by Chris Bertram on December 18, 2003

I’ve been scanning the press coverage of the Britain’s “Soham murder trial”:,14010,1073385,00.html to see whether anyone has asked a very obvious question. So far, commentary seems to be concentrating on the failure — if it was a failure — of the Humberside police to pass on details of the “ten allegations of sex crimes”:,14010,1109155,00.html that had been made against Ian Huntley. (Anyone who has had experience of Britain’s Data Protection Act will sympathise with the police when they declare themselves confused about which records they were allowed to retain, and how much they were allowed to disclose.) But the dilemma of policy and principle is obvious: on the one hand there was information that could have prevented the murders; on the other hand, it seems wrong to allow mere allegations that have not been tested to be a barrier to someone getting a job. The question nobody seems to be asking, though, is why didn’t the earlier allegations go anywhere?

And there seems a worrying possible answer to that question. In today’s target culture, neither the police nor the Crown Prosecution Service will proceed with an case unless they think they stand a very good chance of success. To risk failure is to risk bad statistical outcomes. In other words, maybe Huntley was able to continue his career of rape and under-age sex because the threshold at which the authorities will now initiate a prosecution is set too high.



dsquared 12.18.03 at 2:11 pm

According to GLR, none of the women/girls involved were prepared to press charges when push came to shove.


Maria 12.18.03 at 2:26 pm

Interesting point.

I thought the Data Protection Act had a pretty generous carve-out for law enforcement uses of personal data though. The Directive certainly does. And certainly, the UK police haven’t held back from retaining DNA samples of individuals suspected of but never charged with a crime – which helps them build a huge database, but doesn’t offer much in the way of privacy for those who aren’t charged. (though, as you rightly point out, clean-up rates and other pressures mean that many probably guilty people are not charged.)

All in all, though, could this be another case of an abundance of data but just no one connecting the dots?


reuben 12.18.03 at 4:16 pm


According to a 17-year-old girl who was interviewed on ITN this lunchtime (18 Dec), six years ago she (and her parents) reported Huntley for sexually assaulting her. She says that the police decided not to pursue the case because they felt it was merely a case of her word versus his. There are some very interesting questions in these sorts of situations, particularly when it comes down to a child’s word versus that of an adult. One wonders if the police in this case spent any time looking into the accused’s past. Perhaps they did and found nothing, but perhaps they just felt that such crimes are so hard to prove that it wasn’t worth their time.

Anyone familiar with the wave of “satanic childcare” trials in the US (late ’80s, I think) knows that children can be manipulated and that their testimony can be unreliable. At the same time, an adversarial legal system, while quite fine for adults, does seem to disadvantage children. I’ve read truly horrific reports of 13-year-old girls being ferociously cross-examined by trial lawyers for days on end. In many of these cases, the girls later said that the trial process was even more painful than the rape itself. That’s saying a great deal.

It’s a very difficult situation. How do you balance the rights of defendants without hopelessly prejudicing the trial process against juveniles?


Ivo 12.19.03 at 12:13 am

I am doubtful police and CPS can resist another pressure although in the opposite direction: the public ( well manipulated ) hysteria and the media hunger for anything involving sex and crime. Both need cases to fed on.
Am I too cynical..?
The Soham tragedy was an exception of the social practice, not a rule and unlikely to be repeated. At least I think so. Yet a variation of the same article in the media today ( BBC, Guardian, The Independent ) about the past of Ian Huntley only re-ignite the public paranoia of the next door pervert with dark hidden past.
Indeed that lead to calls for more control, more access for the police to, well, practically everything. Headlines of “lessons learned” ( of what precisely? ), Home Office Inquiry, not to mention the total lunacy of suggested GPS and electronic tagging of children!
Actually the allegations against Huntley involving sex are nine, not ten. Five of them were made by the parents but not supported by the alleged victims(!). The sixth allegation was contradicted by CCTV and obviously false. That leave one indecent assault and two allegations of rape. With one exception the supposed victims are 15-years of age or older. Age of consent, 16.
As a whole he is hardly a role model but not exactly the cunning monster instilled in the public psyche. He too failed a victim of himself but no one noticed.


Gavin Cameron 12.19.03 at 10:34 am

One piece of counter-evidence to the argument that targets lead to fewer cases being brought is the fact that the conviction rate for rape cases is at an all-time low in the UK at the moment. Of course, there’s plenty of simultaneity in the data, so inference is difficult!


Patrick Crozier 12.21.03 at 9:56 pm

Another question one might ask is whether the background checks would ever have made the slightest difference. Although we do not know the precise reason why the girls entered Huntley’s house the chances are that it was because they knew Carr. They did not know Huntley through their school because he didn’t work there (an error that is likely to be perpetuated see here. Huntley could have been doing any job in Soham and the result would have been much the same – just so long as Carr (who had no criminal record) knew them.

And if it hadn’t been in Soham it would have been somewhere else.

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