Rantzen hails ruling over Baby P case rapist

ChildLine founder Esther Rantzen today welcomed a "historic" ruling by top judges to throw out a rape conviction appeal brought by one of the trio jailed over the death of Baby Peter.

The Lord Chief Justice, Lord Judge, sitting with two other judges in the Court of Appeal in London, threw out a challenge by Steven Barker against his conviction for the rape of a two-year-old girl.

In reaching their decision the judges rejected an argument on 33-year-old Barker's behalf that a conviction based mainly on the evidence of a very young child could never be regarded as safe.

In Barker's case his victim, referred to only as X and who must not be identified, gave evidence when she was aged four-and-a-half.

Barker, who claimed he did not have a fair trial, argued that an Old Bailey judge should have excluded her evidence and ruled she was not a "competent" witness.

Lord Judge said that at the heart of the appeal was a submission that "it is not acceptable for a conviction, very heavily dependent on the evidence of a child as young as four-and-a-half years, describing events said to have occurred when she was not yet three years old, to be regarded as safe".

He added: "In reality what we are being asked to consider is an underlying submission that no such conviction can ever be safe."

But he ruled: "The short answer is that it is open to a properly directed jury, unequivocally directed about the dangers and difficulties of doing so, to reach a safe conclusion on the basis of the evidence of a single competent witness, whatever his or her age, and whatever his or her disability.

"The ultimate verdict is the responsibility of the jury."

Lord Judge said of X: "She was indeed a compelling as well as a competent witness. On all the evidence this jury was entitled to conclude that the allegation was proved."

Reacting after the ruling, Ms Rantzen said the handing down of the judgment in court lasted only minutes, but it represented "one of the most crucial moments for children and adults in our history because at stake was the validity of a child's evidence".

She was "profoundly relieved" over the ruling on the competency of children to give evidence.

Ms Rantzen said of Barker's victim: "Her evidence will protect generations of young children and vulnerable adults.

"The fact that she was able to give what the judges described as not just competent, but compelling evidence means that other children will be heard."

Lord Judge said many suspicions and misunderstandings about children, and their capacity to understand the nature and purpose of an oath and to give truthful and accurate evidence at a trial, have been "swept away".

Barker, who was in a relationship with the mother of tragic Peter Connelly, was handed a 12-year sentence for causing or allowing the death of the 17-month-old.

He was also sentenced to life after being convicted of rape at a separate trial. He has to serve a minimum term of 10 years before he can seek parole.

Lord Judge, Lady Justice Hallett and Mrs Justice Macur also dismissed his appeal against sentence.

Peter's mother, Tracey Connelly, 28, of Penshurst Road, Tottenham, north London, and lodger Jason Owen, 37, of Bromley, south-east London, were also put behind bars over the child's death.

Peter was found dead in a blood-spattered cot in August 2007.

He had more than 50 injuries, including fractured ribs and a broken back, despite being on the at-risk register and receiving 60 visits from social workers, doctors and police over eight months.

Barker and Owen, who are brothers, were convicted by a jury of causing or allowing the death of a child, while the mother earlier pleaded guilty to the charge.

Lord Judge said that Peter died in "horrific" and "lamentable" circumstances of appalling injuries.

Both he and the rape victim were "exceptionally vulnerable by reason of their ages and the appellant's activity represented a gross breach of trust".

The trial judge had been satisfied that Barker played a major role in the events of December 2006 to August 2007 which led to Peter's death.

Lord Judge said: "All the reports upon the appellant indicate he is a danger to young children. We agree with the judge that his culpability was high and the offences particularly grave.

"These crimes were simultaneously incomprehensible and truly appalling."

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