Deborah Orr: Sarah is a victim for our times

No recent crime has provoked such deep public disquiet as the murder of Sarah Payne. Is there anything we can learn from it?
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The Independent Online

Thank heavens for forensic evidence. Without it, it is hard to see how a jury could have felt themselves "beyond reasonable doubt" in convicting Roy Whiting. One nine-inch blonde hair was all that linked Whiting to Sarah Payne. Twenty-seven tiny fibres, most of them "indistinguishable", linked the contents of Whiting's van to Sarah's body, and to the only part of her clothing that was recovered, her sandal.

If he had destroyed the clothing and fabrics in his van on 1 July, when he abducted and murdered eight-year-old Sarah, those links could not have been made. It is a miracle that he didn't, because in most other respects Whiting was scrupulous in covering up his hideous crime.

He removed the wooden panels that had lined the inside of his white van the next day; he jet-washed it inside and out; and he changed the back doors for ones with windows. He expected, he told a former police officer who was placed in the next cell to him on remand, to "get away with it", and to "slaughter the police" in court.

He did not get away with it, even though the jury did not know the reasons why police suspicion had fallen on him so quickly in the first place. When they did hear of Whiting's previous conviction, for the abduction and indecent assault of a nine-year-old girl, one of the jury broke down. The nine men and three women who deliberated for nine hours before delivering their unanimous verdict had no idea that this dangerous man was already on the sex offenders' register. They had no idea that he had already been sentenced to four years years in jail for a similar offence, years during which he refused again and again to take part in the sex offenders' treatment programme.

If he had accepted treatment, Whiting would have been out of prison in two years. Because he was "in denial", he served three. A psychiatrist at the time assessed him as being "a high-risk repeat offender". Nevertheless, despite the deep concern of probation officers, he was supervised after his release for only the few months that the law allowed.

The rules have been changed since then, and now a first offender such as Whiting was can be supervised for a decade after his sentence has been completed. Few of the many people who have followed this highly emotive and heartbreaking case would consider this anything like enough of a precaution. I have to confess that I'm one of them.

I say "confess", because I do think there are good reasons for exercising the most extreme caution when looking into the implications of the Sarah Payne case. It is not necessarily an ideal catalyst for the revising of statutes, even though it has been seized upon as battering ram for the forcing of profound change. In fact, the extreme emotion that has surrounded the case from the start should be a signal to us all to tread carefully rather than to leap in.

From the beginning the reaction to the loss of Sarah Payne has been extraordinary. First there was, in the 17 days prior to the discovery of Sarah's scrape of a grave, intense media attention and huge public denial of the possibility of Sarah's death.

Even though it became more starkly obvious day by day that Sarah was lost, the public continued to bombard the police with sightings, in response to the appeals made by Sarah's parents and even, on one occasion, by a pop group. These young people played out a stomach-churning exercise in wish-fulfilment by speaking directly to Sarah in the hope that she might be sitting watching.

Even before her body was discovered it was plain that feelings were running high. By 17 July the media and the public were uniquely outraged in great numbers. The anger and disgust had to go somewhere, and with the incendiary introduction of a News Of The World campaign in "naming and shaming" paedophiles, sections of the population went on the rampage. They attacked sex offenders named in the newspaper, and demonstrated in areas where it was found that a particularly high concentration of paedophiles appeared to have been housed. Inevitably they made some mistakes, sometimes attacking people whose identities were mistaken and, on one chilling occasion, displaying their hysterical, dangerous ignorance by attacking the home of a paediatrician.

In the light of these events, it was with great sadness that I watched Sara Payne – Sarah's mother – yesterday vowing to continue campaigning for the adoption of "Sarah's Law", whereby parents would have access to the sex offenders' register. It was with great revulsion that I saw a News Of The World executive pledging that his newspaper would offer every support in her effort.

