Robert Howard sits alongside the notorious Moors murderers, Ian Brady and Myra Hindley, and the paedophile Robert Black, who murdered four young girls, including nine-year-old Jennifer Cardy, from Ballinderry. He has left a legacy of broken lives and devastated families.
On Wednesday, the coroner in the inquest into the death of 15-year-old Arlene Arkinson found that Howard murdered her on the day she disappeared in 1994, overturning the not-guilty verdict by the jury at his murder trial in Belfast in 2005.
The coroner reviewed the same facts, heard testimony from the same witnesses and firmly concluded that Howard was a child killer. The coroner confirmed what local investigators suspected within days of Arlene’s disappearance.
The morning after Howard was charged in Enniskillen with Arlene’s murder, I spoke with him in the cell block after he asked to see me. He was a manipulator and wanted to know if Arlene’s body was recovered could he serve his remand period in Maghaberry Prison, where he knew he would have an individual cell, colour television and ensuite bathroom facilities.
A grieving family was desperate to find the body of the child he had killed and he was mulling over whether he could avoid going back to a shared cell in Belmarsh and slopping out. This callous approach provided an insight into the cold emptiness of his mind, a moral void that demanded personal gratification over human life. In the end, he remained silent.
Howard’s long history of violent sexual offending, which began as a 19-year-old in 1963, when he attacked a six-year-old, demonstrates the inadequacy that existed in the criminal justice system in protecting the public from dangerous predators.
The Arkinson family have a right to know how a man who attacked young children, raped and attempted to rape a number of women while using violence, was living in Castlederg with a bail address at a house where a 15-year-old lived. He had met a previous victim at this address. He was known to the Irish authorities, having been sentenced to 10 years for rape in Cork in 1974, and to the authorities in England and Northern Ireland, where he was convicted for offences against young females. But he still moved freely amongst the community, targeting girls.
More alarmingly, he called himself “the Wolfman” and by 19 had adopted the middle name of Lesarian, referring to a mythical child killer. He was openly boasting that he was Robert “the child killer” Howard.
Throughout his adult life, he lived out his evil fantasies, each subsequent offence becoming more violent and depraved, until he was strangling his rape victims and then killing them. His victims were carefully selected, vulnerable and on the edge of society.
He succeeded because the agencies responsible for catching him were operating within rules and policies that were inadequate and often favoured the offender.
In 1994, prior to Arlene Arkinson’s murder, Howard had been charged with multiple rapes of another young teenager whom he had imprisoned for three days before she escaped from a window. These charges were reduced by prosecutors to one count of unlawful carnal knowledge — a relatively minor offence — and Howard was free to attack again.
Once again, the legal quagmire of evidential standards, technicalities and sentencing policies had freed him. Hannah Williams subsequently lost her life in Kent.
Since Arlene’s murder, new regulations relating to the monitoring of sex offenders have been introduced, including the sex offenders’ register. The agencies responsible for child protection and the investigation of sexual offences also cooperate better. Victims reporting offences are now treated with greater understanding and should have confidence that their case will be dealt with compassionately.
That is positive, but the low conviction rate for reported sexual crimes still demonstrates the hurdles victims face in getting justice.
This coroner’s ruling also brings into sharp focus the current value of the ancient jury system central to criminal trials. Is it fit for purpose? Can juries of lay people with no formal legal training be trusted to protect society from dangerous criminals?
The modern and complex legal rules and procedures debated between ‘learned counsel’ in criminal trails is often more about theatrics and the psychology of the mind between two combating sides trying to persuade 12 men and women.
Truth and justice are relegated behind investigative procedures and legal technicalities in this battle for the hearts and minds of the jury. Victims are merely a part-player in the trial, secondary to the process. Criminal trials are focused on procedural compliance rather than natural justice.
Sadly, there are other Robert Howards in society. He was not 50 when he started attacking young females, he was 19 and maybe younger. There is a huge responsibility on parents to ensure that they educate their children on the potential dangers they face when in contact with strangers in a social context, on social media platforms or, indeed, with people introduced through family or friends.
Young people must have confidence to report unwanted advances. It may be an outdated view, but parents should try to ensure they know who their children are meeting through their friends. It may cause conflict with your teenager, but one day they may meet a Robert Howard — and they should be prepared.