I'll tell you who I don't blame for the Damilola trial debacle. I don't blame the police and I don't blame the Crown Prosecution Service. Both were on a hiding to nothing from the moment that the words "Boy's death shocks the whole nation" appeared on a front page, and from the first screening of the CCTV footage of the doomed Damilola's earlier happy journey to Peckham library.
Then, of course, action had to be taken, culprits had to be found. If no one had been arrested, then the police would have been accused of ignoring another black boy's death – accused by the very people now complaining about the outcome of the trial. If no one had been prosecuted the CPS would have been charged with being dilatory and incompetent.
As one correspondent wrote to me yesterday, when it was discovered that the body in Sunbury lock did not belong to Milly Dowling, but to some anonymous 70-year-old: "Hundreds of people disappear every year, but unless they are female, white and – crucially – young, it ain't news and I expect to hear no more about the identity of the corpse." One can imagine the pressure that the police are under in one case, and the lack of pressure on them in the other.
Immediately the acquittals of the last two defendants – brothers – were announced, the BBC's correspondent Andy Tighe, at the Old Bailey, opined: "A lot of questions will be asked about the manner in which the police conducted this investigation." Their witnesses were crap, especially the histrionic 14-year-old girl codenamed Bromley; they had relied too much on evidence dredged up from the inmates of various penal establishments. They had assumed a murder, whereas there was a perfectly good case for the death itself having been a terrible accident.
What a shame that Damilola didn't die in the middle of Woking or Wimbledon, where the police would have received the full co-operation of everyone within a couple of square miles, where shamefaced parents might well have brought their offspring along to the station to give voluntary witness statements. Instead his artery was severed in a part of Peckham where, as the CPS acknowledged, it was hard to get anyone to talk. Bromley and the borstal boys were all the embattled forces of law and order had. And whose fault is that?
Last night's Panorama special on BBC1 (a special moral panic edition, and therefore allowed to be screened at a time when human beings are actually awake) gave immediate context to Damilola's death. The acquitted boys had been part of a local gang. This gang, among other boyish pranks, sexually assaulted girls, smashed a Turkish Cypriot print worker over the head with a roads works barrier and intimidated witnesses. Bricks were thrown through windows, lighted material pushed through doors, and doorbells rung all night. "We are the untouchables," a girl was told after one attack, committed as neighbours watched.
These boys are people who are living in conditions of reverse morality. Good is bad to them, and bad is good. And yet defence counsels – counsels for these same boys and their friends – are now criticising the police. For the brothers, lawyer Chris Hartnell said the police were guilty of "political opportunism". "There was no evidence worthy of credit in the whole case," he complained, seemingly unaware of the irony. The whole thing had been a terrible ordeal for the poor little blighters. Their mother was cross too. "They're not as bad as what a lot of people make 'em out to be," she told the BBC. "I know they're not capable of such a thing." She hugged them when the jury gave its verdict.
Yet, as the BBC's Niall Dickson reported yesterday, the brothers have several minor convictions, and have also faced charges of witness intimidation, indecent assault and ordinary assault. Two years ago a judge allowed them to escape prosecution on serious counts, because of a four-year-old report from an educational psychologist concluding that they would not be able to comprehend the court proceedings.
Three others were charged with the same offences. The judge ruled thus: "Those two defendants are unlikely to understand what is going on... So far as the other three are concerned ... it would be totally wrong for them to stand trial, the others having escaped... from a trial." Now how would you react to that if you were the victim, the police or the CPS?
If there has to be an adversarial judicial system, then we must allow that defence lawyers have to do their level best to get even vile little delinquents off scot-free. After all, the prosecutor is doing the same in reverse. With such a legal system, all of a sudden it makes you appreciate those vigilante movies that Michael Winner used to make. As to parents who complacently support their violent or misbehaving sons against authority or other parents, well, this is almost epidemic.
Every head teacher has encountered the mum or dad who has neglected their child, who shouts at them, who may hit them, but who will deny and deny and deny that their boy has done anything wrong. And this isn't simply the prerogative of the underclass, either.
One police officer working in the Peckham area decided to research the backgrounds of the dozen most persistent and violent juvenile offenders on his patch. He found that "10 of the 12 had been abused by the male family father figure; they weren't actually fathers, but they were the father figure. Fifty per cent of them had been violently assaulted during that abuse... at a very young age". The death of Damilola, and – just as importantly – the ruining of many other lives, probably lies in that abuse. And how the hell can the police and the Crown Prosecution Service and the schools and the Government be held responsible for all of that?
Poverty may be part of the problem. Cultural change another factor, violence on telly yet another. But what is as clear as day to me is that it is the family where it all goes wrong. All you need to qualify you to bring another human being into the world is a womb and access to some sperm. You don't need a brain or even a conscience. When that child exists, the services that can help to identify and resolve problems in its home are underfunded, lacking in morale, and are sometimes over-criticised. To remove a child often means fostering or care homes, which too are under-resourced and undervalued. Not by the Government, but undervalued by us. We should be banging on the town hall doors demanding to pay more council tax for these services. Some bloody chance.Reuse content