Sunday, September 09, 2007

Do You Assume The Police Usually Get It Right?

The Madeleine McCann case has turned investigating a crime on its head. I actually try to reserve judgment on a lot of things. The war in Iraq was one of them. What made me suspicious was that Bush kept saying there was proof of a threat, but not providing it. He wanted us to commit to a war based on his word alone… That wasn’t good enough for me. And when the US went to war and Canada did not, I felt uneasy, because it was significant. There was an underlying message: We don’t quite trust you. But my unease had more to do with our relationship with our nearest neighbours than the decision my own government made. I will take those decisions one at a time: I support Afghanistan.

Today, Madeleine’s parents have returned home, after being named as suspects in the case. This case has bothered me from the beginning. I read a lot of international news. I may not be aware of everything, but I’m certainly not hiding from the world.

But today, the fact that Kate and Gerry McCann have gone home is the top story even on Canadian news websites. Yesterday, their suspicion was front page in the Calgary Herald, the Calgary Sun and The Globe and Mail. It was a leading story for The Toronto Star.

Why? Today, particularly, why is this story more important than the fact that two police officers were killed in Texas and two of our soldiers were wounded in Afghanistan and two women were sexually assaulted on the York University campus last night?

I mean, the Cedrika Provencher case, which is happening in this country, has been knocked way down to the bottom of the main page.

Cedrika’s a cute little girl. Maybe the reason the world doesn’t care about her is because it’s Canada, or she’s French-Canadian, or it isn’t such a complete mystery: We pretty much know this guy pretending to look for a lost dog took her.

I’ll admit to being a cynic: There has been something off about the Madeleine case from the very beginning. The first thing that I wondered about was the parents, leaving their three children, all under the age of four, at a rental alone while they had dinner. Without seeing the layout and actual distance between the house and the restaurant, there’s room for doubt, but if that had happened here there would be a social services investigation of the parents, no matter what happened to their daughter. There are laws about how old children have to be before they can be left home alone.

But assuming the abduction to be true, it was a few days before the absence of leads sent my mind in other directions. Perhaps it’s because of what I write that my mind often disengages from the real case and starts running scenarios. This happened in the Algarve – come on, this girl is in the water and if they haven’t found her by now they likely never will. Cynical Sandra thought #1. Cynical Sandra thought #2: Why haven’t they taken a hard look at the parents as suspects? Common police practice is to look hard at the people who last saw the victim…

Then my confusion over the case grew. It was understandable that it made headlines, even around the world, initially. But it stayed in the headlines. The likes of JK Rowling and others were putting up major cash to help find this little girl. Why this little girl? The McCann’s, both doctors. Is it because of their social status? I wonder what Michael Dunahee’s mother thinks of that, glad that they’ve had so much attention or wondering why the world cares about some missing children and not others?

It isn’t that I don’t care. It’s easy to look at Madeleine’s pictures and get a lump in your throat. She actually doesn’t look that different from my own friend’s daughter, who turned four in July, and is named Madeleine. Honey blonde hair and big brown eyes.

It isn’t even the amount of media attention to this case that bothers me – it’s the nature of the media attention. The traveling, the releasing balloons to get another media moment, meeting with the Pope… I don’t know. Call me skeptical, but when you’re waiting to find out what’s happened to your child most people don’t seem to have the presence of mind to launch a media campaign and actually spearhead it themselves.

Even now, I’m looking at the media reports from the last few days and left wondering. The McCann’s may be 100% honest, or they may just be very savvy, to suggest the police are trying to frame them.

I don’t know. And ultimately, it has little to do with me. But what it has made me think about is how much faith I have in the legal system. Although just recently here Steven Truscott, who was almost executed for a murder conviction was acquitted of the murder he was originally convicted of and sentenced to hang for in 1959. It’s hard not to know who David Milgaard is if you live in this country. Most certainly, there have been times that things have gone wrong.

