A helping hand from an unlikely source

The vilification of Carr, the threats, the red-top stories, the ignorant revulsion of fellow prisoners, are all shameful
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The Independent Online

Michael Hubbard QC, who represented Maxine Carr at her fraud trial yesterday, certainly did his best by her. Even though she pleaded guilty to all 20 of the charges against her, he was determined that he would leave no stone unturned in his presentation of mitigating circumstances.

He points out that all but one of Carr's fraudulent claims was carried out while she was going out with Ian Huntley, and under his pernicious and abusive influence. This one count, of lying about her qualifications on a job application, was perpetrated when she was19 years old and in pursuit of a job at a fish packing plant.

Mr Hubbard claimed that: "She was not the first and she will not be the last to exaggerate her qualifications in order to get a job. Some may say it beggars belief that, eight years later, she has found herself being prosecuted." He went on to suggest that the prosecution was "mischievous" and that it "had the hand of the Home Office on it throughout".

Pointing out that the Home Office had already stepped in once to lengthen Carr's time in custody, Mr Hubbard recalled that the governor of Holloway Prison had wanted Carr to be released under an electronic tagging scheme, but that the law has been changed specifically to stop this. He must now be reasonably pleased with the results his ministrations have obtained. Carr has been sentenced to a three-year community rehabilitation order, and not to the further prison sentence that some people expected. She will still be released at the end of the week, although the course her life might now take is anyone's guess.

Mr Hubbard, once more, was eloquent in expressing what may lie ahead for Carr. "It is difficult to think of a more wretched creature, blighted, daunted, restricted, always looking over her shoulder." He said the relentless press interest served only to "stoke up the fires of public indignation", and added: "When I say that, I offer no word of comfort to her for what she did, but the penalty has now been paid for that. She has but one plea for Your Honour, that she may be left in peace to recreate, in herself, a new heart and that she may be free to live her life again."

Oddly enough, though, my suspicion is that this latest phalanx of convictions, far from being a malicious attempt to punish Carr further, was actually, despite appearances, a rather fiendishly clever attempt to protect her. When it was first announced that these charges were being pursued, I was horrified. I, like Mr Hubbard, felt that the Home Office was simply reacting to the worst sort of popular-press-led public opinion, by pursuing Carr unfairly.

The day she was formally charged, though, I realised that, for the first time in many, many weeks, there would not be a lurid splash about Maxine Carr in the Sunday red-tops. Sympathetic sources inside Holloway Prison had been concerned for months about how depressing and debilitating Carr had been finding the drip-drip of nasty stories about her.

The constant attention, designed to show her in the worst possible light, and to stoke up a mob mentality of hatred and anger, made the possibility of her uneventful release all but impossible. This vulnerable prisoner, who has been in the hospital wings of the prisons she has served her sentence in throughout, was so relentlessly vilified by the popular press that the coverage itself had become a feature of her punishment.

But after her commitment to trial, and for quite some weeks, Carr and her activities could not be reported. Red-top tales about Maxine, all of a sudden, were in contempt of court. The result has been that she has been moved to an open prison, Foston Hall, in preparation for her release, with a bit of respite from the gaze of the press.

Further, as long as the complaints that had been made against Carr by the various agencies involved had not been dealt with, the popular press was free to make trouble about these as well. Most damaging was the charge that she had obtained her job at St Andrews Primary School, through which she had met Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman, by misrepresenting her qualifications. This is not strictly true, since she was first employed at the school as a volunteer and did not initially fill out an application form. But because of the possibility that this was a direct link in the chain of events that led to Ian Huntley's targeting of Holly and Jessica, the accusation remained powerful. Now it has been dealt with, and a line has been drawn under all the illegal activities Carr undertook while with Huntley.

Meanwhile, at this crucial time, there has been another opportunity for some important information about Carr's relationship with Huntley to be got across to the public. Mr Hubbard, in his plea for mitigation, emphasised that Carr's relationship with Huntley was abusive. The money she obtained from representing herself as Huntley's tenant, rather than as his live-in girlfriend, was handed over to him. Complaints or threats to leave him were countered with his suggestion that he would inform the authorities of her benefit fraud. When blackmail failed, he would hit and kick Carr.

Carr, anorexic, suffering from obsessive-compulsive disorders and panic attacks, naive and vulnerable, was herself a victim of Huntley, rather than an accomplice. Her behaviour in the relationship with Huntley, right down to her wild flirtations in Grimsby when she had escaped from him for an evening, are typical of a woman in an abusive relationship. Her attempts to protect him from what he claimed were the unfair attentions of the police, fitted exactly into this pattern.

Details of Carr's life in prison, unreported by the prees, tell of a young woman who worked hard to turn her cell into the sort of little room a teenager would covet, all cuddly toys and pink bows. Carr is young for her age, eager to please, insecure, slight, easily influenced, the sort of young woman that a predatory paedophile might find appealing.

Testimony from prison suggests that Carr is a sweet girl, although she is also manipulative in a childlike way. She has little comprehension of what has happened to her, and what will happen to her. When she is frightened, she cries for her mother.

Finally, on her release, Carr will now be facing a three-year community rehabilitation sentence. Again, while this might look punitive, I cannot help feeling that, instead, it is smart. For a time, every attempt Carr makes at taking a job or earning a living will be dogged by her notoriety. But how can any criticism accrue when the work she is doing is, in fact, part of a sentence handed down by the court?

The vilification of Carr, the threats, the red-top stories, the ignorant and unfounded revulsion of fellow prisoners, are all shameful. But the signals from the Home Office - a department for which it has become second nature to disguise any progressive act under the rhetoric of savagery - are misleading. Paradoxically, since her arrest on these 20 petty charges, I've felt that the Home Office is perhaps committed to helping this poor scrap of a girl as much as it can, without further arousing the illiberal mob.

It is typically "New Labour" to manipulate the worst of public feeling rather than to confront it. But at least all those of us who are deeply concerned about Carr's future life, can take a measure of solace from the hope that the Home Office is not nearly as hostile to her as it appears to be.