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Wednesday, September 21, 2005 

Horrific failings by prisons, courts and prosecution service.

I opposed the recent plans to introduce double jeopardy (trying a suspect who has already been acquitted of the same crime again) and to reveal the criminal record of the accused as evidence in the prosecutions case. I did this on the basis that those who have changed their behaviour but are known by police could be brought in if they are in the wrong place in the wrong time. The revealing of their past in court could therefore result in miscarriages of justice. Although Ian Huntley was convicted for the murders of the two Soham schoolgirls, it was revealed afterwards that he had been accused of rape before and for having sex with underage girls. There now comes this case which shows that if the revealing of the criminal record had been allowed in the past, this man may not have been able to continue to commit such horrific crimes:

Details of how a killer and serial sex offender attacked women and children over 40 years were revealed for the first time yesterday following the conclusion of court cases in Britain and Northern Ireland. And, as the full history of Robert Howard emerged, it was announced that he could be questioned about a series of unsolved murders of women in the Irish Republic.

Howard, 61, was jailed for life in October 2003 for the murder of Hannah Williams, a 14-year-old with learning difficulties, but reporting of the case was restricted until outstanding sex charges were dropped this week at Belfast crown court. Howard strangled Hannah with a 12-metre rope and dumped her body at a disused cement works in Northfleet, Kent. She went missing in April 2001 but was not found until a year later.

It can also be revealed that this June a jury found Howard not guilty of the murder of Arlene Arkinson, 15, who was in Howard's car the night before she disappeared in 1994. Yesterday Arlene's sister claimed that Howard would not have been cleared of the killing if the jury had known of his past convictions. Kathleen Arkinson said: "The law has to change." Arlene's body has still to be found.

Howard is thought to have committed his first sexual offence aged 20 in 1964. He attempted to rape a six-year-old girl in London after he broke into her bedroom, pretended to be a doctor and told her to undress. In March 1969 he broke into a house in north-east England and tried to rape a young woman. When she escaped he pursued her into her garden where he tried to strangle her. He was sentenced to six years for aggravated burglary.

In March 1974 he was sentenced to a further 10 years after being convicted in Cork of raping a woman aged 58 who was bound with a sheet in her own bed.

In 1993 he lured a 16-year-old girl to his flat in Castlederg, Co Tyrone, where he drugged, stripped and repeatedly raped her over two days while keeping a noose tied tightly round her neck. His victim, who escaped through a bathroom window, claimed he threatened to kill her. He said the teenager had consented, and he was convicted of a lesser charge of having unlawful sex with a girl under 17.

In 1994 he drove Arlene Arkinson, as well as his girlfriend's daughter and her boyfriend, to Bundoran, Co Donegal, for drinks. He dropped the couple off at 2.30am promising to take Arlene home. She was never seen again. He also held a woman in her 20s captive for several weeks. In March 1995 he moved to Drumchapel, Glasgow, but was hounded out after a newspaper exposed his past.

At Northfleet Hannah Williams had played at his home in the months before she went missing.

It has to be asked why he was continually let out to reoffend. It also has to be asked why the judges in the cases did not impose heavier sentences, or even life imprisonment as it became clear what a menace this man was to vulnerable women. I'm not ashamed to admit that I'm a liberal when it comes to imprisonment. I don't believe that prison works. What I do believe is that there are some people so dangerous that they need to be locked away, for life if necessary, from the general public. This man was one of those people. That he wasn't identified as such is a scandal. Obviously the revealing of past cases would not have mattered in this case, as he was imprisoned despite him being found not guilty of the murder of Arlene. The least he could now do is admit that he murdered Arlene and reveal what he did with her body.

This case doesn't change my feelings that in general past convictions should not be revealed in court before the jury decides on their verdict. I do however feel that circumstances are constantly changing. If the change in the law results in people such as Robert Howard being locked away, then I would happily support it. At the moment however, it will still affect those who should always be viewed as innocent until proven guilty.

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