But I do have an underlying faith in the justice system. I believe more often than not, the police and the courts get it right. There are occasions I follow a trial and hear the verdict and am still left with a niggling doubt, but I don’t feel the police pursue many cases without reasonable evidence. I’m not saying the minute someone’s charged I assume they’re guilty. What I am saying is that if the police name someone as a suspect and investigate them, my normal view is that they are doing their jobs and following every lead, regardless of who it implicates.

I will say that I feel the scenario the police presented (accidentally killed her and hid her body) is plausible. I’m not going to explain my psychological assessment of the options and why it would make sense to do this. The bottom line is that nobody knows what they’d do themselves in a moment like that until they’re there, and it doesn’t matter what I think. Logic isn’t often part of the equation in moments like that.

But I am left thinking I'm the only one who's cynical about this case.

All that matters is that this young girl is gone. And she’s probably never coming home. With the high profile media machine in motion I’m sure we’ll hear 10 years from now how Madeleine’s siblings are getting on. For others, the jury may be out on whether or not it was a good idea for the family to use the media so extensively. I’m leaning toward it being a bad idea. The celebrity of the family that has resulted from the case makes me as uncomfortable as anything else, and I can’t be that sympathetic now that opinions are mixed. The media doesn’t embrace you on your terms. They will be played out in the press now, as possible villains, and should one of their other children so much as sport a bruise from any of a million different legitimate accidents, there will be those who’ll raise eyebrows.

The certainty here is that whatever happened the night Madeleine disappeared, it changed Kate and Gerry McCann’s lives forever. This will become a case others will write about and talk about for years to come. There is only one thing I’m left hoping – that people will keep an open mind as the police do their jobs. I’m desperately hoping that the police are being thorough and following legitimate leads, and that if and when they do make an arrest real, legitimate evidence will outweigh public opinion in determining the outcome.

I might suggest the McCann’s do something very un-British, and hire a PI, though. If they really believe the police are running out of money for the case, if they really believe the police are trying to frame them, they should use the money raised to find their daughter to hire their own investigator.


norby said...

I'm a bit cynical about it myself. I was amazed that no one was saying a word about the fact that these people left their children alone for hours while they went to dinner. I don't care how often they went back to check on them, or how safe they may have felt. Yeah, losing one of their children may be punishment enough, but really, shouldn't common sense have told them that wasn't a bright idea?

And why did it take so long for the police to talk to them-with a child that age, the parents should have been the first thought. Stranger abductions are actually very rare.

I feel badly for the McCanns, really I do, no one should have to go through what they're experiencing, but I'm not sure they've deserved the worldwide special treatment they seem to have gotten either. Untold numbers of children go missing every day-where are their faces?

Evil Kev said...

I am really surprised how there can be anyone telling us not to jump to conclusions or rush to judgment. Four months is a long time to give the benefit of the doubt.

Here is another scenario of a missing child: Miss Trailer park and her boyfriend du jour go to the bingo to play a few games. They come back and one of the kids is missing. The police, observing this sign of child neglect contact Social Services, friends and family to see if a pattern of neglect exists. Both parents are dragged in to the station for an intense level of questioning. The DA charges them with disregard for welfare of a minor and the police tear these people's lives apart.

Now a pair of affluent doctors who could easily afford a nanny to accompany them go on vacation. They abandon their children to go out for the evening. (With the age of these children, that is abandonment by most legal definitions) They then spend months drawing attention to themselves at every opportunity and when the investigation finally turns seriously to them, they say they are being framed.

This just proves to me that the class system is alive and well in the UK. If these people were white trash from Liverpool, people would be enraged it took the police four months to look at the most probable suspects, the parents. As Norby stated, stranger abductions are very rare.

If we don't seriously consider Tammy Trailer Park's child to have been abducted by aliens or a deranged pedophile, then why give the McCann's that benefit?

Sandra Ruttan said...

Very well said, Norby.

And Evil Kev, obviously I'm giving more benefit of the doubt than some, but I agree that it's been months and the police have executed search warrants, combed land based on tips and turned up nothing. They have not been quick to jump to conclusions here. If anything, they've been slow.

