Rapist Wendell Baker sentenced to life as he finally faces justice after 1997 attack

Changes to 'double jeopardy' law meant 56-year-old Baker could face trial for same offence after walking free from court the first time due to legal mix-up

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The Independent Online

A 56-year-old man has been jailed for life after a retrial for the brutal rape of a pensioner in 1997.

Wendell Baker escaped justice when his first trial collapsed after the judge decided the case could not proceed because of a legal mix-up over the use of his DNA sample, despite it matching swabs taken from 66-year-old Hazel Backwell.

A change in the law in 2005 allowed "double jeopardy" in case of serious offences, meaning that a person could be tried twice for the same crime.

But after the collapse of the first trial, a second attempt to put Baker on trial found much of the evidence was lost or destroyed. Baker's case was reviewed in 2007 before being reopened in 2009, and he was arrested in 2011.

The unemployed builder, who was unanimously found guilty by jurors after deliberating for just over an hour on Tuesday, refused to come out of the cells to attend his sentencing where Judge Peter Rook said he would serve a minimum of 10 years and six months before being considered for parole.

Ms Backwell, who died in 2002, suffered a "terrifying ordeal" when Baker broke into her home in Stratford, east London, as she slept in January 1997. He tied her hands behind her back with flex, beat and raped her, then ransacked her house before stuffing her into a small cupboard. Ms Backwell was found by chance by neighbour George Walpole some 15 hours later, terrified and thinking she was going to die.

The attack left her too afraid to continue living alone or go out by herself and she died a recluse in a warden-assisted flat.

"Baker is free while I'm too scared to get on a bus alone," Ms Backwell said in an interview for Take a Break magazine the year before she died after waiving her anonymity.  "I used to enjoy letter-writing and knitting. Now I can't concentrate on anything. I also suffer from depression.

"Sometimes in the middle of the night, it feels as if my attacker has come back to haunt me. I sit bolt upright. But then I calm myself and realise that no one is there."

Baker was arrested in October 1998 on suspicion of rape and provided a DNA sample that matched the profile of swabs taken from Ms Backwell. He had previously supplied a sample in January 1998 that also matched.

He was rearrested in 2011 and gave further DNA samples matching the swabs taken from Ms Backwell with a probability "in the order of one in a billion", the court heard.

Judge Rook said: "But for the fact that it was a Thursday and Mr Walpole passed by, she was likely to have died as a result.

"It seems to me it's difficult to find a case of more serious rape during the course of a burglary, short of where the victim is either killed or caused very serious harm."

Ms Backwell's son, David Backwell, attended court to see his mother's attacker sent down.

The judge said: "This was a particularly grave case of the rape of a woman in her own bedroom, you having broken into her home at night. Up until then she had always felt safe and secure in her home.

"This was a planned offence to steal money. When you could not find any, you decided to punish her with a brutal and vicious attack and by raping her."

He added that Ms Backwell was beaten "black and blue" by Baker.

"Her face was unrecognisable even to her own son who only recognised her by her voice."

The court heard that Baker had been in and out of prison since the 1970s for a range of offences including burglary, theft and actual bodily harm.

A statement on behalf of Ms Backwell's family was released by the Metropolitan Police, which said "My mother was a brave and strong woman. She survived the attack and was able to give a detailed account of what Wendell Baker put her through but her life was never the same again.

"She found it difficult to remain in her much-loved home and she moved into a warden-assisted flat and this began her demise.

"My mother sadly passed away lonely, with a broken heart and a shadow of her former self, and was never able to see the man who caused her so much pain jailed for what he did.

"My mother felt as if she had been raped a second time when Wendell Baker was first acquitted. She could not understand what had happened and was left devastated. Baker was a free man and was allowed to continue with his life as if nothing had ever happened.

"Today Baker is no longer able to walk the street a free man and will have to face the stark reality of his actions. Justice has definitely been served."