Emma-Jayne Magson stabbed her partner with a steak knife then left him to bleed to death. Yet her family believes her murder conviction was a miscarriage of justice. Why?
“I’ve done what my Dad did to you.”
Joanne Smith felt her heart sink as she read the text message from her daughter Emma-Jayne Magson.
Two decades earlier Joanne had been stabbed by her partner, and now Emma had fatally stabbed her own partner, 26-year-old James Knight.
Emma and James had both been out drinking that night and were thrown out of a taxi because they were rowing. The argument continued in the street and back at Emma’s home.
At some point Emma picked up a steak knife and plunged it into James’s chest, puncturing his heart.
James then somehow ended up in the street outside his brother’s house, where Emma was seen sitting on top of him. When James’s brother and a neighbour tried to help she failed to say she had stabbed him, so they unwittingly left him to die.
Despite all of this, Justice for Women, an organisation helping 25-year-old Emma, believes she is one of many women who may have been wrongly convicted of murder after fighting back against abusive partners.
The organisation is the same one helping Sally Challen appeal against a murder conviction for bludgeoning her “controlling” husband to death with a hammer.
“If I honestly thought hand on heart Emma really meant to do that [kill James], I would never stand by Emma,” says her mother.
“But I just know Emma. I know she loves James. And that’s so frustrating for me because I know how much she loves him; even to this day she loves him.”
So how did Emma come to kill James Knight?
Emma was only eight months old when her father attacked her mother in front of her and her older sister, Charlotte, in 1993.
“He locked me in a flat and stabbed me,” recalls Joanne. “They were both in my arms. He went for my throat but as I ran he slashed my legs.”
Despite Emma being too young to remember what happened, Joanne says the stabbing had a lasting impact on her.
“We moved around, we went into a safe house,” says Joanne. “There were scars on my legs and I had to learn to walk again.”
Joanne says Emma had a close relationship with her older sister.
“It was just them,” says Joanne. “They had a bedroom together; they did everything together.”
Then Charlotte died, aged nine, following a complication from an operation.
Joanne sounds regretful when explaining what she did next – her grief-stricken decision to bring Charlotte’s body back to the family home for two weeks. Emma was seven years old at the time.
“Charlotte was in my bedroom for a week, in my bed,” says Joanne. “For the first week she was in my room then I brought her downstairs in an open casket.
“I don’t think I considered anybody but myself.”
While Emma had been quiet as a child she started rebelling as a teenager.
“As she got to about 13 she started drinking, acting out really, mainly for attention,” says Joanne.
Joanne had left Emma’s father but says there was violence in a subsequent relationship, and the pattern repeated when Emma got into relationships herself.
One of Emma’s partners “fractured her skull and put her in hospital and she had a leak on the brain”.
Emma had a daughter, who is now four years old, when she was 21. Joanne says the birth was “traumatic” and she suffered from post-natal depression.
Emma and James
Emma met James a year after her daughter was born, in the autumn of 2015.
They got together at about the time James’s relationship ended with the mother of his two children. James had been staying with one of his brothers in Sylvan Street in Leicester, while Emma lived a few doors down with her daughter.
John Skinner, who was friends with James and worked with him as a binman, described him as “a family man” who had lots of friends.
“James had a very good group of friends… he was popular in and amongst his mates and at work.
“Whenever he wasn’t working with me people always wanted to work with him because they knew you could have a laugh and he would get the work done.”
John says the relationship with Emma appeared to begin well.
“When they first got together James looked really happy and bubbly and like he was moving on with his life and he just seemed really happy and settled.”
He became aware of arguments creeping in but thought this was normal for a couple getting settled.
“I’ve seen them have an argument once where it got quite heated but in my opinion they both gave as good as they got,” says John.
“I’ve never seen either of them be violent towards each other.”
Joanne felt her daughter changed as the relationship went on.
“James wanted her to stay in the home, and James didn’t want her to wear makeup,” she says.
In the murder trial, the prosecution described their relationship as “volatile”.
Emma’s family claim James was physically and emotionally abusive.
She “always had bruises”, her mother says, but would explain them away as “play fighting”.
James’s mother, Trish Knight, maintains her son was not violent.
