July 2006

Sex offender given choice over prison

A 22-YEAR-OLD man who had sex with a girl on her 14th birthday has been told it is up to him whether he goes to prison.

Christopher Harding took the youngster’s virginity on the back seat of his car after driving her to a remote rural location.

Imposing a nine-month jail term, Judge John McNaught suspended it for two years giving the defendant the chance to do a sex offenders programme.

Robert Davies, prosecuting, told Swindon Crown Court how Harding met the victim through mutual friends in autumn last year. Then just 13 years old the child had been babysitting for the pals and when he first met her it was clear she liked him and, flattered, he gave her his phone number.

“She used it quite soon afterwards and Mr Harding said he agreed to meet up with her. He picked her up in his car,” he said the defendant had told police.

“They were chatting and he drove off with her to somewhere discreet in the countryside.”

On that occasion he said Harding told police he believed she was 15 years old and was worried about the age difference.

But he said she told him it was fine and that one of her older sisters had a 31-year-old boyfriend when she was just 14 years old.

Harding told police the girl then started to perform a sex act on him in the car but he stopped her and drove her home.

Mr Davies said the girl made no mention of that first incident in her statement to the police but did tell them of the second time they went out in his car.

A week or so later Harding again picked her up and drove her into the countryside and the couple had sex on the back seat of the car. By that time he said Harding was aware she was a virgin and it was her birthday but he claimed he thought she was turning 15.

“He said he felt pretty ashamed of what he was doing during and afterwards. He said she said she wouldn’t tell anyone,” Mr Davies said. “Clearly she did. She told a friend she had lost her virginity to Mr Harding and a number of days later what she said got through to her mum.”

Harding of Verney Close, Covingham, pleaded guilty to a charge of having sexual activity with a child.

Robin Shellard, defending, said his client was full of remorse and deeply ashamed of what he had done. Harding had been accused of rape, a charge which was dropped in May, and he feared he could face many years in jail.

“If ever there was a man who has learned his lesson bitterly it is Mr Harding,” he said.

Passing sentence, the judge said: “You shouldn’t have done this. This young girl was too young to get involved in this but you pleaded guilty and I think you feel bad about it.

“I am going to pass a prison sentence and it is for you to decide whether you go to prison.”

Suspending the nine-month term for two years, he said Harding must complete a Thames Valley Sex Offender Programme. He will also have to register as a sex offender for five years.