Page last updated at 10:17 GMT, Friday, 22 May 2009 11:17 UK

Blogs threatened Baby Peter cases

By Jeremy Britton
BBC News

Baby Peter
Jurors in the second trial were unaware of the defendants' links to Baby Peter

The people responsible for the death of Baby Peter have been jailed. However, as BBC News reports, these prison terms were put at risk by internet hate campaigns.

Vigilante-style websites which are determined to name and shame the mother of Baby Peter and her boyfriend almost wrecked their second trial for the rape and neglect of a two-year-old child.

Their efforts to "out" the identities of the couple - who still cannot be named for legal reasons - could even have led to some of those responsible for Baby Peter's death receiving far lesser sentences than the ones they did.

It raises further questions on how justice can continue to operate in high-profile cases when judge's orders can be so easily broken by bloggers.

Reporting restrictions on the media after the Baby Peter trial prevented any information about his mother and boyfriend facing a second trial being made public.

Despite efforts by the mainstream media to challenge the orders, the press was placed in a position that to even mention the second trial could have resulted in a substantial fine or even imprisonment for contempt of court.

Identities of the defendants and the false names they had been given in court had leaked out on websites that specialised in demonising the Baby Peter three

The public could only be told that the couple's sentencing - and that of their lodger Jason Owen who was also found guilty of causing or allowing Peter's death but did not feature in the second trial - was being delayed for legal reasons.

Before the second trial even started, defence lawyers for the couple argued forcefully that any jury trying the mother and boyfriend would be prejudiced if they knew who was in the dock in front of them.

They said the defendants were perceived by the public in the same way as the Soham murderer and his girlfriend and that more than half a million people had already signed internet petitions demanding justice for Peter.

These internet campaigns made it impossible to hold a fair trial, they argued.

The judge, Stephen Kramer, disagreed and ordered a trial could go ahead provided the jury was not told the defendants were linked with Peter in any way.

And as a a failsafe measure, it was agreed the defendants should be given false names.

But despite these efforts and within days of the trial starting, the identities of the defendants and the false names they had been given in court had leaked out on websites that specialised in demonising the Baby Peter three.

Harsher sentence

Bloggers not only directed readers to where the trial was happening but gave details of what evidence was being heard.

The trial came to an abrupt halt and police were ordered to investigate the source of the information.

It was feared that the trial itself might have been compromised after barely starting.

Finally, it was decided it could continue, but only once the jury were given firm instructions not to do any research on the internet.

The plan worked.

After delivering its verdicts, the jury was told how the two defendants had been convicted or pleaded guilty to causing or allowing Peter's death. Not one reacted as if they knew.

As a result, the boyfriend of Peter's mother received a far greater sentence not only for causing the boy's death, which carried a 14-year maximum prison stretch, but also for the rape conviction which carried a potential life sentence.

Peter's mother was cleared of cruelty to the second child.

If the websites that were so determined to give away the second trial had led to its collapse, they would have been responsible for the earlier release of one of the very people they sought to vilify.

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