Friday, March 27, 2009 

An interesting set of priorities.

It's interesting and perhaps informative to note that on the day that there was another case which showed the deficiencies and incompetence which often dogs police investigations into accusations of rape, both the Daily Mail and Express decided that a man cleared of rape after 45 minutes of deliberations was far more worthy of going on the front page than the conviction of Kirk Reid, who raped or indecently assaulted as many as 71 women before finally being caught.

The acquittal of Peter Bacon predictably touches all the issues which the Mail and Express love to highlight. His accuser admitted that she was drunk and couldn't remember what happened. She claimed that because she couldn't remember what happened, the sexual intercourse the pair apparently had must have been non-consensual, in line with an appeal court judgement from 2007 which adjudged that a woman who is drunk may well be unable to give her consent, but the decision is still ultimately left up to the jury to decide whether the man had a "reasonable belief" that consent had been given. For a paper that continues to take a highly moralistic line when it comes to sex, Bacon gets off remarkably scot free from criticism, especially considering his comment that he was aiming to try to get a one-night stand legitimately", with predictably the woman copping it instead. She was a self-confessed "recreational binge drinker", had not a boyfriend for a number of years, "was close to her mother", had been suffering from depression, "was known for flamboyant outfits in court" during her work as a lawyer, and had had another one night stand with a different man when Bacon and the woman had previously crossed paths. Bacon, instead, is "a very kind and caring individual, and would never speak badly of anyone", was holding down two part-time jobs, and also studying sociology at Canterbury university.

All of this is with a contrast with the Kirk Reid case, which you might have thought was more newsworthy. The second case within a month concerning police incompetence and repeated attacks on women over a number of years, the conviction of John Worboys being the other example. Reid had first entered the police's inquiries in 2004, and came into contact with the police 12 times before a detective inspector who had just been handed the case joined the dots in a matter of days. Both Worboys and Reid targeted women returning from nights out, often the worse the wear from drink, which Worboys then compounded by offering the women who entered his cab a drink, claiming that he had a major betting or casino win. The drinks were spiked; the women often woke up unable to remember what happened, but knowing that they had been sexually assaulted.

The obvious point to make is that despite improvements over the years, women are still all too often completely disbelieved or not taken seriously when making rape allegations, especially when drink has been involved. This is further not helped by surveys which routinely return results that up to a third believe women are partially responsible if they flirt with someone who subsequently rapes them, with around the same number also thinking the victim should accept some of the blame if she was drunk. As potentially irresponsible as getting drunk on your own is, with no one to take care of you while you get home, all the blame has to lie with the person who takes advantage of it - not the victim.

As much as Peter Bacon has undoubtedly suffered since he was accused, the end result shows that the system has worked. There is an argument to be made for the accused in rape trials to be given the same protection as the victim until conviction, but that then raises implications for those accused of other crimes. Why should those charged with murder or child molestation/possession of child pornography for example not also claim they should be protected until proved guilty beyond reasonable doubt? Bacon couldn't really have asked for a better confirmation of his innocence than for him to be splashed across the front page of the second biggest selling newspaper in the country, which will hopefully be some kind of recompense, however slight. A far bigger travesty would be if the wide publication of his case was to further damage the belief in those who have been assaulted and who have never faced a greater challenge in bringing their attackers to justice.

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Monday, January 14, 2008 

Prosecuting rape correctly.

As high-principled and well-meaning as the Guardian's sort of campaign for an increase in rape convictions is, you can't help that feel with their highlighting of the plight of Beth Ellis (a pseudonym) they haven't exactly chosen one of the easiest cases to prosecute.

Whether you can even really put it down as rape or not is one matter, as most would consider it continuous child molestation within the family. As harrowing as Ellis's account of her time after making the complaint to the police is, you have to look at it from the other point of view. They're being asked to investigate crimes that took place the best part of 10 to 20 years ago in a family setting, with Ellis and her mother's accounts of what happened on the one side, with her sister detailing physical instead of sexual abuse, with the denials and countering argument of the her stepfather (the accused) and his son that they had a happy family. There's no forensic evidence; just the testimony of Ellis, and she had the added help of being provided with a QC by the Guardian and a criminologist who said that her flashbacks and panic attacks were consistent with the aftereffects of being abused as a child.

The article itself goes into the details of how the prosecutor didn't speak to her, didn't take evidence on her trauma symptoms and also dismissed the evidence of her mother, who had an affair whilst married to the man in question, because of her "sexual history", out of hand, but even if the case had gone to court, would a jury have convicted the man under such circumstances? Usually when teachers or others in positions of power have been prosecuted for molesting children years after the fact, there's been a number of those who were abused whose testimony was overwhelming as a result. Here it was just Ellis's word and that of her mother's against the man: would it have been enough on its own to prove the case beyond reasonable doubt?

