Boys cleared of rape and assault of girl, 9, at school

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The Independent Online
Four boys have been cleared of raping and indecently assaulting a nine-year-old girl at their primary school. The case, says Jason Bennetto, Crime Correspondent, poses questions about how courts and the police should deal with children accused of such serious offences.

It was a terrible, harrowing story - a nine-year-old girl allegedly raped and sexually assaulted in the school lavatory by a gang of pupils aged from 9 to 11. But as the Old Bailey jury yesterday acquitted the last of the defendants, following a three-week trial, a national children's charity called for a change in the law to prevent such a trial ever being repeated.

New legislation has lowered the age at which children can be charged with rape to 10 and this case is believed to involve Britain's youngest ever defendants for that offence. Despite attempts to make Court 12 at the Old Bailey - the country's highest criminal court - more child-friendly with the use of crayons, video links and colouring books, it was condemned last night as "inappropriate".

Questions have also been asked as to whether the police and Crown prosecutors should ever have brought the case in the first place when the conviction relied so heavily on the girl's testimony. The two boys, one aged 10 and one 11, were cleared yesterday of the sex attack on the girl, now aged 10, in the boys' lavatory at their school in west London in May last year.

On Tuesday two 10-year-olds were also acquitted of the rape charges on the direction of the judge. A third 10-year-old was cleared on the same day of indecent assault. The judge said a police interviewer had asked leading and wholly improper questions of the defendant.

The girl had been raped and beaten by a group of men in her native Jamaica at the age of six before moving to Britain. She alleged that a group of five boys dragged her into lavatories at their school, forcibly stripped her, then took it in turns to rape her as the others looked on.

The headmistress of the primary school where the alleged attack took place had told the jury that one boy said the girl "wanted to do it". The girl was deeply affected by her experiences in Jamaica and had started a number of fires and told her mother that voices had made her do it. Before asking the jurors to retire, the judge had warned them: "In the light of her undoubted discrepancies in her account, her history of fantasies, her reputation at school for telling untruths and blaming others, and her vulnerable, needy personality, I strongly advise you to exercise caution before acting on her evidence alone."

After the case the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, said: "The NSPCC believes that a formal adult court setting is an inappropriate place to deal with children, whether they are victims, defendants or witnesses.

A spokeswoman for the Crown Prosecution Service said that under the present law such serious charges as rape cannot be heard at a youth court and must be tried in a criminal court.

Since the rape allegation emerged so many parents have taken their children away from the school where the alleged assault took place that the local education authority has decided to close it this summer.