Whatever happened to ‘innocent until proven guilty’?
This morning, one man in the north of England will wake up to find himself free. Two years ago, he was accused by two women of various sexual offences against them. He was charged and, although it was their word against his, the wheels of justice ground remorselessly forward towards a trial that started on Monday of this week.
Once charged, his name was published. He faced verbal and physical abuse. He was hounded out of his home and from his home town. The women, on the other hand, as victims, properly benefited from anonymity. It is hard enough to persuade victims of this type of crime to come forward. If their names were to be made public, that in itself would be too high a hurdle for many of them.
In our legal system, the Prosecution puts its case first. It is possible, though rare, in the English courts for a Judge to decide at the end of the Prosecution’s case that there is no case for the Defendant to answer. In that situation, rather than asking the jury to consider its verdict, the Judge will not trouble the Defence but instead the Defendant will be acquitted immediately. Usually, this happens when the Prosecution’s case is technically flawed in some way. When it’s a she-said/he-said case like this one, a Judge will let the jury weigh up who’s telling the truth – that’, after all, is what they are there for. They are the arbiters of truth.
Yesterday, the Judge accepted the argument made by Counsel for the Defence that there was no case to answer. Why? Because under cross-examination, the two women were revealed to be conniving liars. Indeed, so bad was their evidence that they ended up fighting with each other via the witness box.
So the accused was freed. He was reported as being “distraught” – a strange adjective to use for a man who has, for the last two years, been falsely labelled as a sexual predator facing a long prison term and a lifetime on the sexual offenders register. But of course, you can’t throw this much excrement at somebody and expect him to walk away without some kind of lingering stench. He may never be able to return to his home town. Were you to google his name, you would doubtless come across reports of the charges made against him and perhaps you may never see reports of his acquittal.
For the rest of his life, this sorry case will hang over this man, affecting his reputation, his confidence and his psychological health.
The Defendant’s barrister (for our American friends, his trial attorney), when asked whether the alleged victims would face perjury charges, replied simply “that almost never happens”. And yet their anonymity is judicially preserved. To report their names would be a contempt of court and could see the reporter and his or her publishers imprisoned.
Who knows why they did this? Perhaps it was out of spite, revenge for some perceived wrong they had suffered. Perhaps he was the village weirdo, an outsider who was asking for trouble. Perhaps they were just bored and looking for something to spice up their dull and fruitless lives. Perhaps, just perhaps, there was some tiny kernel of truth to it all, some way in which the lives of the three did intertwine, but which did not result in the commission of a criminal offence.
I am not saying that it is wrong to preserve the anonymity of complainants in cases like this, both before and after the case. I am not even saying that in this case, withholding the identity of the Defendant would have prevented the unnecessary level of distress and lingering damage that has been caused to him. What I am saying is that it is time that something was done. Some combination of measures perhaps involving anonymity for the Defendant may help. But maybe there should also be a readiness to re-examine, in the context of the acquittal, the basis for the evidence given by the complainants upon which the case was based.
The acquittal of a Defendant does not necessarily mean that he has been found to be innocent. To be convicted, a jury must conclude that it is beyond reasonable doubt that the Defendant is guilty. These days, English Judges tell their juries that they must be sufficiently certain so that they are sure. So, the fact that a Defendant is acquitted does not mean that those tabling the accusations are necessarily lying. But there comes a point. There must be consequences for those willing to destroy the lives of innocent people by misusing the criminal justice system for their own ends.
The victims of this type of crime are the powerless and the meek. It is incumbent upon all of us to give them as much support as we can to bring their abusers, the perpetrators of these horrible crimes, to justice. But very, very occasionally, the true victim is not the person you might have expected it to have been at the outset.
I am not an expert in this. I am a lawyer but I have no knowledge of or experience in criminal law. But I can see when the system has become unfairly balanced against individuals supposedly innocent until proven guilty.
This post was first published on Medium.