Beth Anderson recounts the story told in a documentary about one rape case, and wonders how we can improve the legal system.
I first heard about this programme from an article in the Guardian on 7 August and resolved to watch. The subject of the documentary was the case of a 14 year old rape victim and it was made by Charles Stewart, an award winning documentary director.
The victim’s story is introduced by a recording of a 999 call made by Paul Anderson, a passer by, who saw the girl running away and the attacker chasing her with a knife. Creepy stuff. It feels vaguely voyeuristic to be listening to what is, after all, the end of the attack. On a visit to the scene of the crime the next day with Paul Anderson, we learn that the victim ran off while the he was still on the phone to the police, but that her mother called the police as soon as she got home.
In the suite that Doncaster Police have available for victims of rape and sexual assault the next day, the victim gives more details to Sharon Hancock, a specially trained officer. The victim had been out with her boyfriend that evening but the boyfriend had got the bus home at 11pm. She had missed her last bus home but apparently she walked home regularly and wasn’t bothered by the prospect. She walked past the station, where the man who was to attack her had started a conversation with a teenager. When he saw the girl walking past he asked where she was going and when she told him she was going home, he insisted on walking with her. He took her into a back alley, telling her it was a short cut home. When she realised it was a dead end he tried to kiss her. She refused, telling him she already had a boyfriend, but he tried again, putting her hand down his trousers. When she started screaming and shouting for her mum, he put his hands round her throat, choking her and threatening her that if she screamed or tried to get away, he would whistle and his friends in the area would shoot her before pulling off her clothes and raping her. Luckily, a car went past the end of the alley and distracted him for long enough for the girl to run out of the alley, where the passer by called police.
House to house enquiries turn up very little, other than a man who had heard what he described as a woman screaming for her mother and a reply of ‘you’ll be fucking sorry you bitch’. It does transpire, though, that by an unpleasant coincidence, a relative of the girl had met her attacker earlier on the day she was attacked. The attacker had come to Doncaster to find his ex girlfriend and child and ‘sort out’ the girlfriend’s new boyfriend and had been asking everyone he met if they knew them.
From the relative’s description of his movements, the suspect is soon found on CCTV cameras from a couple of hours before the time of the attack. The police also try and find witnesses at the railway station 24 hours after the attack. This doesn’t turn up much other than some painters remembering that a man matching the description of the attacker was making a fuss at about 10.30pm because he’d missed his last train back to Wakefield. They also discover some graffiti the attacker scrawled on the pavement when he was with the girl’s relative, saying the name of his ex girlfriend with ‘I will find you’ after.
The police decide to release the CCTV still of the attacker to Crimestoppers as they still don’t know who the attacker is. They are nervous about this scaring the attacker off, but are also concerned that if they don’t do this, the rapist could attack someone else before he is traced. They are also concerned that if the girl sees the picture of the suspect, this could have an impact on whether she could successfully ID him when caught, but they decide to tell the girl the situation and ensure she does not see the news item to avoid this problem occurring.
The woman that the attacker had been looking for is traced, giving the police the suspect’s name and previous record, which involved an accusation of rape that had never got to trial and a prison sentence for violent robbery.
The release of the still is ultimately successful, as the teenage boy that the attacker had struck up a conversation with before attacking the girl happens to recognise him from the still and gets in touch with the police. He is only visiting his grandparents, who live in the area, and it is lucky he saw the picture before going back to Aberdeen – especially as he wasn’t actually watching TV when the picture came on and just happened to glance up at the right time.
The next person to come forward is a prostitute the attacker had approached for sex 20 minutes after the rape. They had been stopped by the police on their way to the house in which the attacker was staying but as at that point they did not know about the attack, the police let them go. The prostitute leads police to the house he had taken her to and the rapist is arrested. The victim and the witness both make positive identifications, and the suspect is charged with rape. The rapist did not agree to be filmed for the documentary.
When questioned, the rapist agrees that the CCTV footage shows him, and remembered talking to the teenager from Aberdeen, but denies that he had even seen a girl. The detective that interviews him says that the suspect comes across as ‘cocky and arrogant’ and seems to believe he can talk his way out of the charge. The detectives hope that a condom the rapist used for sex with the prostitute would provide forensic evidence, but this hope was fruitless. If forensic evidence had been available, this could have meant the trial was less unpleasant for the victim.
Ten days after the rape, the police take their case to the CPS and discuss it with their barrister. They doubt that the defendant will get bail with his record, especially as when he has left jail in the past there have been concerns about the possibility of him reoffending. They also believe that even if the defendant does change his story to consensual sex, there is enough evidence to stand up in court, although this would make the trial more difficult for the victim. The victim visits the court before the trial to help her feel more comfortable when the trial actually begins.
The police meet the prosecuting barrister, Andrew Hatton, less than 2 weeks before the trial. The defence has asked for information on fibre transference and all footage of him that was shown on TV before and after his arrest. On the eve of the trial, the defendant changes his story to say that he had had sex with the girl in question, but that the sex had been consensual. This will ensure that the trial will be much more unpleasant for the victim as the defence will ‘challenge her character and lifestyle’ and make out she is a liar and that she wanted to have sex.