Anonymous said...

I have to say I always wondered myself and likewise if some poor couple from Ireland had done that the remaining children would have been removed before any investigation - I do feel sorry for the parents if they are innocent but as time goes by I find that difficult to believe - after all families are usually the first port of call in cases like this, poor Maddie and all the children in situations like hers have my thoughts. Betty

Sandra Ruttan said...

Blogger ate my comment Betty... but I agree that if they are innocent, I feel bad for them. But I feel worse for the real victims here - the kids.

Anonymous said...

A prayer from Portugal to the McCann family. We believe in you. God will protect you.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Clepsidra, thanks for dropping by. I have a question for you - the articles I skimmed today have turned this around, blaming the Portuguese police and lack of laws about pedophiles. Do you think this case will damage Portugal's image?

Personally, Portugal is one of my favourite countries in the entire world. I'd go back in a heartbeat.

stevemosby said...

Well, the fact that they left their kids on their own, from memory, was actually pretty heavily commented on and discussed at the beginning of the case - it was kind of 'water cooler' stuff. That, coupled with the "what would you do..." scenario, the fact that their daughter is innocent and photogenic, and that they're a professional, middle-class couple with the money to pay a publicist, explains a great deal, I think. Especially the latter.

What you say about thinking they could use the media is spot on, of course. As an overall entity, the media only cared about Madeleine to the extent she could sell their papers. Easy to mistake that for altruism in the first instance, but if painting the McCanns as suspects does the same, it's to be expected. At the moment, they're still basically on their side here, but I imagine it will change, depending on the next couple of developments.

What I do find 'disturbing', for want of a better word, is the weird level of support they've gathered. People are writing into certain papers with the usual "We know they're innocent, how dare the police..." guff, when they don't know any such thing and have no connection with or insight into the case. It has a Diana feel to it, in some ways: there's a massive emotional investment in it. Not in Madeleine either - but in the couple and their predicament. As harsh as it might be - why shouldn't the police put the McCanns through the wringer? Their job isn't to make them feel good, especially in the short-term. They aren't really the victims here; the police's only duty is finding a missing girl.

I do think the media has played to a xenophobic stereotype that some sections of the UK have bought into a little: the idea of the bungling, cack-handed euro-cop. Despite the fact that nobody has the faintest clue what the police have been doing, they still feel able to comment on this or that, as though Joe Sun Reader could supplant these stoopid foreigners and wrap the case up in half an hour. "Why haven't they done this or this?". Well, you know, they probably have. Why do you assume they haven't? A little understated racism, perhaps?

(Not you, Sandra - you should see some of the comments and discussions over in the UK).

I'm sure they looked at the McCanns from day one. The move now is because of the extra evidence, which is either solid or it isn't. Science is king. But whatever happens, I agree, there will be books and movies about this for years to come, and in the meantime, in a macabre psychological way, it's fascinating.

Sandra Ruttan said...

I think you're pretty much bang on, Steve. And while it may have been water cooler talk, in the more public domain you speak against the couple and get spanked. I agree, the level of support and outcry is bizarre...

And psychologically fascinating. If I can be completely objective.. well, I won't say. It sounds wrong to say it's intriguing to analyze the whole sorry story, but absolutely, the victim here is Madeleine, but the couple has reached celebrity status. Saying it's Diana-like sums it up well. There's a mythology to the case that's become accepted almost as fact.

And definitely a racist angle to it.

Anonymous said...

I didn't know about this story until a colleague told me about it. Thankfully it didn't receive the insane media attention it did in Europe. But I did find it weird that the parents weren't looked at closely earlier.

I haven't followed it much but it seemed to me that the police were blaming the parents because they didn't have any other leads. Usually in any of these cases it turns out to be the parents or someone closely related to them. So they should have been the first port of call. Instead it seemed the focus was on ten thousand other possible leads.

It will be interesting to see what happens from here.