Belfast Telegraph

Winnie, not Moors Murderers, got real life sentence

By Gail Walker

If we lived in any kind of caring society, Ian Brady and Myra Hindley would have been taken out of their cells after their conviction in 1966, taken to a place of execution, had a rope placed round their necks and hanged until they were dead.

But as a society we had already lost our nerve. This weekend witnessed a tragic result of that loss of nerve. As we got ourselves into a tizzy as to whether Brady's mental advocate had information as to the burial place of Keith Bennett, Keith's mother, Winnie Johnson, passed away after nigh on half a century of mental and emotional torture at the hands of Brady and Hindley.

In a slight consolation, she was too ill to know the latest twist in the endless saga of the Moors Murders.

But goodness knows she suffered much worse than either Brady or Hindley. Not only was her son murdered by the pair, they were evil enough to deny it for 20 years before finally confessing. Still, as if that wasn't enough, Keith's body has never been found. Many believe that Brady knows where the boy is buried but refuses to talk for his own sick pleasure.

Winnie Johnson's burden was an unimaginable one. We can only look at that photograph of Keith - the wire-framed spectacles, the quintessential child's short back and side, the slightly goofy teeth - and be reminded not just of the innocence of childhood but of how long ago it all was. He was the child lost in time, and how many times over the past 50 years did Winnie look at that photograph and shed tears that must have screamed to very heaven for justice?

Did she get it? No. The system molly-coddled Brady and Hindley. Do you really think that someone as sick and twisted as Brady 'minds' being in prison?

Worse, our culture became obsessed with the pair, hanging on them many a tired old debate about society, guilt, the possibility of redemption, psychobabble explanations as to why a man and woman could do such nightmarish things. They remained the centre of the story, their ghastly faces, eyes sunken with guilt, staring out at us, year after year.

Poor old Winnie - like the rest of the relatives - were pushed to the side. Too poor, too working class, too ordinary to be of interest to the media, their stories proved too boring, too one-dimensional to attract the interest of our thinking class. After all, what can you say about raw unending grief expressed in a Manchester accent?

But Brady and Hindley ... ah, well, if it wasn't Peers of the Realm rushing to visit them in prison, there were books, documentaries, feature films, novels, 'controversial' paintings of Hindley. Though in prison, they set the agenda - whether it was Myra 'finding God' or Brady playing cat and mouse with Winnie Johnson over the location of Keith's body.

And we, like suckers, let them away with it. (One of the most breathtaking statements of the past few days was Brady's mental health adviser saying that he doesn't want to take "his secrets" with him to the grave. Why should he have a right to 'secrets'? We are talking about the body of a wee boy here, not a hidden mistress or a penchant for HP sauce. Who honestly would be horrified if the authorities were 'heavy handed' in trying to get Brady to reveal the location of Keith's remains? But no, we must respect his 'rights', provide him with 'advocates' and 'executors').

But we wouldn't have had this half-century of trauma if our justice system had the nerve to realise that there are sometimes crimes so severe that 'life' isn't a fitting punishment (and in very many cases 'life' means somewhere about 10-15 years).

I know it will raise a hue-and-cry but Brady and Hindley's crimes were so horrendous, so nightmarish, so callous that they could only be described as 'evil'. An evil beyond redemption.

But yet we had to go through the pretence that that wasn't the case. And for that pretence Winnie Johnston suffered 46 years of torment. The knowledge that while her wee boy's body lay on the Moors without decent Christian burial, his killers were tucked up in their cosy cells: living, breathing, reading newspapers, visiting the prison library, having intimate chats with shrinks, enjoying three meals a day.

Not at liberty, true, but not dead in some makeshift hole in the ground on some godforsaken moor either.

That isn't justice.

That's a perversion of the meaning of the word. Winnie Johnson is at peace now. A peace we as a society denied her when she alive.

Daily News Headlines Newsletter

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox.

From Belfast Telegraph