Madeleine McCann, Ellie Lawrensen; innocence and guilt

I’m aware that I want the McCanns to be innocent, though I am not entirely sure why. On the day that Jacqueline Simpson, Ellie Lawrenson’s reportedly drunken, dope-head grandmother was judged innocent of manslaughter though guilty of a terrible mistake, I want Madeleine McCann’s presumably hard-working, professional parents to be innocent too. It was right that Jacqueline Simpson was brought to trial, and I think it was probably right that she was acquitted. Maybe it is right that the McCanns should be brought to trial too. The long and the short is that both sets of adults were culpably stupid, and on each occasion it has been a child who has paid the price.

I am not used to finding it this hard to disentangle what I think from what I feel, and so much of both is clouded by what I have read in an emotional and partisan press. These cases say so much about the world we live in, about class in our society, about the media and the internet, that I’m finding it impossible to absorb it all and work out what I think.

I feel deep pity for the McCanns, as I feel deep pity for all adults whose children are killed by family pets, for the family of Rosemary Edwards the 15 year old who ran away this week, and the family in Halifax where one sister killed the other with a kitchen knife. So much tight domestic tragedy folded in upon itself. The seemingly random killing of Rhys Jones is healthy by comparison.

At first sight the McCanns do appear to have been fecklessly stupid, but on the other hand child abductions of this kind are incredibly rare. As doctors they are used to assessing statistical risks based on evidence; it is certainly possible that they judged their children to be at less risk if left alone but checked every half hour or so, than if they were put into the care of strangers. Most child abuse is committed by adults known either to the child or to the parents. What standards of Criminal Records Checks are employed by the resort for their baby sitters? I suspect the odds really were in the McCanns’ favour and that they were devastatingly unlucky.

I’m aware though, that I do want them to be innocent and I don’t know if I am being overly generous in my interpretation of the facts.

We all want our doctors to be able to think calmly and dispassionately in a crisis, but if the McCanns are guilty of inadvertently killing Madeleine and then deciding to dispose of her body then that suggests that they are so unskilled as doctors that they could accidentally kill a child, and contrariwise that they are sufficiently cool under pressure to calmly get rid of of her body and call a press conference. People will do the most extraordinary things and doctors are cooler customers than most, but I don’t want my doctors to be that calm and controlled, thank you. Which is, I suppose, another reason I want them to be innocent. To be honest, I find it hard to believe in parents who will put their careers ahead of the process of closure, grieving and letting go, which is what the whole hoopla of post mortems, inquests and funerals is all about. Surely if they were that concerned about their careers they’d have been back in Leicester seeing patients three months ago?

Before events took their unpleasant and disturbing turn at the weekend, Gerry McCann had apparently already commented on how frightening it is to deal with an unfamiliar and foreign judicial and criminal process. I know nothing of Portuguese police procedure, but it strikes me as extraordinary that the apartment, the McCanns’ possessions in the apartment, the Renault, and everything else which was latterly tested for evidence were not all roped off and investigated as early as possible. Why is there no CCTV footage of the resort? Who hired the Renault at the time of Madeleine’s disappearance? Does raw meat have “the smell of a corpse” or can the dogs distinguish dead people from dead animals? Just how dead does the person have to be for the dog to smell them? I have loads and loads of questions.

So, applying Occam’s razor to the little information we have, is it not more likely that the police were at first disgusted by the British couple’s fecklessness in not taking the children with them in the evenings, then indolent in their initial investigations because they expected the two Brits to be shamed into shutting up and going home, and finally goaded into pinning whatever they can onto the source of all their problems, the pesky McCanns, whose persistence has highlighted early Police incompetence.

But is that Occam’s razor, or is it just a cynical naivete and wishful thinking on my part?

Writing this down, it’s become pretty clear what I think; I think that the child was abducted and is probably dead. I think the police took an immediate dislike to the McCanns based on cultural differences and that this dislike was compounded when the McCanns just would not go away. And I fear that the police have decided to close the case in any way they can, and devil take the hindmost.

I fear that we are about to witness a horrible miscarriage of justice, similar to the miscarriages of justice that put Sally Clarke and the Guildford 6 in jail. Forensic science is incredible these days, but in all practical sciences the newer and less tried and tested the technique, the more subjective judgement is involved in interpreting the results. And then there’s the fact that if you put police under enough pressure to make arrests, they will make arrests, regardless. I fear that the Portuguese police have decided that the simplest way to make the McCanns to go away is to put them away.