“James has no history of violence towards women,” she says.
“James was with his previous girlfriend for nine years, who he has got two children with, and there was no violence in that relationship.”
The BBC contacted James’s former partner but she did not want to contribute to this piece.
She told The Sun he was “a real romantic” at the start of the relationship and “an amazing dad” to their daughters.
However, she discovered James was smoking cannabis and taking steroids towards the end of their relationship.
“It was a far cry from the man I fell in love with,” she told The Sun.
“It caused row after row and no matter how much I begged him to stop, he didn’t listen.”
James’s mother still insists he would never have hit anyone.
“James could shout, and James had hit a wall. If James lost his temper he would hit a wall rather than hit somebody,” says Trish.
John noticed a physical change in his workmate.
“He did get a lot bigger, obviously, you could tell there was something going off,” says John.
“Obviously he was always obsessed with looking good… he used to go to the gym after work.
“If you do the job and you work hard it keeps you fit in itself but he went that extra mile.”
Emma miscarried their baby in the middle of March 2015.
Miscarriages are known to trigger mental health problems, but Emma’s family say the loss was even more traumatic because half of the baby was left inside her despite a hospital procedure intended to remove it. She then returned to hospital for a further procedure to have the remains removed.
Emma telephoned her mum to say James blamed her for losing the baby.
“A nurse had to have a word with them in the hospital because he was calling her a slag, saying she was with black men, that’s why she lost it,” says Joanne.
James’s mum said he had been “thrilled” about the prospect of becoming a father again, and she never heard him blame Emma for the miscarriage.
“He was upset,” Trish says.
“I think he was angry it had happened to them.”
Fateful night out
Emma decided to go on a night out with a friend on Saturday 26 March 2015, the Easter bank holiday weekend.
That night, Emma met up with James at a bar in Leicester city centre.
Louise Bullivant, her new solicitor, says door staff at the pub asked James to leave because they were concerned about his behaviour.
“There was an incident between James and door staff which resulted in him being asked to leave and Emma decided to leave with him,” she says.
“There’s no doubt that they had both been drinking.”
They argued in a taxi and the driver asked them to get out, meaning they had to walk home. During the journey, CCTV captured James grabbing Emma around her shoulder and neck and pushing her to the ground.
A statement from Emma was read out in court, in which she claimed she stabbed James in self-defence.
“Once in the kitchen, he grabbed me around my throat and pushed me back,” it said.
“I was right next to the sink and reached out to grab something. I picked up the first thing which came to hand which was a steak knife; the knife was in my hand and I hit out once.
“I didn’t mean to harm him, I just wanted to get him off’.”
“I think something triggered; I think she had had enough,” says Joanne.
James’s mum says nobody really knows what happened.
“There were only two people who were there that night and one of them can’t give his version of events,” says Trish.
James’s last moments
James did not die immediately. In fact, he somehow ended up outside his brother Kevin’s house a few doors away, lying face down in the street, at about 02:30.
Kevin and a neighbour, Michal Ladic, came out to help but Emma did not tell either of them she had stabbed James.
“He was still alive when I came to them,” says Michal.
“I wanted to turn him around but she was sitting on him. He was face down, topless, she was sitting on him.
“I asked if he was all right and she said he was just drunk.”
In his evidence at the trial, Kevin said Emma told him James was drunk and had been beaten up by bouncers earlier on.
When asked what impression he got from Emma, Kevin said: “That everything will be fine in the morning – he just needs to sleep it off.”
Kevin helped lift James into Emma’s house and placed him on the floor of the front room. Kevin did not realise his brother had been stabbed and left, telling him: “I will see you tomorrow.”
Emma rang 999 and asked for an ambulance, but again did not mention James had been stabbed.
When asked what had happened she said: “Um, I don’t know, my boyfriend’s here and he’s making weird noises. I don’t know what’s going on.”
Later in the call she said: “It looks like he’s had a fight with someone.”
When the operator explained the ambulance might take a while, she replied: “No, that’s fine, don’t worry about it.”
The prosecution claimed Emma deceived people into not saving James’s life, and described her as “cold, brutal and manipulative”.
However, her mother believes she simply didn’t realise James was dying.
“I don’t think she knew how serious it was in that moment,” says Joanne.
