At first glance Lissie Harper’s artfully curated Instagram page reflects an idyllic life. Photographs of her cuddling her cat and walking in meadows sit alongside others featuring holidays abroad, her hen night and her wedding to her childhood sweetheart, Andrew. Yet, the words accompanying some of the posts reveal her true story, one of grief and loss which began 18 months ago when Andrew, a police officer, was killed in the line of duty.
Next to a picture of herself staring out to sea, Lissie notes: “Grief is like living two lives. One is where you pretend that everything is all right, and the other is where your heart silently screams in pain.” Accompanying a photo of her and Andrew kissing on their wedding day, posted on the anniversary of his funeral, she’s written: “‘I miss you’ doesn’t even come close to the hollowness that has encapsulated me these past 14 months. My life is missing its brightest spark.”
The future she had envisaged as they exchanged vows in a stone temple in the grounds of a Georgian manor house in front of family and friends in July 2019 was obliterated a month later when Andrew was called out to reports of a quad bike theft in Sulhamstead, Berkshire. As he tried to stop three teenagers, his feet became tangled in a tow rope attached to the back of their getaway car and he was dragged along country lanes for more than a mile, suffering catastrophic, unsurvivable injuries. He was 28 years old.
On a biting cold January afternoon, Lissie, is curled up on the sofa in her cosy 17th-century cottage in Oxfordshire explaining to me over Zoom how she’s coped in the aftermath. She lets out a long sigh. “I had two choices: sit and rock in the corner and fall apart or keep going.” Her support network is strong, she says, comprising close family, lots of friends and Andrew’s “amazing” colleagues. While the lockdowns have been tough because she can’t see people or take trips to distract her, in other ways she welcomed a break from the intense media interest that Andrew’s death and the subsequent court case of the three teenagers attracted.
She excels at overthinking, she says. Her solution? “Keeping busy.”
Lissie studied art at college and in her late 20s, after jobs painting ceramics and designing wedding cakes, she started a business, hand printing her work on to clothing and accessories. In recent months, however, she’s pushed herself out of her creative comfort zone and has become increasingly well-versed in the law – because she’s intent on introducing a new one. Harper’s Law, named after her husband, proposes a life sentence with a mandatory minimum term for anyone guilty of killing an emergency worker (including police officers, firefighters and paramedics among others) while committing a crime.
Lissie’s decision to campaign for Harper’s Law – which has its fair share of critics – was born out of her frustration at the length of the sentences given to the young men who killed Andrew.
Following a trial at the Old Bailey, the trio were cleared of murder, but convicted of manslaughter. The driver, Henry Long, 19, was jailed for 16 years, while his passengers, Albert Bowers and Jessie Cole, both 18, were sentenced to 13 years each.
For Lissie, their punishment did not fit the crime – a view also held by the popular press and the attorney general Suella Braverman, who referred the jail terms to the court of appeal to consider whether they were too lenient. But just before Christmas, the appeal was dismissed by the judges, who said they fell within sentencing guidelines.
It was another significant blow for Lissie. She had sat through the hearing, an ordeal heightened by the fact that at the same time Long, Bowers and Cole were asking the judge to reduce their manslaughter sentences (they failed). Their faces were beamed into the panelled court room in London’s Royal Courts of Justice via a live link from Belmarsh Prison.
They appeared to Lissie to have no remorse. “It’s all a game to them, really. They haven’t changed; they were sitting there like nothing really matters.” Lissie is softly spoken and measured as she talks, but there’s a flash of the anger deep inside her when she explains how she tries not to think about her husband’s killers because – and here her voice rises and quickens – “I will never understand them.”
She grew up in Oxfordshire with her older sister, younger brother and parents, Simon, who owns a car restoration company, and Julie, who works at a pet-rehoming centre, and began dating classmate Andrew at secondary school. They enjoyed what she calls “a simple life” filled with country walks, socialising with friends and family, and watching films. Andrew – whom she describes as “upbeat, kind and always joking about” – shared her love of travel and they took a career break in their mid-20s, visiting 14 countries, including Sri Lanka, Bali and Australia, over seven months.
On their return they bought their one-bedroom cottage, enchanted by the wood-burning stove and beamed ceilings (they checked that Andrew, who stood at 6ft 5in to Lissie’s 5ft 3in, could clear them before they put in an offer). In 2017, on a trip to Sorrento, Italy, Andrew proposed as they walked along a cliff path at sunset. “We had a lot to look forward to,” Lissie says.
The Court of Appeal’s decision strengthened Lissie’s determination to see Harper’s Law become a reality. In her view, the ruling “said it all – these are the guidelines that judges are working from and it’s not enough”.
Lissie, who is working in conjunction with the Police Federation of England and Wales on the campaign, suggests that Harper’s Law might create a “separate conviction” or “new offence” to murder and manslaughter. She emphasises that they are not seeking whole-life sentences and have yet to decide what the mandatory minimum term should be.
Lissie said: “We don’t want this to be some kind of political battle – that’s not what it’s about. I’m quite positive about the support we’re getting from both sides.”
After the court of appeal’s decision, Patel reiterated her support, saying: “Robert Buckland [the justice secretary] and I are working together to look at the changes we can bring in law. We owe it to them [Andrew’s family] to give them justice.”
As soon as it’s possible, the campaign team hopes to meet with lawyers and civil servants to thrash out the finer details, before publication of a final draft.
“Writing a law is very complicated, I’ve come to know,” Lissie laughs. “We want to get that spot on and then we can use all the support we’ve got, including the cross-party support, to do the more political side of things.”
Lobbying politicians, mugging up on the legal system, appearing on TV and radio to publicise her mission… It’s a far cry from what she thought she’d be doing at 30.
She exhales loudly. “Yes! It’s a whole different world, going into the House of Commons and everything. At certain points I’ve thought it’s strange for me to be pushing this so much, but it has to be someone who’s really passionate about it and for whom it’s personal.”
She’s buoyed up by the 750,000 people who’ve signed a petition calling for Harper’s Law, although she realises support for it is not universal. The former deputy assistant commissioner of the Metropolitan police, Stephen Roberts, has said it won’t act as a deterrent and that judges should be able to exercise discretion. Others believe victims should be treated equally, emergency worker or not.
Lissie rejects these points. “We’re not saying that a police officer deserves more, it’s not about that. It’s about giving them a level of protection that they don’t have and also, potentially, it being some kind of deterrent. At the moment there’s nothing, and there’s little respect. Anything to make people want to carry on doing these dangerous jobs… I think it’s the least we can try and do.
“If people lead a life of crime and see their friends or family commit a crime, go to court and get a lenient sentence, that will have some kind of effect in terms of, ‘They did that, they got away with it.’”
Some lawyers point out that guilt in offences of manslaughter is wildly variable, ranging from the horrific circumstances of Andrew’s death to the throwing of a bottle into a crowd which kills an emergency worker.
“That will be very finely written into the legal side of things,” Lissie says. “If something is an accident, then it will be dealt with by different legislation. There’s got to be a level of culpability, a level of intent – somebody has to go out and commit a crime and sod what happens to anyone – that’s the key to this sort of legislation.”
When Lissie used to worry about the dangers of Andrew’s job, she consoled herself by thinking that he was always “so strong, capable and fearless”. Ultimately, these attributes couldn’t save him. “That’s why I’m pushing for Harper’s Law,” she says, “to give protection to the people who protect us.”