Dave Merritt’s face bristles with pride as he flicks through a celebratory book produced by his son’s friends for Jack’s funeral and party. Fifty-six pages of memories, stories and photos. It is clear that Jack Merritt was well-liked, loved and respected by those who knew him.
“It was hugely comforting to meet all these fantastic young people in particular, who were supporting each other as well as supporting us,” Dave tells me when we meet, less than two months after his son was murdered by a terrorist.
No parent wants to be burying their child. Jack Merritt, 25, and his colleague Saskia Jones, 23, were murdered by 28-year-old Usman Khan in late November while they were all attending a prisoner rehabilitation conference near London Bridge. Jack and Saskia were part of Learning Together, a project designed to support prisoners, while Khan was a former prisoner and Al-Mujihroun activist, who was imprisoned in 2010 for plotting to bomb the London Stock Exchange and establish a jihadi training camp in Kashmir.
Writing in The Guardian shortly after the attack, Dave said: “Jack believed in the inherent goodness of humanity, and felt a deep social responsibility to protect that.”
Talking to me now at the family home, after what must have been an incredibly painful Christmas, Dave says:
“Learning more about Jack and what he has done has helped me a lot. Obviously it is bitter sweet because you think about what he could have been and how senseless his murder was. Totally senseless, particularly to be killed by someone you were helping.”
Of course Dave, and his wife Anne, don’t need to be told that their son was special, loved or respected, but the hundreds of letters, emails and messages of support they have received since his murder has given them a greater insight into their son’s life and, in particular, his work.
“I obviously knew Jack well, but it was a father-son relationship. He would come home and tell me about his work, but not necessarily in great detail.” Now he feels he knows a lot more.
It is probably not an understatement to say that Jack was destined for great things. He left Manchester University with a First class honours degree, won a couple of awards, including receiving the highest dissertation mark in his year, and had set his sights on becoming a barrister.
It was during his time at Manchester that his interest in the criminal justice system really took off. while at university he began volunteering in local advice centres, helping local people with their problems but also seeing first-hand the struggles many people had. “But it was doing the Learning Together course that really inspired him,” recalls Dave.
After Manchester, Jack did an M Phil in Criminology at Cambridge University and part of the course involved volunteering with a project set up within the university to work with prisoners.
Learning Together was a project that brought together offenders and those in higher education to study alongside each other in equal partnership. It is, in the words of the university, an attempt to “break down prejudices and create new possibilities for all those who took part.”
Fellow law student Jake Thorold says Learning Together “insists on seeing the best in people.”
Established in 2014, Learning Together began in HMP Grendon, in Buckinghamshire, before expanding into several other prisons over the next few years.
It is not difficult to see what attracted Jack to the project and why he excelled at it. He started off as a volunteer but then the project received additional funding to allow it to expand. It needed a course coordinator and Jack applied. Initially it was a temporary job but then there was further funding and for Jack it became a permanent position.
“He massively enjoyed the job,” says Dave. “You can tell he enjoyed it because he was putting so much into it. It became almost vocational for him. He felt really inspired by it.”
It is clear that there was much mutual respect and warmth felt towards Jack from those who took part in Learning Together. His parents have received dozens of letters from serving and former prisoners who have been helped by their son. Every letter expressed the shock and grief at Jack’s death and gratitude for the work he did.
One of the people he met through Learning Together, who had been convicted under the joint enterprise ruling that made Jack so angry, was John Crilly, the person who later confronted Jack’s killer with the fire extinguisher on London Bridge.
Jack and the project also generated support from prison staff. “There was no sign of tension with staff,” recalls Dave. “A theme that runs through all the letters is that Jack treated everyone the same. He treated everyone with respect. He was very professional with everybody. There were never any hints about favouring the prisoners or favouring the prison staff.”
It was this sense of decency, respect and desire to make a difference to people’s lives that clearly drove Jack.
“Jack felt a sense of injustice,” says his father. “He believed in the inherent goodness of humanity.”
“Jack knew he was well off. He recognised the fact that he had been lucky in life. He’s got a nice house. He had gone to university. He’d done really well. He’d had a lucky life and he could see these guys and the crap they came through made him appreciate how lucky he was and how unlucky some of those people were.
“He’s always been interested in the justice system and miscarriages of justice, but I think talking to people in prison, learning about their backgrounds and how they came to be where they were, and there were clearly issues like ‘joint enterprise’ that he was very interested in, that he thought was very unfair.”
These views are shared by Jack’s girlfriend, Leanne O’Brien. “Jack opened so many doors for those that society had turned their backs on,” she would later write.
