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Cold Case Investigations: Solving Britain’s Sex Crimes review – how victims from 50 years ago are finally getting justice
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Cold Case Investigations: Solving Britain’s Sex Crimes review – how victims from 50 years ago are finally getting justice

Cold Case Investigations: Solving Britain’s Sex Crimes initially appears to be yet another behind-the-scenes documentary about police work in the UK, along the lines of 24 Hours in Police Custody, Night Coppers, The Met and so on. But this stands out because the investigations covered in these two episodes are historic crimes, which have been unsolved for between 20 and 40 years, and because its focus is on sexual offences. The sensitivity this requires is evident; the stories are told carefully, with respect for the victims and for the officers meticulously reassembling what is often complex historical evidence and applying new techniques to it.

Rape is notoriously underreported, conviction rates remain horrifyingly low and the delay in cases reaching court was recently called “a serious stain” on the justice system by a senior judge. The statistics here arrive rapidly. Hundreds of thousands of unsolved rape and sexual assault cases are lying dormant in police archives across the UK. A major crime unit has launched a push to re-examine 5,400 unsolved rape and sexual offence cases from the past 50 years, using forensic science that was previously unavailable.

The first episode examines two cases. In the early 00s, a man kidnapped and sexually assaulted teenage girls. In one of the three reported attacks, the girl, Georgia, got away, shouting for help from a passerby. She allows footage of her police interview from the time to be broadcast and gives an interview now, 20 years on, explaining the effect it has had on her life and her raw feelings about the victims who were not able to escape before they were sexually assaulted.

In the second case, which took place in 1983, a teenager called Andy was walking home from his girlfriend’s house through a local park when he was attacked and raped. Andy refers to this only as “the event” and explains that this is the first time since 1983 that he has spoken about it properly. He articulates the lifelong suffering the event caused and the damage it has done to his ability to form relationships. For years, the only people who knew about it were his father and his brother. His mother never did.

Over various police operations, we are shown how much technology, forensics and investigative techniques have moved on and what they might now be able to achieve. The gulf between how the police and the public understood and talked about male rape in the early 1980s and how it is handled now is vast. The legal terminology is outdated and crude. The detectives acknowledge all sorts of problems with historical crimes: missing evidence, limited witness statements, clothing not seized. “That looks like a fax or something,” says one detective, examining paperwork. But a forensic scientist is able to find sufficient DNA on a sample to run it through the national DNA database, which was established in 1995.

In the case of the girls, there are DNA samples, but no direct match on the database. Scientists and police work together to establish who might be related to the attacker, working their way through a list based on similar DNA patterns. They cross-reference this with an efit from the time, eventually finding a likely close relative. The detective who has to call someone out of the blue and explain that they might be closely related to a sex offender has a sizable job persuading them to cooperate. “This is like something out of a movie,” says the man on the end of the phone, his voice distorted, but not enough to hide his shock.

There is clearly much admiration for the police work. These documentaries about good and decent police, serving the public, doing their jobs well, are sometimes criticised as reputation laundering. (At the end of last year, it was reported that more than 1,100 police officers across England and Wales were under investigation for domestic or sexual abuse.) But the officers here are diligent, involved and determined to see the attackers held responsible for their crimes. Their satisfaction when they finally get a breakthrough is undeniably deserved and there is a strong sense that here, at least, justice has been served.

This is a gripping account of historical crimes and those who solve them and the processes are fascinating. Although the subject matter is delicate, this rarely feels too intrusive; it is as sensitive as it should be. Ultimately, it is about the survivors, whose courage and resilience are remarkable.

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  • Cold Case Investigations: Solving Britain’s Sex Crimes airs on BBC Two and is available on BBC iPlayer now

Source: theguardian.com