in a Brighton cemetery lies seven year old Maria Colwell.
Almost thirty years ago she was beaten to death by
her step father, William Kepple, after prolonged abuse.
The latter included starvation and beatings. She had
sustained brain damage, a fractured rib, black eyes,
external bruising and internal injuries. One of the
more psychological but no less cruel punishments inflicted
on Maria by Kepple was to buy his other children ice
cream while making her stand in the corner as they
ate it. Incapable of love or compassion for a child
not biologically his own, Kepple pursued his violence
with discriminatory fervour.
social services of the day were as culpably inefficient
as Kepple was guilty, being completely illiterate
when it came to reading the signs. The judiciary were
little better, Kepple, if I recall correctly, receiving
a mere eight years for manslaughter. The name of both
killer and killed have stayed in the recesses of my
mind. I had followed the case at the time courtesy
of the Daily Mirror - maybe even the Sun or Star -
while a young apprentice Terreza layer on a Belfast
building site. It was big news then in the English
tabloids, standard lunchtime reading for underpaid,
overworked Belfast kids.
is something about cruelty against children that brings
out an anger even in the most placid and laid back
of people. While it is estimated that in Britain around
six children are murdered every year by strangers
an average of two each week die at the hands of a
parent. The NSPCC claim that 34, 000 children each
week are at risk from either neglect, violence and
possible death in the home in the same country. The
recent trial of Paul Owens for the murder of his daughter,
three month old Jasmine McGowan, made prime time news
each day it lasted but it hardly constituted enjoyable
viewing. What is it that causes an adult to murder
a child in a domestic setting? Paul Owens should never
have been in the dock given the evidence against him.
It was one of those cases where, if justice even managed
to get a foot in the outside lane, it was always going
to romp home. Owens was acquitted and whoever murdered
the child was not called to book.
case, neither as tragic in its outcome nor as well
publicised as the murder of either Jasmine McGowan
or Maria Colwell but still anger inducing was that
of Cork man Gerard Quilty who was convicted of beating
his ten year old son for the 'offence' of asking to
switch TV channels so that he could watch cartoons.
Flicking the channels is a permanent feature in any
modern home which combines children and televisions.
Christopher Quilty spent three days in a local hospital
having sustained injuries to his neck, back and spine.
Luckily for the child, he managed to escape from the
house before his drunken father could inflict more
permanent damage with the hard plastic toy truck he
used as a weapon.
of violence against children range across the spectrum
from slaps to inflicting fatalities. We hear of it,
abhor it and have little sympathy for the perpetrators
when they find themselves in prison even if they are
on the receiving end of their fellow prisoners' contempt
and retribution. But our fundamental belief systems
are rarely radically changed by it.
few days ago, my wife, a Californian, was in tears
as she hugged our 17 month old daughter and read to
me an account of the kidnapping of five year old Samantha
Runnion back in her home state. Referred to by her
mother, who studied Latin American culture in college,
as 'mi cielito linda' (my pretty little sky) and 'tigrita'
(my little tiger) Samantha lived with a sense of alertness
to the dangers that confront youngsters. Erin Runnion
had went to great lengths to caution her only child
against approaches from strangers even acting out
possible worst case scenarios in the family living
room. Samantha told her mother that no stranger would
succeed in taking her as she could run 'really fast
and was as strong as Hercules', the latter being subject
to the adoration of the child - she had his poster
in her bedroom. Samantha would have been six this
week and was to have celebrated the occasion in Disneyland.
Found murdered a number of miles from the spot where
she was grabbed she will never enjoy her birthday.
Investigators believe the infant was held for several
hours, sexually assaulted and strangled before being
dumped naked on the road.
is a case like this, as distinct from the others,
which causes me to feel the ground beneath my feet
pulsate and vibrate with irruptions of doubt. The
once terra firma which rooted a strong personal opposition
to capital punishment seems to open up like a mouth,
and its teeth wrench at abolitionist certitude. Suddenly,
it becomes all the more difficult to dig deep and
muster opposition to the 19th century French novelist,
Alphonse Karr, who argued 'If we want to abolish the
death penalty, let our friends the murderers take
the first step.' Still opposed to it, seeing little
in it apart from Hammurabis "eye for an
eye", I nevertheless battle to stop my resolve
slipping each time I read of a child being murdered
in circumstances similar to Samatha Runnion.
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