Joan Smith: When is a child not a child?

Frenzy still surrounds Jamie Bulger's killers. But with two boys guilty of attempted rape, the consensus is they were too young to understand what they were doing

Share
Related Topics

Rituals are comforting: they create a sense of togetherness and help people cope with traumatic events. But they are not universally benign, as recent events in the criminal justice system attest. Two days ago, the hugely controversial trial of two boys from west London for rape and attempted rape concluded at the Old Bailey. On this occasion, the headlines – the ritual which guides our response – have been overwhelmingly exculpatory of the defendants. Despite the fact that both boys were convicted of attempted rape, the consensus is that they were too young – they were both 10 at the time of the assaults – to understand what was happening and the trial should never have taken place.

"Why were children forced to go through rape trial?" demanded the Daily Mail, a newspaper not usually sympathetic to youngsters charged with violent offences. One answer was supplied by Alison Saunders, chief prosecutor at the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) in London, who said that the eight-year-old victim "had given a clear and compelling account to the police" which was "consistent with the medical evidence and with the accounts given by other witnesses". It should be noted here that the CPS is not exactly known for taking weak cases to court, which is one of the reasons why so few reported rapes end in convictions in this country.

I shall return to the evidence in the west London case in a moment, but first I want to point out the extraordinary inconsistency of public responses to instances of child-on-child violence. Two other cases come to mind in this context: the abduction and murder of a toddler, James Bulger, by two 10-year-olds on Merseyside in 1993, and the near-fatal assault on two boys in Edlington, a village just outside Doncaster, in April last year.

The horrific injuries inflicted on James Bulger have been rehearsed too often to need repetition; the attackers in the Edlington case were brothers, aged 10 and 12, who stamped on their young victims, attacked them with stones and broken glass, and forced one of them to strip and perform a sex act. Both cases prompted bouts of anguished soul-searching about "feral" youngsters, along with demands for condign punishment of the defendants. The recent return to prison of one of the young men convicted of the Bulger murder prompted frenzied demands that his new identity should be revealed, even though it's obvious that doing so would place him in mortal peril.

Neither forgiveness nor the possibility of rehabilitation has played a role in either case, while the public assumption has always been that the youthful perpetrators knew exactly what they were doing. That seems to include the ghastly sexual assaults which featured in both cases, whereas the consensus about the two west London boys – who were identical in age to the children who attacked James Bulger – is that they were too young to understand that some kinds of sexual behaviour are wrong.

This was the argument advanced in court in their defence, namely that a consensual game of "doctors and nurses" had been blown out of all proportion and turned into something much more sinister. In the wake of the verdicts, this explanation found favour among columnists who suggested that the decision to take the case to trial was evidence of a massive failure of common sense.

Writing in yesterday's Times, the former Director of Public Prosecutions, Ken Macdonald, argued that games of "You show me yours and I'll show you mine" happen in every playground in the country. "When did we forget?" he lamented. Around the same time, I should say, that "we" forgot the standard defence of just about every rapist who has the misfortune to find himself in court. It goes like this: I climbed in through her bedroom window, which she'd left open, and how was I to know she didn't want sex? She danced with me in a club and I walked her home, so naturally I assumed she wanted to have sex. Every single one of them believes, quite sincerely, that the victim was willing, even if she was unconscious or shouting "No!" at the top of her voice.

Indeed the most obvious explanation for the discrepancy in responses to the west London trial and others involving child-defendants is that the former has been seen primarily as a rape case, with all the baggage that that involves. As in any adult rape trial, the victim was questioned to the point of exhaustion, the seriousness of the assault played down (just "doctors and nurses") and the outcome widely seen as unfair to the defendants.

Press reports of the case focused on the victim changing her story under cross-examination, placing little if any weight on the fact – pointed out by the judge when he refused pleas from defence barristers to dismiss the case – that she had been entirely consistent in her account to police and doctors before the trial. Mr Justice Saunders said he was unhappy about the way such a young child had been treated in the witness box, and asked for a report on potential psychological damage to the girl. His anxiety was echoed by an NSPCC lawyer, Barbara Esam, who said that many young witnesses do not understand the questions they are asked under cross-examination.

What is truly amazing about this case, however, is that there seems to have been little dispute in court about whether the girl was sexually assaulted. During legal argument which took place in the absence of the jury, one of the defence barristers admitted to the judge that "there is evidence of sexual assault and we do not dispute that".

On the day of the attack, the victim's mother was alerted by a five-year-old boy who told her that the two defendants were "doing really bad things" to her daughter. When questioned by police, each boy blamed the other, with one of them saying explicitly that his friend "kissed her and then entered her". The older boy admitted exposing himself and touching the girl in a sexual way. The jury listened to all the evidence and found both boys guilty of attempted rape.

There is a question in my mind about the morality of trying children in adult courts, but the public mood is as inconsistent on this issue as the popular press. In this latest case, it's clear that the person who suffered most during the trial was the victim – and that's an indictment of the way the criminal justice treats victims of sexual assault, regardless of how old they are.

www. politicalblonde.com

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Telesales & Customer Service Executives - Outbound & Inbound

£7 - £9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: Are you outgoing? Do you want to work in...

Recruitment Genius: National Account Manager / Key Account Sales

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity has arisen for a...

Recruitment Genius: Operations Manager

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An exciting opportunity to join...

Recruitment Genius: Recruitment Consultant

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We have an excellent role for a...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Letter from the Political Editor: Mr. Cameron is beginning to earn small victories in Europe

Andrew Grice
Pakistani volunteers carry a student injured in the shootout at a school under attack by Taliban gunmen, at a local hospital in Peshawar  

The Only Way is Ethics: The paper’s readers and users of our website want different things

Will Gore
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'