Olivia Pratt-Korbel case pitted defiant star witness against killer’s cleverness

<span>Photograph: Elizabeth Cook/PA</span>
Photograph: Elizabeth Cook/PA

When nine-year-old Olivia Pratt-Korbel was shot by a masked gunman who burst into her home on 22 August last year, people in Liverpool feared history was repeating itself.

Fifteen years to the day previously an innocent child had been caught in the crossfire. Eleven-year-old Rhys Jones, walking home from football practice, was gunned down.

The community once again felt brutalised as details of the crime emerged. The gunman and Joseph Nee, the man he was chasing, were strangers to Olivia and her mother, Cheryl Korbel, who had opened the front door that night after hearing noises on the street. Korbel was shot through the hand with the same bullet that killed her daughter. For the funeral, four family members carried Olivia to the local church in Dovecot in a small pink coffin.

Unlike in the Rhys Jones case, where for almost a year police knew who was responsible but could not summon the evidence despite months of agonising family appeals, someone did come forward.

The Crown Prosecution Service managed to produce a star witness, a woman whose house Thomas Cashman fled to after the killing. The witness, who has lifetime anonymity, is understood to have faced more threats than any other witness Merseyside police have dealt with.

She is a former lover of Cashman, from the same area, and someone he trusted. She told the court how he turned up after shooting Olivia, asking for a change of clothes and saying something to the effect of: “I’ve done Joey.”

During her cross-examination explicit details of their liaisons emerged as Cashman sought to use their sexual relationship as part of his defence. But any hope the woman would be embarrassed into backing out was misplaced, as she fought at every turn, giving evidence from behind a screen to protect her identity.

In a series of exchanges, the woman locked horns with Prof John Cooper KC, Cashman’s barrister, often leaving him riled and unable to keep control of the narrative and, on one occasion, rendering one of Britain’s top lawyers noticeably flustered.

The woman variously described Cashman as a “thug with a little willy”, talked about his lovemaking prowess – the first time was “actually amazing”, the third time “lasted about 56 seconds” – and lambasted his inability to get an erection.

Whip-smart and defiant, if somewhat chaotic, she demanded to know why each sexual question was important, reminding the court, “We’re here for justice for someone’s family. We’re here for a little girl, a tiny little girl.”

Her language cut through the pomposity of the court and she challenged everything from Cooper’s line of questioning and his choice of words, to his facial expressions. She told him: “I suggest you shouldn’t look at me like that again. I’m not a child, I’m a grown woman. I don’t take shit.”

Another time, she remarked: “We can all smirk. I’m more than ready for you so come on.”

The woman was quick to put the exchanges into the real-world context, reminding those who might have been susceptible to being carried away with the courtroom drama after days of dry CCTV evidence: “I’ve ruined my whole life for this.”

And it was she who came across the bigger person, saying: “Cashman’s done what he’s done and he can’t own it, love. I’ve got a lot of compassion. If I believe something I’ll fight it until my point has been heard.”

The defence described her as a woman who “lied and lied and lied again to the police” but it seemed jurors ultimately found her credible. Her reasons for lying in police interviews, to prevent the fling being exposed to her partner and to protect another person from being charged with assisting an offender, seemed plausible.

The jury apparently did not buy the characterisation of an angry, vindictive spurned woman put forward by the defence and found her much closer to what she portrayed herself as, a brave woman whose life was “annihilated” by a casual fling with a child killer who turned up at her home.

But it was not so clear cut and Cashman too held his own in the courtroom against the charges, with evidence that was far from conclusive.

Though the nature of the shooting may have seemed chaotic and even bumbling, there was none of that in Cashman’s character in court. Tommy, as he is known, engaged to his childhood sweetheart, Kaylee, was softly spoken, intelligent and articulate enough not to present as a thug, though he dropped out of school at 13 and openly described himself as a “drug dealer” in court. In his blue jumper with a white shirt and tie, he looked more like an office worker than someone who freely admitted earning upwards of £150,000 dealing cannabis.

His answers were considered and, like the woman who was accusing him, he had a plausible response to every question, poking holes in the crown’s case. When asked whether he had a pair of the tracksuit bottoms the gunman was wearing in the CCTV footage played in court, he said: “Everybody wears them tracksuit bottoms and them trainies I wear … Everybody in the whole of Liverpool.”

He was right: an expert witness, the designer of the Monterrain tracksuit, was called to testify it was a bestseller.

Cashman was abreast of the more technical evidence of his case too, at one point arguing: “The forensic woman said if somebody went to [the witness’s] house and they had just let off a firearm and they took the clothes off and flung them in the kitchen she’d expect a very high level of gunshot residue to be around that area. There was nothing whatsoever in that area … They took swabs everywhere and there was nothing.”

He was quick to point out when he was arrested two days after the murder that there were no marks on his body, despite the CPS claiming he had jumped garden fences to flee the scene, and he said it would have been impossible for him to enter the woman’s home without being caught on CCTV.

The prosecution asked him: “You seem to know a lot about CCTV?”

He responded: “I’ve been looking at CCTV. I’m in prison for something I’ve not done. I’m looking at my papers. I’ve noticed there’s cameras.”

Throughout his trial he maintained he was set up and that Nee had been a “mate”.

His voice cracked as he said: “I’m getting blamed for killing a child. I’ve got my own children. I’m not a killer, I’m a dad. I’m getting blamed for something I haven’t done.”

His defence was strong and parts of the evidence, such as multiple witnesses describing a gunman shorter and thinner than Cashman and the lack of a motive put forward by the prosecution, will have proved a challenge for the jury during deliberations.

Cashman’s prompt conviction – he will be sentenced at a later date – could be a sign that tolerance for organised crime in Merseyside is running low. But the fact of an ordinary cannabis dealer recklessly wielding two handguns on residential streets demonstrates how much work is still left to do.