Courting Trouble: Why the way we try rape cases should really be on trial…

Courting Trouble

My new novel, Courting Trouble, is just out. I thought you might be interested in what inspired me to set a new series of novels in a law firm. Even though the books are, hopefully, funny and full of bawdy banter and juicy girl talk, each novel will have a crime to solve and a moral dilemma. The case I explore in the first novel, was inspired by a true life incident, but also by my own experiences with jury service and the justice system during which I realised that it is the way we try rape cases that is really on trial.

Here is my story….

I was sorting laundry in front of the television, half watching the evening news bulletin in June 2009, when his face flashed up on the television. My stomach churned as I recognised him. It was those cold, unblinking eyes that gave him away – the eyes of a predator. “And today, Kirk Reid, one of Britain’s worst serial rapists, was jailed for life for two rapes and the sexual assault of 26 women over the past eight years. The police, who now believe he attacked over 100 women, have been criticized for not pursuing inquiries into Reid after suspicion fell upon him in 2001 when his DNA linked him to a rape and two indecent assaults.”

I rubbed my temples, dazed, as though I’d been in a car accident. One of the rapist’s victims, Candice March then appeared, venting her fury at police failure to match Reid’s DNA, prior to his vicious attack on her. The victims, all from south London, told similar stories of being followed home late at night by an intimidating 6’2” man, who then pounced, wrestling them to the ground where they were violently molested.

The report went on to explain that officers had missed at least 12 chances to arrest Reid. Despite precise descriptions from victims, police failed to secure an E-fit and lost witness statements. Again and again Reid’s red car was mentioned in police inquiries, but was never linked to the attacks. In 2004, a 999 caller reported the number plate of the man he’d seen attacking a woman, but this lead was never followed up. An eye-witness, who had seen Reid attack a woman, spotted him walking past her flat a few weeks later. She immediately called the police, but once more, detectives ignored the tip-off. Despite having been identified numerous times by victims, Reid was never visited by police nor asked for a DNA sample.

After Reid’s arrest John Yates, the national police spokesman on rape and sexual assault finally acknowledged that “Nothing can adequately excuse the failure to follow up straightforward lines of inquiry that should have seen Reid arrested in 2004.” But Reid could and should have been stopped in his monstrous tracks years earlier. Not just by the police. But also by me.

It was 1996; my first day of jury service. After taking an oath and swearing to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, I sat with the other selected jurors, in over-awed silence on the wooden pews of the court, peering up at the judge’s bench as though it were a pulpit.

The Judge entered and we rose, respectfully. Judge Gee sat, orchestrated his robes around him, then peered down at us with pompous disdain. If I’d known that the Judge was merely a jumped-up commercial solicitor, we wouldn’t have felt so intimidated but, daunted by his superiority, we faced him reverentially as the charges were read out.

It was a sexual assault case – Regina v Reid. The victim, a petite, pretty young woman in her twenties, testified with a sincerity that was obvious to me, that Reid had been passing her in a narrow alley in Soho when he violently assaulted her, penetrating her vaginally with his fingers. Shocked, but fuelled with the adrenalin of fury, this plucky young woman had given chase. Kirk Reid’s one piece of bad luck was to emerge from the dark alley into a head-on collision with a passing policeman who arrested him after she complained of his attack.

Belloc described a jury as twelve people summoned at random to decide who has the better lawyer. Regrettably, it was true in this case. The young female victim was articulate and succinct; her account of the assault plausible and precise. But the prosecution barrister lacked all luster. His raspy, two-pack–a day voice sounded languid with boredom as he plodded through the crown’s case.

The defence barrister on the other hand, was shrewd, manipulative and devastatingly persuasive. In honeyed tones, he cut through the prosecution’s case like a knife through pate. With the verbal equivalent of sleight of hand, he insinuated that the victim was unreliable, vengeful, unstable and probably a man hater.

The defence barrister had the courage of his convictions – i.e., that he didn’t want his client to get one. He spoke as efficiently as a sewing machine, threading words together, stitching her up. When addressing the judge, the defence barrister adopted the obsequious pose of a royal footman.

