in unexplained circumstances to come out’.
I was piqued by this troublingly curious afterthought for some time, but had no further contact with Paola. The feelings of lingering anxiety eventually abated but I could never quite resist peering at the flat when in the area. Reflecting that maybe it is only time and distance that can really bring into proper focus how such tragic events impact on one’s professional outlook. When for nearly a year I was immersed in holding Paola's home file (with all the unfolding skein of conflicting emotions contained therein), after a slender case folder was presented to me at one of my first team meetings.
Mike Guilfoyle is a retired probation officer