I think we will be lucky if we ever find the truth of this. I think we are watching events which are turning into a conspiracy theory even as I type, and where journalists are even now squabbling to secure the paperback rights.

I also think that all these cases underline the wisdom of Katherine Whitehorn’s advice to parents to always, always, always ask the sanity-checking question: “What would the coroner say?”


22 responses to “Madeleine McCann, Ellie Lawrensen; innocence and guilt

  1. Wendy, Michigan

    Well that’s interesting…you say that child abduction is incredibly rare, yet that is what you decided what happened in the McCann case. There has not been any evidence to suggest a kidnapping of any sort, or in the last five months or ever will be. You feel the Portuguese police have taken a immediate disliking to this family because of “cultural differences.” That’s as simple-minded thinking as one can get. Maybe the Portuguese police have been working closely with British police all along? Perhaps the McCanns have been closely monitered for some time and they have other evidence to suggest other than the extremely rare kidnapping that you think has happened. Is there a chance that after the sniffer dogs were used that the McCanns made movements to “scale-down” the search for Maddy and go back to England. I think that not too long after that, the police knew they needed to bring them in for questioning – I guess there are some 40 questions this innocent couple did not answer for fear of incriminating themselves. You say that DNA (Forensic) evidence is incredible but bottom-line, not reliable. My vote is for you to remove the rose-colored glasses.

  2. Regardless of the above comment, I have a tendency to agree with you Aphra. Suddenly accusing the parents is too convenient a solution to the unsolvable case so far. I think this is turning into a witch hunt and the parents are the victims. It is a very sad development and will prevent the real story from emerging ever. I don’t want the parents to be guilty either, but I also don’t think they are. Stupid yes, for leaving their children alone, but not guilty for murdering one of them. Imagine what they are going through now, how painful that must be. I shudder to think of it and that so many people are willing to believe it.

  3. Wendy, I’m sorry you find my thinking simple-minded. I accept that it’s confused – I say so in my piece. If you take the time to re-read it, you will see that I am already trying to work out whether or not I am cutting the McCanns too much slack, haranguing me for it isn’t necessary.

    Forgive me, but your vision seems equally rose-tinted in your willingness to trust a police process which has been shown to be faulty from the start. The British police DO have a policy of keeping the public and victims informed, and they stated clearly when they started to be involved by providing sniffer dogs.

    Ultimately of course no-one will know the truth of this, unless Madeleine turns up in 10 years time, like Natascha Kampusch, whole but scarred. Given the widespread publicity, I think that very unlikely.

    Thank you for your comment Irene. Although I wrote so extensively about the McCanns, I also find myself feeling immensely sorry for drunken, stoned, stupid Jacquie Simpson who checked up on a dog which was frightened by fire-works. I hope that the family, who decided to keep the dog even after it had attacked Ellie’s aunt, blame themselves for that decision. I’d hate to think that they are now excusing themselves of all responsibility and heaping the blame on Jacquie who they knew would be drunk and stoned.

    Thanks both for reading and for commenting.


  4. I also find all these cases deeply upsetting. One of my children died of cancer and the shock and misery are still strong more than a year later – but although as a parent you feel guilt there was really nothing we did to cause it and nothing we could have done to save him that wasn’t tried. And these thoughts sare a little comforting. I have always been horrified to imagine the feelings of people who are to blame for their children’s death, even partly to blame. People who accidentally reverse into their toddler, leave dangerous drugs in reach, lose sight of them at dangerous beaches – things like that come up in the news.
    With the McCanns, I haven’t followed it too closely – too sad, and a bit of a disgusting media frenzy as well – but it seems almost impossible that people could manage to act normally enough to convince close friends, hide a body for weeks and dispose of it under the public gaze, in a foreign country where they only had a rented apartment and no local knowledge. I am amazed how people feel they can comment (and here I am doing it too!) as if it was public entertainment. As to the (probably fictitious) articles about ‘Kate became upset during questioning …’ well, I’d be upset talking about the details of night my son died. I might well be unable to answer questions. We had peace, and a lot of family and professional support and they are having so much stress. If they did want to cover it up it seems odd that they didn’t thank God for the original poor quality investigation and go sadly home with yet another missing child, weeks ago. They seemed to be trying to keep the case alive. But in the unlikely event that she did die in a domestic accident, the situation for them would be even more horrific and I can’t imagine the mentality of people who send hate mail. I read one journalist recently pontificating about how she’s had her doubts, and Gerry McCann came across as arrogant – I mean, what is that about? His dughter dead or missing and she suspects him because he seems arrogant to her? I can’t imagine his state of mind, but anyway arrogant people can also have tragedies. Read much of this stuff and you want to go round attacking journalists.

