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Daily View: Rape trial of two boys

Clare Spencer | 10:12 UK time, Tuesday, 25 May 2010

Commentators discuss the conviction of two boys aged 10 and 11 at the Old Bailey for attempted rape.

The Times' Legal Editor Frances Gibb outlines
the questions arising from the case:
Court drawing

"[W]hether from the perspective of the child witness/accuser or from that of the child defendants - and this case has both elements - it will fuel pressure for reform. 

"There are two obvious areas for change: the age of criminal responsibility, which at 10 for England and Wales is one of the lowest in Europe; and the issue of the right venue for such cases."

Virginia Ironside says in the Independent that children's interest in sex starts earlier than most of us would like to admit:

"Did none of the members of the jury have a normal childhood? Did none of these ever show their 'thingies' to other children behind the bike shed? If every male child were arrested for playing doctors and nurses, then I doubt if there'd be a single bloke walking the streets free today."

In the Telegraph Philip Johnston asks
if the concept of childhood has been lost:

"Boys of that age are almost certainly pre-pubescent and their interest in the little girl almost certainly non-sexual. A jury at the Old Bailey heard the evidence and found them not guily of rape but guilty of attempted rape. They will now be on the sex offenders register, though as the judge said he had no idea what that meant for children of this age. 

"Is there any other period in our history, or any other country in the world, where the pre-pubescent fumblings of children would result in a rape trial? We bombard children with sexual imagery and then are surprised when they show interest in what it means. It is astonishing that they were convicted but even more amazing is that it even came to court at all."

Ken Macdonald QC says in the Times that we are at risk of demonising damaged children and wonders if we are any nearer to the truth:

"The murder of James Bulger and, more recently, the tormented little boys in the Edlington case, were terrible examples of youthful cruelty; naturally some behaviour must lead to prosecution. But we need to keep this in the strictest proportion. We need to be more mature than to design a system of youth justice around the barbarism of the most extreme cases. 'You show me yours and I'll show you mine' litters every playground in the country. When did we forget?"

The Metropolitan Police Federation's Peter Smyth said on BBC Radio 4's Today Programme that the case wasn't just punitive:

"Justice is not just about punishment: it's a search for the truth. The families and victims need to know what the truth is. Can you imagine the hoo-ha if they hadn't been tried and two years later one or both of them assaulted another eight-year-old girl?"

Barrister Aisling Byrnes says in the Times that questioning children is not easy, but it is crucial to the truth:

"In many cases, no matter how carefully and sensitively I have sought to put the case, there is a palpable sense of disapproval on the part of some jurors. To them I am unnecessarily adding to the trauma suffered by the child by asking questions. 

"But test the evidence we must, because the reality is that witnesses do tell lies from time to time - particularly children, who may not appreciate the consequences of making false allegations. In two cases in which I was involved, the children admitted under cross-examination that they had made things up: one because she had been told to do so by her mother, who had an axe to grind; the other because she was afraid, once the police became involved, to admit that her initial allegation had been exaggerated. 

"No cross-examination of a child has ever given me satisfaction. Whatever it is that brings a child to court is a matter of regret: there can be no winners."

Co-author of the Sexual Offences Handbook and barrister Felicity Gerry criticised the case on BBC Radio 4's Today programme:

"My view is that these cases generally benefit from good social intervention rather than a prosecution. 

"Most boys of 10 or 11 know that to kill a three-year-old with an iron bar - the Bulger case - or to drop concrete on another child - the Edlington case - is wrong,
but for boys of ten or eleven sexual awareness really only comes with greater maturity. And it's those sort of issues that any decent prosecutor has to keep in mind when deciding whether to charge or not."

More from the BBC

BBC NewsBBC | Two boys guilty of attempted rape charges in London
BBC NewsBBC | Charities criticise handling of child rape trial
BBC NewsAndy McFarlane | BBC | Putting children on trial for an adult crime
BBC NewsMark Easton | BBC | Did rape trial serve public interest?

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