In the dock, Reid looked the picture of innocence, a black man victimized by a racist society and a xenophobic police force. To me, one of the few women on the jury, Reid’s polished charm was negated by those cold, slow, unblinking eyes. His defence barrister portrayed him as helpful, hard working and friendly. We now know that the man was friendly in the way that a parasite is friendly. In truth, Reid was a devious and ruthless predator, who made most of his attacks on women as they walked home alone and vulnerable, late at night.

Despite the absurdity of Reid’s defence – the notion that a young woman of good character, rushing back to work after her busy lunch hour, would randomly condemn a stranger to the psychological torture and ignominy of a false sexual assault claim, it was difficult not to be swayed by the oratory of his counsel.

I looked to the prosecution barrister for clarification. Incredibly, its barrister made no final speech. “See?” said my fellow jurors, before we retired to consider our verdict, “even the prosecutor does not believe in his case.” I discovered later that CPS guidelines state that its barristers are not obliged to make final speeches in short cases – a rule that is never explained to jurors and which they completely misunderstand. In this country, absurdly, it’s a crime for jurors ever to talk about what goes on in the jury room. What this means is that prosecutors don’t realize the psychological impact that conduct like this can have on their case.

Intimidated from the outset by the formal surroundings of the courtroom, the jury looked to the judge for guidance. The way Judge Gee sat at the bench, all straight-backed and aloof, reminded me of a recently installed dictator. He brusquely informed us that there was no evidence. By this he meant that there was no DNA evidence of semen. The Judge did not remind us that the young woman’s testimony was good evidence. He instructed us that a conviction might be unsafe – his heavy, rounded vowels raining down on the unsuspecting female victim like blows.

Judge Gee then rose, magisterially, and we, 12 good men and women and true, retired to the jury room.

If our jury room had been the set for a movie, it would have been called “One Angry Woman and Eleven Irritated People Who Want Lunch.” Jury secrecy laws forbid me from saying more than that the judge’s instructions must have reverberated in the minds of my fellow jurors: as there was only a woman’s word, a guilty verdict would be unsafe. The fluorescent light above us was faltering, spasmodically and I remember feeling much the same.

When Reid was found “not guilty”, I watched the young victim’s calm confidence evaporate. Her visage resembled that of an airline crash survivor who stumbles out of some remote jungle and is disorientated and confused by the world around her. She looked at the jury in disbelief and dismay. Her face became a blur of misery. She had fronted up to her attacker in court, only to be publically discredited. I wanted to call out to her that I believed she was telling the truth, but knew I could be charged with contempt of court. Mind you, contempt just about summed up my feelings for the Judge.

Reid threw me an icy glance. Gone was the genial children’s football coach, replaced by the coldest, smoothest man I’d ever seen. I will never forget the look Reid then gave his victim – a cold, hungry stare – the stare of a raptor about to seize a rabbit.

All the way home on the tube, the case clung to me like a chill. I was haunted by the young woman’s stricken countenance and determined to let her know that at least one jury member had believed her story. I tracked down her address and wrote a letter praising her bravery. The letter I received back was harrowing. When Reid was acquitted, the young woman had been crushed. She confided that each word of the judge’s summation had felt like a bullet. Her devastation was heart-wrenching to read. But there was no doubt that she was profoundly comforted by the fact that at least someone had believed her testimony.

Watching Kirk Reid’s smirking face looming large in my living room 13 years later, many thoughts nagged at me. If my jury had found Reid guilty that day, how many women might we have saved from harm? In all, detectives connected him to attacks on 71 women in South London but believe there many have been hundreds more. I thought back to the poor performance by the prosecution lawyer. In my experience, cases are tried before a live jury – at first. When Kirk Reid’s prosecuting lawyer was laying out the case, I remember seeing 2 jurors yawn. Do such lackluster performances help explain why only 6.4% of rapes recorded by the police result in a conviction? (The figure is 34% in general criminal cases.) Does the misogynistic way female victims get treated by the courts also explain why between 75% and 95% of rapes are not even reported?