During the cross examination the defence lawyer makes much of the fact that the victim had played truant from school and had been walking the streets that day. Later in the evening she had met up with her boyfriend and other girl and had been drinking with them before she was attacked. Some painters in the station had said that they remembered a girl who was rather giddy and tapped one of them on the bottom and the defence barrister claims this was her. The girl said she could not remember this. He plays on the fact that she had been wearing a skimpy top and that although her boyfriend had caught his last bus home she had missed hers. The victim gets upset and walks out – understandably.
The prosecution team are very nervous at this point as many women do not come back, and even if she does the defence will turn the pressure up. However, she did return the next day and dealt with even more intrusive questioning, suggesting that she had walked off willingly with her arms round the defendant and that she had wanted to have sex with him.
Andrew Hatton agrees in an interview after the cross examination has finished that it could seem that the victim herself was on trial. However, he says the questions asked were necessary to the defendant’s case and that if he had thought the defence was overstepping the mark that he would have asked the judge to intervene. Sharon Hancock says that the victim had taken the defence’s line of questioning about the fact that she had been drinking and had played truant as a personal insult – as they were. However, she had explained to the girl that the defence barrister was paid to make her look like the one on trial and that she had coped well.
The rapist is found guilty and sentenced to life with a recommendation that he serve a minimum of seven years before being considered for parole. In the judge’s summing up he says that the rapist had subjected the girl to a terrifying attack. The rapist is a sexual deviant with a previous record of violence. He has showed no remorse for treating the girl with disgusting violence and that his behaviour was bestial. A member of the police team says that in the end, if the rapist had got the girl back into the alley he has no doubt that it could have been a murder enquiry.
The victim is now 16 and scared to go out on her own. She has recurring nightmares not only about the attack but also about the trial.
Rape statistics began and ended the programme. 1 woman in every 20 will be raped at some point during her life. Only 1 rape in every 5 is reported. Only 1 rapist in every 65 is convicted.
After watching this programme, the one thing I can’t help but wonder is this. Presumably a 14 year old girl, even if she has a boyfriend and has started sexual contact with him, will not have as much of a sexual history as an older woman would. Yet the defence barrister was still able to imply that she consented to sex and had wanted sex. There was no discussion of the fact that presumably a fourteen year old girl would be far more likely to have sex with her boyfriend if she wanted to than to go up to a stranger far older than her.
Many women in their twenties or thirties may have had several casual sex partners and in an equivalent case, there would be no law against a barrister using a woman’s sexual history against her. How much more likely would a jury be to acquit a rapist on grounds of reasonable doubt if this is the case? If a woman has experimented with bondage or sado-masochism, and a rapist ties her up and hurts her, this could be used to cast doubt on the victim’s story, or even to imply that even if she was raped it wasn’t as traumatic as it would otherwise have been.
There is a lot of discussion in the media at present about whether rape suspects should be offered the same anonymity than victims are guaranteed. The Home Office is planning to make it illegal to name suspects until after they have been charged with an offence. The Conservatives would like to ban suspects from being named until after conviction, and peers in the House of Lords would like to ensure that even after conviction rapists are still guaranteed anonymity for life (see ‘Rape suspects may be given anonymity’, below). I can at least relate to the viewpoint that alleged rapists should not be named until after they have been charged or even convicted, but when they have been found guilty in a court of law I cannot believe anyone would still offer them lifelong protection.
On BBC Breakfast News on Tuesday 9 September, a criminal lawyer (whose name I, unfortunately, didn’t catch) seemed to strongly imply that he thought the low rate of conviction in rape cases was down to a large number of false allegations. When attitudes such as that can be stated on a live news program by a member of the legal profession without challenge, I think it demonstrates that we have far greater problems in fighting the prevalence of rape than we ever thought.
All UK citizens have the right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty. Rapists who are acquitted due lack of evidence against them are therefore innocent in the eyes of the law. It may be a legal necessity, but it’s one which does not serve victims well, especially when the man may actually be guilty.
I believe that the media has to share a large part of the blame. Rape and sexual assault are treated in the UK media as terrible crimes when genuine, but it is implied that many false accusations are made, and that if you’re raped by a friend or a partner or even just someone you’ve gone on a date with, that’s not really as bad. It’s ignored that to have your trust abused by someone you may know and love is just as terrible as any other kind of attack.
The recent John Leslie case has demonstrated just how much of a fuss the media will make. Ulrika Jonsson never actually named John Leslie as the man she was referring to in her autobiography, never confirmed after his name was accidentally released that he was the man she had been referring to, and never went to the police about her allegation. However, this does not necessarily mean that he was not the man she was referring to. She didn’t say either way. None of this stopped the media frenzy, gleefully reporting that other women had come forward to report alleged attacks by him, followed by indignant reports on his behalf after all charges were dropped.
What’s the answer? I’ve no idea, but we can’t rely on the legal profession to sort it out (for a rather disturbing set of views on how barristers see rape cases, see Prosecuting and Defending Rape: Perspectives from the Bar below). And as Carter-Ann Mahdavi pointed out last month in It’s rude to point: blame culture’s easy way out, blaming the victim is getting us nowhere. It’s time to start challenging male and female preconceptions about rape in our day to day lives and challenging the media when they sensationalise what is, after all, a gruesome crime. It’s time to start getting men (and women) to start following the list at www.jacksonkatz.com – educate yourself. Support friends who may be being abused. Speak out against sexual violence. Start educating the next generation that rape is not OK. Challenge the idea that if boys are cruel to girls ‘it means he likes you’. How messed up an idea is that? We’ve got to start fighting back.