Jack’s death is still – understandably – hard for his parents to deal with and that, coupled with all the work preparing for the funeral and dealing with their son’s affairs, has meant that they have had little time to reflect on Usman Khan the terrorist who killed their son.
“We’ve kind of avoided trying to get into too much detail about it because I’m not sure it will help us,” reflects Dave quietly. “I think it will be very upsetting.”
“I’ve thought about him a couple of times, but I’ve never looked into his background, where he got to, how he got to that point. But I will do.” Now, clearly, is not the right time.
Dave was extremely outspoken in criticising Boris Johnson for exploiting his son’s death. Johnson had blamed Khan’s release on legislation introduced under “a leftie government”, and called for longer sentences and an end to automatic release. Dave wrote on Twitter that Johnson was trying to exploit Jack’s murder “for political gain”.
“The point was that at the time we didn’t know why it happened. And we still don’t know why it happened,” says Dave.
“We didn’t know if it was a systematic failure thing, whether someone had made a mistake, whether there had been clues that had been missed. We just didn’t know. And we still don’t know. But Boris Johnson didn’t know either, and nor did anyone else in the Tory Party. But they just used it. It was just so crude.”
Dave Merritt was advised by police immediately after the murder to stay off Twitter and remain silent. While he initially agreed, reading the newspapers during the night following his son’s death made his blood boil. After tweeting out his criticism, the media quickly descended on his doorstep.
“I know what Jack’s reaction would have been if it had happened to someone else. He would have been outraged that someone was using his name to argue for the absolute opposite to what he believed in.”
The tweet was followed up by a comment piece in The Guardian and then an interview with Sky News. He felt, for Jack’s sake, he had to speak out.
“This whole law and order thing, this traditional Tory talking point. Tough on criminals, it sounds good. You’re in the middle of a General Election, let’s paint Labour as ‘bleeding heart liberals’ and ‘soft on crime’. They had no basis for saying that because they just didn’t know. But [Johnson] said we are going to increase the tariff for all prisoners serving sentences of more than six years to life from 50% to two-thirds. There was no basis for that based on this case.”
But there was also another, more strategic, reason for Dave’s public intervention and that was to defend Cambridge University and the Learning Together project. “I knew the people at the university wouldn’t have been able to defend themselves; they could have been constrained in what they were able to say. Potentially their course, this brilliant thing that they are doing could be adversely affected as a result of the negative publicity.
“And I thought that if anyone is entitled to say something it is me. It is my son. I know what he believed in.
“I think that if it leads to a better understanding and appreciation of what organisations like Learning Together are doing, and the good work they do and the benefit it brings. And a general understanding about rehabilitation.”
This is not about just being a liberal do-gooder insists Dave, but societal self-interest. With all but about 60 prisoners in the entire prison system due to be released, he says the focus of the penal system should be on rehabilitation.
“The whole focus of prison shouldn’t be about punishment or retribution, it should be about public safety at its base level. Making sure when people come out of prison they don’t commit further harm and they go on to be productive members of society. So it is in all of our interests for that to happen. So I hope for that.”
Jack Merritt’s funeral, held at Great St Mary’s Church, Cambridge on 20 December, was a celebration of his life and everything he stood for. It brought together hundreds of friends, family and colleagues. It was also attended by many of the people that Jack and Learning Together had helped over the years. It was a fitting tribute to Jack as a person and everything the project stood for.
One of those who performed at the post-funeral celebration party, attended by 400 people, was the Mercury prize-winner rapper Dave, real name David Omoregie, who knew Jack from the work he had done with his brother whilst he was in prison. Ending the church service, with his song Into My Arms, was Nick Cave, who did not hesitate to accept the request to perform after hearing that Jack, and his parents, were big fans.
Jack Merritt was murdered on 29 November 2019 doing a job that he loved. While grieving at his loss, his parents are determined that people remember Jack by continuing his fight for justice and human decency.
“Jack devoted his energy to the purpose of Learning Together: a pioneering programme to bring students from university and prisons together to share their unique perspectives on justice,” his father wrote in the conclusion in Jack’s memorial book.
“Unlike many of us, Jack did not just go to work. He lived and breathed fire in his pursuit of a better world for all humanity, particularly those most in need. What Jack would want from all of this is for all of us to walk through the door he has booted down, in his black Doc Martins. Borrow his intelligence, share his drive, feel his passion, burn with his anger, and extinguish hatred with his kindness. Never give up the fight.”
Nick Lowles is CEO of HOPE not hate.