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Why it was right to question Milly's father in court

It is sad, but not unusual, for the aftermath of a sensational criminal trial to focus on entirely the wrong issue. But seldom has it happened so dramatically as in the days since Levi Bellfield was convicted of the abduction and murder of Milly Dowler, the 13-year-old girl who disappeared as she walked home from school in Walton-on-Thames in 2002.

Milly's killer is a horrible man, a pitiless misogynist who went on to bludgeon two young women to death and tried to kill a third. We will probably never know the true extent of his crimes.

But, instead of looking at the toxic combination of excuses, denial and terror that allowed Bellfield to beat and rape women for so many years, the overwhelming response to the end of his trial has been to criticise the way Milly's family - in particular her father, Bob Dowler - was treated in court.

Being cross-examined in a murder trial is a traumatic experience for close relatives. Milly's mother, Sally, said her family had lost their right to privacy, while Bob Dowler described giving evidence as a "truly mentally scarring experience on an unimaginable scale".

There is a problem here. First, no matter how ghastly Bellfield is, he is entitled to a defence. Second, the "extremely personal" matters raised by his barrister, Jeffrey Samuels QC, were distasteful, but relevant in a trial which turned on misogynistic attitudes to women.

As well as looking at the movements of known sex-offenders, detectives would have been remiss if they had not scrutinised the behaviour of people close to Milly.

They became suspicious of Bob Dowler when the following facts emerged: he kept pornographic material at the bottom of a chest of drawers in his bedroom; Milly was hugely distressed when she came across a magazine containing "probably extreme pornographic material... of a fetish nature... latex and bondage" a few months before her disappearance; Dowler lied to detectives about his movements on the day of his daughter's abduction; and he kept bondage gear in a box in the loft, including a rubber hood and a ball-shaped gag.

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What is extraordinary about the outpouring of sympathy for Bob Dowler is that so many commentators have been willing to overlook what this might imply about his feelings towards women, while rightly denouncing Bellfield's misogyny in the strongest terms. It is possible to sympathise with the Dowler family over the dreadful loss of Milly without arguing that the entire trial process is in need of an overhaul.

When men like Bellfield are finally apprehended, there's usually a history of abusive behaviour which has gone unchecked over a long period. But a consistent failure to respond to danger signals allows them to get jobs where they come into contact with the public.

There is no doubt that the conclusion of Bellfield's trial has raised distressing issues. But the most important lesson is that we stop regarding men like him as enigmas, totally disconnected from the society they live in, and understand the existence of a spectrum of abuse.

Domestic abuse and rape are serial crimes, committed over and over again with escalating violence, but they're often associated with other behaviours that aren't necessarily illegal: humiliating remarks, defacing images of women, using prostituted women, sex tourism.

When such conduct goes unchallenged by friends, family and co-workers, it becomes normalised and excused.

Bellfield was a serial sexual predator before he was a serial killer, and he should have been stopped long before he killed poor Milly Dowler.

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