I cannot begin to imagine the enormity of this woman's loss, and I would like to see her given almost anything that might help her to reach a semblance of acceptance of the dreadful crime that was visited upon her child. Almost anything. At Sarah's Law – this green light for vigilantism, this invitation for paedophiles to go completely underground – I stop.

And I'm not the only person who feels this way. Most of the people in this country charged with making such a decision share my view. To encourage Sara Payne to dedicate herself to the chasing of this impossible ambition seems guaranteed only to prolong her frustration and her agony.

Many aspects of our legal system can be changed to honour the needless loss of Sarah, and to protect children who in the future may wish for nothing more than to walk across a field unmolested. But a law that in effect turns sex offenders over to the mob cannot be countenanced.

Instead we should be considering invoking indeterminate sentences for sex offenders, so that the most dangerous of paedophiles can be incarcerated until they are no longer a danger to the public. None of the professionals involved in assessing Whiting during his first sentence appeared to believe he was anything like ready to be released. But 30 highly dangerous offenders, half of them sex offenders, are released from our prisons each year.

As for the sex offenders programme, which Whiting refused to take part in; well, it is ludicrous that he still had his sentence cut by a year when the man was in such obvious denial. Denial is meat and drink to paedophiles, as I have recently been reminded. Writing a couple of weeks ago about the internet paedophile ring that has been smashed by the police, I suggested that sentences of months rather than years were too short for such offenders.

Several paedophiles got in touch to protest, some anonymously by sending pornography to me through this newspaper's e-mail system, some with lengthy letters of justification. One anonymous writer said: "At its root, male sexual interest is largely aroused by unspoiled beauty... Children of course have this in abundance. If we are honest, child erotica on the internet meets a huge hidden need. At root, if only we could admit it, this is a love of unspoiled life and loveliness." And of course the love of being the one to spoil it.

Another was far less in denial: "I rarely drink, and have never had a drug problem. I have had normal sexual relations with my wife, and with other partners. I have raised a family (two boys) of which I can be proud. Yet still, I am a paedophile. I ask myself, every day, why did this happen to me? What did I do to deserve it?

"Despite this, I take a strange pride in my predicament. If I see a beautiful, sexy little girl in the street that other men cannot appreciate, I feel superior, as if other men are missing out. A paedophile is literally a lover of children. I would no more want to harm a child than I would my own mother. This is of course at odds with what I desire in my mind. The main concern for me is to control my fantasies."

It is important to remember that not all paedophiles are like Whiting. Some of them do want to be helped, and this country's offenders' programme, the biggest in the world, does have a good success rate. A person who refuses to take part in the programme, though, is almost by definition a serious problem and therefore a danger to the public. Those paedophiles who seek to justify their behaviour can be made to see the depravity of their ways. Those who struggle with it, will surely co-operate with the help they are given in controlling their impulses. We cannot abandon the possibility of rehabilitation, because it can work. Adopting Sarah's Law is, in effect, an abandonment of rehabilitation.

Of course the fear here is that devious paedophiles will trick the specialists and mistakes might be made. All efforts must be made to avoid this, including indefinite supervision in many cases.

In the light of this, we should also be considering the possibility of letting juries have knowledge of previous offences, especially when such revelations can display evidence of a particular modus operandi. The manner in which Whiting abducted and attacked the young child – known for obvious reasons as Miss H – is strikingly similar in practical detail to that of Sarah Payne's abduction.

There is a precedent for such a move. In one rape case, a man had been accused of rape many times by many women and had been acquitted each time by using exactly the same defence. In a special dispensation, the judge allowed for evidence of this to be presented to the jury, and for the first time the man was convicted.

But these is one thing above all others we must do when considering the dreadful murder of Sarah Payne. We must remind ourselves that such deaths are rare. By failing to summon compassion when dealing with paedophiles, however difficult it may be to do so, we may inadvertently create a climate in which more children die. The chief witness against Whiting the first time was Miss H. Maybe the removal of the chief witness was the reason why Whiting was so certain that this time he would "get away with it".