  5. Without knowing anything about this particular case…

    Children are more likely to be injuried/killed/murdered by a parent/other immediate family member than by anyone else. I can’t recall I dealt with any other scenario during the five years I did forensic pathology.

    I do have elder colleagues who considered it to be all in order to give their young children a sedative, leaving them in the care of a baby sitter and then go out for dinner/party/other festivity. Some of them expresses lack of understanding that younger colleagues with small children don’t reckon this to be acceptable.

    Even if we really want to look upon us as “good-doers”, there are bad eggs in all professions.

  6. I have been puzzled, confused, saddened and angered by the press coverage of this story. How many other children have gone missing, been injured etc since this story broke, but not been mentioned? Why was it a surprise to the McCanns (and the press) to discover that they were suspects? Of course they are! They would be in the UK as well…

    I don’t know who, if anyone, is guilty of what, but I find the blow by blow press coverage (and the media bias) to be disturbing and it probably isn’t helping the Portuguese police in their investigations. There are definitely flaws with the investigation, but the constant media circling cannot possibly be helping matters along in any way.

  7. Thanks Aphra for expressing exactly – and far more cogently than I could – my thoughts on the McCann case. I think the likelihood of their being guilty is slim, but the chances of their being charged is high. It’s like watching a train wreck in slow motion.

  8. First of all, the Guildford 6 were in fact the Guildford 4. It was Birmingham where there were six.

    If you think the likelihood of their being guilty is slim, well, you’re wrong. Sorry, it’s that simple. You might just as well say the chances of losing the lottery are slim.

    If you’re talking likelihood, you’re talking statistics, and they point only one way – parents or someone known to the child killed them. The alternative is lottery-winning rare.

    Of course the point here is that we *want* the result in this case to be different. We *want* them to be innocent. Arrogant, media-savvy, expert publicists, ostentatiously religious and criminally negligent we can deal with (comfortable with doctors who are all these things?). Child killers – even accidental – we don’t like the sound of.

    But whether we like the sound of it is irrelevant. Chances are she’s dead, and they know where the body is. It will be fascinating to see how it pans out.

  9. I have been trying to avoid reading or hearing about this case, partly because as Christopher Isherwood once said (all errors of recall entirely mine), ‘You can never bribe or twist/ Thank God! the British journalist./ But seeing what the man will do/ Unbribed, there’s no occasion to.’

    And partly out of a nervous feeling that to blame the McCanns for leaving their kids alone, unsupervised, like that would be very like blaming my own parents for all the many, many times they left us to sleep in the car in a car-park at assorted political festivals, for example. We, the kids, had no idea where they were, no idea how to find them in all the noise and crowd and endless stands and stalls, and no idea when they’d come back. But they did it regularly, every summer. Clearly, we’re fine, but we were frequently scared, and once I wondered off and lost myself and was eventually discovered watching the glass-blower at midnight. The truth is, I DO blame my parents, I think they were mad, but we lived in a culture where everyone was supposed to like kids and to look out for them. Just like the Portuguese resort the McCanns were staying at. It never occured to an adult that someone could take or hurt small children, just as it never occurs to an adult today that a meteorite might land on the car. Alas, it never occured to my parents either that a lonely and nervous six-year-old could get out of the car and go looking for mummy, risking being run over or getting lost or getting stuck behind a stall or accidentally knocked over in the dark or electrocuted or even taken away to a police-station by a well-meaning adult….

    I refuse to go about accusing anyone of anything before a court of law has decided. The press is so very, very sensationalist, to the point of chronic dishonesty, that basing any judgement at all, be it cynical or sympathetic, on one’s reaction to the PRESS, and really, unless we know the McCann’s that’s our only source, is a waste of one’s critical faculties.

  10. These are all good points, well made.

    Sarah, thank you for posting on such a private and painful topic.

