A lifelong sentence for all concerned

Mary Bell who in 1968 murdered Martin Brown, aged four, and
three-year-old Brian Howe when she was eleven, returned to the High
Court last week. Now 46, she was seeking lifelong anonymity for
herself and her 18-year-old daughter to avoid “significant harm and
harassment.” The court will give its decision after Easter.

Bell, of “fragile mental health”, has already been subjected to
four instances of intimidation and assault and has changed her
identity three times. Her QC, Edward Fitzgerald, told the court
that her case had unique features, for example, her “extreme youth
at the time of her offence.”

Bell experienced an horrific childhood – her mentally unstable
mother forced her into prostitution at the age of nine. In an
extraordinary ill-informed piece in the Daily Mail last
week, writer Colin Wilson argued that Bell is “trying to manipulate
British justice for her own selfish interests”. He reports that
after her conviction, when in a remand home, she screamed and
shouted, inciting other girls to behave badly.

“Then a psychiatrist advised the matron to try ‘tanning her
backside’. That worked,” Wilson says, “and suddenly Mary was, ‘as
good as gold’. If someone had tried doing it sooner, it is likely
that two children would not have died.”

His words, however, are only a more extreme expression of a theme
that constantly recurs in the media: the demonic child, the evil
seed. It was The Times not the tabloids, last week, which
ran the now well-known image of Mary Bell across five columns – her
face angelic, her eyes showing no emotion, alongside a news story
that begins “The child killer…”

The irony is that precisely because the media demonise such
children, keeping them in the public’s mind for years, frozen Peter
Pan-like, the chance of living a normal life, having served their
time, is minimal – unlike, say, an adult who is released from jail,
his sentence completed.

In a book written with Gita Sereny, a few years ago, Mary Bell
attempted to dilute this image of the “little devil” by telling her
life story. She only succeeded in adding to the mythology. Any
child who ends the life of another should automatically be entitled
to lifelong anonymity, at the time sentence is passed – avoiding
the recurring outbreaks of publicity when injunctions are sought,
damaging to all, not least the families of the victims.

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