Kevin was awoken by Emma banging on his door, screaming that James was dead, about 40 minutes after he had seen them both outside his house.
Kevin went to Emma’s house and Michal was already there trying to save his life, having heard Emma’s screams.
“We didn’t know he had been stabbed,” says Michal.
“The body was so clean, nothing on him, and only when I gave him mouth-to-mouth and the second breath raised his chest and that wound opened and my eyes popped out. I just took the phone from Kev and told the operator that he was stabbed in the heart.
“Then I was trying to do the CPR for another 15 minutes and she was getting in my way, like ‘I want him back, I just want him to wake up’.
“I remember telling Kev to drag her off him, and he did it, he took her off so I could carry on with the mouth-to-mouth and CPR.”
Emma phoned her grandmother, who got a taxi straight there.
“The ambulance had taken James away,” says Lynda Allen.
“There were police everywhere. Eventually, they let me go through and she walked down the road to me. All she had got on was a little nightdress, no shoes, nothing.
“She put her head on my shoulder, crying.”
Lynda noticed marks around her neck, which were also noted when Emma was later examined in police custody.
Emma was not initially arrested as police did not realise she was responsible for stabbing James.
She was allowed to go to her mother’s house, where she told her mother she thought she had killed James, who told police. Emma was then arrested and taken away after being allowed to say goodbye to her daughter.
The murder trial
Unusually for someone accused of murder, Emma remained on bail throughout her trial at Leicester Crown Court.
Her new solicitor believes this “says a great deal about the court’s approach to the evidence”.
Emma decided not to give evidence herself, but her legal team argued she had acted in self-defence, did not intend to kill or harm James, and had suffered a loss of control.
Her family believe she was scared and did not understand what was happening during the trial.
“How can I put it without sounding nasty?” says her grandmother.
“Emma’s very slow on the uptake. If you said something to Emma and she didn’t understand it, where it’s quite simple to me and you, I would have to sit and explain everything to her.
“I don’t understand the law but I would have thought there would be somebody there to talk things through with her that she didn’t understand.”
Emma’s new solicitor believes if she had been supported by an intermediary, such as a trained social worker, she might have followed the trial better and participated effectively.
Emma was found guilty of murder in November 2016 and given a life sentence with a minimum term of 17 years.
After the trial ended, Emma’s mother was approached by a police officer who told her to contact Justice for Women.
The group helped Emma get a new legal team, which is trying to appeal against the murder conviction using psychiatric evidence.
The original psychiatrist instructed by the defence team had diagnosed Emma as having an emotionally unstable personality disorder (EUPD), but for some reason this was not used as evidence at her trial.
Emma’s new legal team went back to this psychiatrist for a further assessment, and also instructed a clinical psychologist who diagnosed Emma as having a pervasive developmental disorder-not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS).
Even the psychiatric expert originally instructed by the prosecution now agrees that Emma was suffering from a recognised medical condition at the time of the killing.
“He says he has revised his view and now supports a diagnosis of EUPD and PDD-NOS,” says Emma’s solicitor.
A petition was launched demanding “justice for James”, saying that Emma should stay in prison and “do her time”.
However, Court of Appeal judges in London have found Emma has an “arguable” case and granted permission to appeal.
Emma speaks to her young daughter on the phone every day, and she visits the prison every week.
“They are so close,” says Joanne.
“She’s going to see her mum today and she said ‘I’m going to my mum’s house, I can’t wait. I love my mum’s house’.
“It’s just so sad.”
For James’s young daughters, their weekly visits are to his grave.
“They ask if Daddy is watching them,” says Trish.
“One of his daughters when she’s old enough wants to go in the sky to see Daddy.”
Joanne empathises with James’s mum, but maintains Emma should not have been convicted of murder.
“I’ve lost a child so I know what James’s mum is going through. I understand, I really do,” she says.
“I just hope Emma can come out and be a mum to her daughter and get on with her life.
“She will never forget James ever, she won’t. I know that she loves James and I know that if she could take that night back she would. 100% she would.”
On 22 November the Court of Appeal granted permission for Emma-Jayne Magson to appeal against her murder conviction. Her legal team is waiting for a date for the next hearing.