The possibility of introducing evidence obtained by the women themselves via text messages or phone calls, potentially entrapping the perpetrator into incriminating himself looks attractive, but it also runs the risk of being too vague and being used maliciously, even if it's a minor concern. That has to be considered when the figures themselves show that 8% of cases which don't result in a charge are a result of false allegations. The Guardian leader is circumspect enough, suggesting an introduction of a two-tier offence of "aggravated" rape, so that juries could convict without the possibility of the offender being given a life sentence, but that also risks suggesting that some rapes are somehow less serious than others, which when battling misconceptions and prejudice about rape is hardly the message to be sending. All options do have to be looked at, but the starting point has to be changing attitudes in the CPS, especially those highlighted by the case of Beth Ellis.

Reading her diary it's impossible for your heart not to bleed at the pain and suffering she's lived with after a childhood destroyed by abuse. Would she have gained closure though from a successful prosecution? The very last thing you want is for women not to come forward with accusations, but was she perhaps naive in thinking that almost any system would have not delivered the same crushing blow as that when the CPS decided not to prosecute? Would failure in court have hurt even more? It is of course incredibly easy for me to sit here in judgment and ask glib questions, especially when, as a young man, I'm probably the least likely demographic to be the victim of sexual assault and also probably the most likely to commit one, and I don't want to seem in any way cold-hearted, but in a case as difficult as hers, is there any way we can make conviction or even trial more likely without also opening up major possibilities for miscarriages of justice? Once again, it's a question we're not likely to find an answer to.

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Tuesday, November 13, 2007 

No easy answers, but Cameron tries anyway.

If you were a politician and had to pick a crime to give a 20-minute speech about while launching a sort of new policy on it, you'd be hard pressed to find one more welcoming and with less potential pitfalls than that of rape. Rape isn't quite murder, which poses an unique moral dilemma for all political parties (Bring back capital punishment? Life imprisonment that means life? Can you forgive a murderer, and can they rejoin society without being forever tainted?) but a crime of a similar magnitude where you can propose changes with few people likely to disagree with you because of the horrendous impact that rape undoubtedly has. Add into this how the government itself has over the last couple of years been freely wondering out loud how it can bring the conviction rate up, and Cameron was left with something of an open goal.

and Rhetorically Speaking have gone into Cameron's speech in depth, Unity especially on the figures front, while Channel 4 News's FactCheck section looked into the statistics behind the claim that Britain has the lowest conviction rate in the EU, and found that while on the surface it looks accurate, with us sharing the ignominy with Sweden, if you go by number of convictions per head of population, we're about in the middle. It also discovered that we partially have such a low conviction rate because we also recorded the 4th most rape offences in the EU. The whole study underlines how difficult it is compare statistics on rape, both thanks to the differences in law systems, but also down to what the very definition of rape is.

Cameron's example of the tragedy of Lindsay Armstrong is also an especially extreme case. Armstrong killed herself after being cross-examined by the defence counsel, on two occasions having to hold up the underwear she had on on the night she was raped. The defence counsel was able to do this as Scotland had yet to implement the rules allowed in force in England and Wales which stopped the alleged perpetrator from cross-examinging the alleged victim, which also made clear that lawyers for the defence would only be able to bring up the past of sexual history of the victim if they could prove it was relevant. Armstrong's parents say that Lindsay was a virgin, but that she liked wearing skimpy underwear, which the defence moved in on. Cameron is right to say that we should never forget cases such as Armstrong's, but the changes in the way courts deal with rape cases make any larger point almost moot.

No one will argue with Cameron's calls for more funding for centres that deal with rape, which is timely, but infinitely more questionable is his call for "cultural change". Despite polls that often suggest that some individuals put a certain amount of blame on women who either "dress provocatively" or who are raped while inebriated or consuming alcohol, Cameron quoting one by Amnesty International (PDF), which as Unity points out, suggests that such views are more widespread in the older age groups than the youth of today, I find it hard to believe that rape is not already viewed as one of the most horrific, if not the most damaging crime which can be inflicted upon someone. This is simple common knowledge; like with Cameron's suggestion that sex education should emphasize that "no means no", it's almost suggesting that society doesn't understand the impact of the crime, or that because children aren't taught about consent that somehow in any way explains the low conviction rate. You don't need to be taught that no means no, it ought be already more than clear, especially at the age at which secondary sex education takes place. "Ignorance" has never been an excuse. He's on slightly surer ground when he mentions the increasing sexualisation of society, yet his claim that the low rate of conviction is somehow a moral failure, linked naturally with his rhetoric on the broken society is insulting: it's not for lack of trying, and it has nothing to do with a sudden descent in morals. Rape, like with prostitution, has always been with us and always will be with us.

All the statistics show that "stranger rape", the kind most feared, is still thankfully rare. Far more prevalent is rape as a means of control: whether from an abusive spouse or otherwise. It could be argued that it's attitudes to domestic violence, both within the police, the courts and wider society that still need to change. While rape conviction rates are still low, Cameron might have been better targeting that rather than going for the easier target.

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