    Dragonqueen and SoRB, you remind me that my perspective in life is both sheltered and privileged.

    Singing Librarian, you are right, one of the strange and disturbing things about this case is why there is so much hoopla about this particular child – is it merely that she is hauntingly beautiful? Is it that her parents were supported right from the start by a slick PR machine, (the owner of Warner Resorts apparently put their PR people at the disposal of the McCanns)? Is it just that it has been a decade since we last went collectively do-lally over a tragic blonde, and Madeleine is merely the Princess Diana and Marilyn de notres jours?

    Thank you Charlotte.

    Reed, it’s strange how this case touches each person differently; I am distressed by the scenario of a missing girl and insouciantly indolent police; you are distressed by routinely feckless parents, and for much the same reason.

    Thanks all, for reading and for commenting.

    I’ve decided to follow Reed’s example and not to watch this train crash quite so closely, since it unsettles me so much.


  11. Um… that’d be “de nos jours”.

    Oh my god. I’ve started correcting people’s grammar IN A FOREIGN LANGUAGE.

    Shoot me.

  12. I can’t speak French, and would avoid it if I had any nous.

  13. Now you see that’s an interesting one. The English word “nous”, meaning good sense or shrewdness, is spelled (although not pronounced) in exactly the same way as the French word “nous”, first person plural pronoun. You might think at first sight that they’re connected (English borrows many words from French), but they’re not. In fact, the English “nous” comes from the Greek noûs, a contracted variant of nóos, meaning mind.

    Thus giving one the opportunity of saying “It’s all Greek to me.” and in this case actually being right…

  14. I actually would prefer it if they were guilty. Of causing the (accidental) death of their child and then panicing and covering it up. I infinitely prefer that she died like that than an alternative cause of death and, rather selfishly, I suspect I’d prefer it if she were dead than abducted and… sufferring. What a euphamism.

    Anyway, I suspect that in shock doctors could revert to training and rather coldly sort something out.

    Doesn’t mean they were worried about their careers.

    Perhaps their self image? I am the sort of peson who helps people, not kills their daughter’. Of course the same motivation applies to their very energetic response to doing something foolish by leaving their daughter alone and her being abducted.

    B also thinks it’s understandable to want to pretend it didn’t happen but is entirely horrified by the idea that having started a cover up, they could keep it going in the face of acting pious in front of the Pope and so on. He therefore prefers the abduction scenario, although we are both agreed that ‘prefer’ is very much the wrong word.

    Mind you, I also think that it’s entirely likely that this is the method chosen to get rid of the annoying McCans too, although I think if it is for that reason then they won’t actually end up in jail, or even on trial. Too many people watching. The case will be quietly dropped for lack of evidence or something.

    If they go ahead and actually prosecute, despite the bother that would cause them, they probably do think the parents did it. They’ve largely achieved the aim of getting the family to bugger off now.

    Of course the case could well be quietly dropped for lack of evidence anyway, so…

  15. There was an article in the Times yesterday that was very interesting. Amaral, who is the Portugeuse deputy investigator, was involved in the investigation of a child abuction case on the same stretch of coast some years ago. The body was never found and the mother was charged with murder and convicted. But the mother always protested her innocence and claimed that she had had the confession beaten out of her. Amaral is now up on criminal charges regarding the handling of this case

  16. “You cannot hope to bribe or twist…” Nearly accurate quote, but the author was Humbert Wolfe – not Isherwood.

  17. anticant is quite right. I just have Isherwood on the brain because I was trying to look up the complete words of ‘The common cormorant or shag/ Lays its eggs in a paper bag…’ at the same time.


  18. Did you find them? That particular snippet is something I feel the need to quote on a surprisingly regular basis, but am thwarted by the fact that I don’t know all the words, so I flounder around with bears and buns and crumbs and generally make a complete hash of it.


  19. I have a query.
    Why is the name Alexandra De Vaney tagged in this post yet not mentioned?

  20. Curiousity.
    The name is not refered too or mentioned like the other tags.
    I would like to understand the relevance here, of this person.

  21. Idle curiosity eh?

    This is a post of its time, really, and I think – two years on – with the fate of Madeleine McCann still unknown but her parents in the clear, it is time for me to draw a line under it.

    Thanks to all who’ve read it, and all who took the time to comment.