Boys convicted of attempted rape: branded criminals for 'playing doctors and nurses'
Two boys have been convicted of the attempted rape of an eight-year-old girl even though she admitted in court that she lied about her ordeal.
Published: 10:00PM BST 24 May 2010
The defendants, who were both 10 at the time, are the youngest people ever to be convicted of the sex offence.
Their case immediately provoked a debate over whether juveniles should appear in a Crown Court, either as defendants or witnesses, especially in a sex offence case where they may be too immature to understand the allegations involved.
The jury was not told that the trial judge had admitted to having misgivings about allowing the case to go ahead.
Mr Justice Saunders conceded that the Old Bailey case would have been dropped if the victim had been an adult, because the evidence the girl gave via videolink was so contradictory.
The judge also admitted that the system involving child witnesses was far from “ideal”, noting that the victim had been subjected to a string of leading questions which she may not have understood.
He said he would write to the Lord Chief Justice suggesting “lessons” should be learned from the way the case was handled.
The girl had told her mother and police that the boys had “done sex” with her in a field near her home in Hayes, west London, last October. Under cross-examination, she denied that either boy had raped her, agreeing that they had just been playing a game.
One of the boys’ barristers suggested that they had been playing ''you show me yours and I’ll show you mine’’, or ''that age-old game, doctors and nurses’’.
After two days of deliberations, the jury cleared the boys, now 10 and 11, of rape but found each guilty of two counts of attempted rape by a majority verdict. The defendants, who both denied the charges, could face lengthy custodial sentences and will be put on the sex offenders’ register, though the judge conceded: “I am not quite sure how it applies to children of this age.”
Senior lawyers and children’s charities described the trial as “horrific and absurd”.
Felicity Gerry, a barrister and author of the Sexual Offences Handbook, questioned the decision to take the boys to court, saying sex offences were different from crimes of violence, such as the murder of James Bulger by two schoolboys.
“A lot of children may know that to kill a three-year-old with an iron bar or to drop concrete on a child is wrong, but proper sexual awareness only comes with greater maturity,” she said.
“One might think [these defendants] would benefit from good social intervention rather than prosecution.”
Defending the decision to go ahead with the trial, Alison Saunders, the chief Crown prosecutor for London, said: “This was never going to be an easy case for a court to hear but that does not absolve the CPS of its duty to prosecute where there is sufficient evidence to do so and a prosecution is in the public interest.’’
Children’s charities condemned the use of adult courts to try children and called for the age of criminal responsibility – 10 in England and Wales – to be reviewed.
Barbara Esam, a senior lawyer for the NSPCC, said: “Sadly, we still have a way to go to make sure courts work in the best way for children – both defendants and witnesses – who will be frightened and need support all the way through the judicial process if they are going to give their best evidence.”
Michele Elliott, director of the children’s charity Kidscape, said the way the case had been dealt with was “absolutely wrong”. She said: “Obviously, if these boys did something they need help. Their young age and the young age of their victim makes it absurd that this took place in an adversarial court situation.’’
Both boys were just months over the age of criminal responsibility at the time of the offence. During the two-week trial they sat with their mothers and solicitors in the well of the court at the Old Bailey rather than in the dock, while the judge and lawyers dispensed with their wigs and gowns.
The jury was not told that, after the girl had given evidence, the judge expressed misgivings about the process, saying: “I don’t think anyone who has sat through this trial would think for a moment that the system that we employ is ideal. However, the reality remains that we have a witness who said one thing and has now said completely the opposite ... if you had an adult witness who said what this girl said the Crown would not be proceeding.”
The judge rejected an attempt by the defence to have the case stopped, ruling that it was up to the jury to decide whether the girl had told the truth.
At the end of the trial he said: “I will at some stage be sending my views about the procedure to those who are most concerned with it.’’
The Ministry of Justice said it would examine the case and any communication from the judge to see if there were issues which needed to be resolved. Both defendants, who cannot be named, were released on bail for psychological reports to be compiled before they are sentenced.