Everyone deserves justice – even Ian Huntley

The one thing missing from all the coverage of the prison attack on the Soham murderer is sympathy.

"He will be living in a nightmare." This was how a former prison governor, speaking on Sky News this afternoon, described the kind of life that Ian Huntley will be leading in jail. The serious attack on the Soham murderer -- his throat was slashed by a fellow inmate at Frankland Jail on Sunday -- has attracted plenty of coverage, none of it (as far as I can see) tinged by the tiniest bit of sympathy for him.

As this Telegraph recap of his trial explains, "the latest attack on Ian Huntley recalls the revulsion" felt about him and his accomplice, Maxine Carr. "In the witness box he told a tissue of lies, meaning even at the end of the 30-day trial, he remained the only person to know why he committed the brutal murders."

No wonder, perhaps, that he has now been subjected to nine attacks, and has attempted suicide three times.

That Huntley should face the severest penalties the courts can impose is unarguable. It may be that many feel he would have got no more than he deserved if the cut had been fatal. But we do not have the death penalty in this country. We content ourselves with the idea that the deprivation of liberty, of choice, of contact with friends and loved ones, of the ability to have any control over most of one's actions, is sufficient punishment.

No one expects that this experience should be particularly enjoyable, which is why there are periodic rumpuses about prisoners being granted access to such luxuries as televisions, or being fed food that is considered too good for them.

However, as Peter Wilby writes in the current issue of the New Statesman, doing so with reference to the understandable desire for revenge of Denise Fergus, the mother of Jamie Bulger: "That is why we have a justice system that balances the retribution demanded by victims against mercy, the hope of redemption and a large dose of common sense."

Kudos for kicking an underdog

In a prison such as Frankland, the former governor explained this afternoon, Huntley will be at the very bottom of the pile. Other prisoners, such as armed robbers, granted the most "respect" by their peers, will gain further kudos from perpetrating attacks on one of these lowest of the low.

Hence the "living nightmare" he will be enduring. And I wonder how this can possibly be right.

The sentences the courts hand down are for periods of years, and the penal system allocates the category of prison appropriate for different convicts. I know of no clauses that suggest that part of the punishment for certain prisoners is that they should have to experience a particularly frightening time in jail, or that they should have to spend much of it in fear of their lives.

The crimes that Ian Huntley committed are so heinous that I cannot begin to understand how anyone could choose to do such things. It is indeed very hard to feel sympathy for such a man. But it is for the courts to pass judgment on men like him, and to set his punishment.

Unless we are happy for criminals to decide who then deserves further punishment -- and spending years in "a living nightmare" must surely constitute a cruel and unusual one -- we have to recognise that Ian Huntley has been the victim of a near-mortal attack, and that there is something very wrong with a prison system incapable of protecting him from that.

Any who reject this idea, or who just don't care what happens to him, have reached a conclusion that I find deeply chilling: that there are some people who no longer deserve justice, mercy and the chance of redemption. But if justice means anything, shouldn't it mean justice and equal protection under the law for all -- even Ian Huntley? Or have we quietly decided that when it comes to some of our fellow citizens, revenge and barbarity are perfectly acceptable?

Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman
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In focusing on the famous few, we risk doing a disservice to all victims of child sexual abuse

There is a danger that we make it harder, not easier, for victims to come forward in future. 

Back in the 1970s when relations between journalists and police were somewhat different to today a simple ritual would be carried out around the country at various times throughout the week.

Reporters, eager for information for their regional newspaper, would take a trip to the local station and there would be met by a desk sergeant who would helpfully skim through details in the crime Incident Book.

Among the entries about petty thefts, burglaries and road accidents there would occasionally be a reference to an allegation of incest. And at this point the sergeant and journalist might well screw-up their faces, shake their heads and swiftly move on to the next log. The subject was basically taboo, seen as something ‘a bit mucky,’ not what was wanted in a family newspaper.

And that’s really the way things stayed until 1986 when ChildLine was set up by Dame Esther Rantzen in the wake of a BBC programme about child abuse. For the first time children felt able to speak out about being sexually assaulted by the very adults whose role in life was to protect them.

And for the first time the picture became clear about what incest really meant in many cases. It wasn’t simply a low level crime to be swept under the carpet in case it scratched people’s sensitivities. It frequently involved children being abused by members of their close family, repeatedly, over many years.

Slowly but surely as the years rolled on the NSPCC continued to press the message about the prevalence of child sexual abuse, while encouraging victims to come forward. During this time the corrosive effects of this most insidious crime have been painfully detailed by many of those whose lives have been derailed by it. And of course the details of the hundreds of opportunistic sexual assaults committed by Jimmy Savile have been indelibly branded onto the nation’s consciousness.

It’s been a long road - particularly for those who were raped or otherwise abused as children and are now well into their later years - to bring society around to accepting that this is not to be treated as a dark secret that we really don’t want to expose to daylight. Many of those who called our helpline during the early days of the Savile investigation had never told anyone about the traumatic events of their childhoods despite the fact they had reached retirement age.

So, having buried the taboo, we seem to be in danger of giving it the kiss of life with the way some cases of alleged abuse are now being perceived.

It’s quite right that all claims of sexual assault should be investigated, tested and, where there is a case, pursued through the judicial system. No one is above the law, whether a ‘celebrity’ or a lord.

But we seem to have lost a sense of perspective when it comes to these crimes with vast resources being allocated to a handful of cases while many thousands of reported incidents are virtually on hold.

The police should never have to apologise for investigating crimes and following leads. However, if allegations are false or cannot be substantiated they should say so. This would be a strength not a weakness.

It is, of course, difficult that in many of the high-profile cases of recent times the identities of those under investigation have not been officially released by the police but have come to light through other means. Yet we have to deal with the world as it is not as we wish it would be and once names are common knowledge the results of the investigations centring on them should be made public.

When it emerges that someone in the public eye is being investigated for non-recent child abuse it obviously stirs the interest of the media whose appetite can be insatiable. This puts pressure on the police who don’t want to repeat the mistakes of the past by allowing offenders to slip through their hands.  And so there is a danger, as has been seen in recent cases, that officers lack confidence in declaring there is a lack of evidence or the allegations are not true. 

The disproportionate weight of media attention given to say, Sir Edward Heath, as opposed to the Bradford grooming gang sentenced this week, shows there is a danger the pendulum is swinging too far the other way. This threatens the painstaking work invested in ensuring the public and our institutions recognise child abuse as a very real danger. 

Whilst high profile cases have helped the cause there is now a real risk that the all-encompassing focus on them does both victims of abuse and those advocating on their behalf a fundamental disservice.

As the public watches high -profile cases collapsing amidst a media fanfare genuine convictions made across the country week in week out go virtually unannounced. If this trend continues they may start to believe that child sexual abuse isn’t the prolific problem we know it to be.

So, while detectives peer into the mists of time, searching for long lost clues, we have to face the unpalatable possibility that offences being committed today will in turn become historical investigations because there is not the manpower to deal with them right now.

So, now the Goddard Inquiry is in full swing, taking evidence about allegations of child sex crimes involving ‘well known people’ as well as institutional abuse, how do we ensure we don’t fail today’s victims?

If they start to think their stories are going to be diminished by the continuing furore over how some senior public figures have been treated by the police they will stay silent. Therefore we have to continue to encourage them to come forward, to give them the confidence of knowing they will be listened to.

If we don’t we will find ourselves back in those incestuous days where people conspired to say and do nothing to prevent child abuse.

Peter Wanless is Chief Executive of the NSPCC.