Reid’s many victims blamed police ineptitude, but the CPS was also woeful. Should a commercial solicitor, like Judge Gee, ever have been appointed to the bench of a Criminal court? Shortly after he mishandled this trial, Gee was arrested for mortgage fraud and was himself tried at the old Bailey. (His jury could not agree.)

The recent brutal cross examination of the teenage girls from Peterborough who were groomed, sexually exploited and gang-raped by Asian gangs rekindled my anger at the brutality meted out to victims of sexual assault in court. In this last year, many other cases have highlighted the horror of subjecting yourself to cross examination in a rape trial. The body of violinist Frances Andrade was found at her home less than a week after she gave evidence against choirmaster Michael Brewer 68, at Manchester Crown Court, having accused him of rape and sexual assault. Her family said being called a ‘liar’ and a ‘fantasist’ in court was ‘more than she could bear.” (The jury, who weren’t informed of her death, found him guilty of five counts of indecent assault.)

As an author, I believe poetic justice is the only true justice in the world. Keen to impale the Kirk Reids of this world on the end of my pen, I’ve set my new novel, “Courting Trouble”, in Britain’s first barrister/solicitor, mother-daughter, two person boutique feminist law firm which only champions women’s causes. I based the case in this first book of my law series on a true story. A Melbourne grandmother was so sure her raped grand daughter would not get justice in the courts, that she tracked the rapists down and shot them in the testicles.

Researching the novel involved reading the many recent court transcripts of rape trials after which I feel total sympathy for victims who opt to take the law into their own hands. Defence barristers invariably portray the female victim as ‘delinquent’ and ‘manipulative’. One leading London lawyer recently asked a rape victim whether her so-called screams for help were really cries of pleasure. Another defence barrister described a child as “sexualized and dangerous.” He said she was ‘glowing with hormones’ and ‘very confident about her body’s power and movement’ when she ‘seduced’ a fifty year old bloke. He said she ‘played the game well” and was, he claimed, a danger to men… He was describing a girl aged 11.

“Are you a victim or just a naughty girl doing grown up things you bitterly regret?”… “Wasn’t this just rough sex which got out of hand?” are typical questions traumatised victims must endure… “Isn’t it true that you were in as much control of the situation as the men? You were like a spider – predatory in all your actions, totally sexually experienced, dressing older than your age and dancing provocatively?”

Dancing is not against the law, I believe, unless living under the Taliban, but time and time again teenage girls in rape trails are accused of being voracious Jessica Rabbit type temptresses who’ve seen more ceilings than Michelangelo and are ‘asking for it’….Just compare that to murder for a moment. No one ever thinks: maybe the murder victim wanted to die… perhaps it was a consensual death.

There have been some improvements since the miscarriage of justice that freed serial rapist Kirk Reid. Thanks to Harriet Harman and other female lawyers like Helena Kennedy and Annie Mallalieu, new laws allow jurors to hear about relevant previous convictions. (Kirk Reid had already ratcheted up several which were kept from us.) But on the downside, rape has also gone mainstream. Comedians make jokes about it (“What do nine out of ten people enjoy? Gang rape.”) Rap lyrics describe women as ‘ho’s’ and promise to ‘smack my bitch up.” (Pub-crawls and parties have themes such as ‘rappers and slappers” or “geeks and sluts”. Kids as young as 9 access porn sites – porn sites which boast about their ‘genuine rape videos’.) A recent survey by amnesty international revealed that one in two boys believe it is acceptable to hit a woman. Forced sex was seen as even more acceptable than hitting, making rape little more than assault with a friendly weapon. One in two young people surveyed knew someone who had been sexually assaulted. Juries also still reflect these prejudices, no doubt because the court room atmosphere is conducive to the suspicion that the witness may be “crying rape”.
Rape is not a hit and run romance, or a ‘struggle cuddle’ as one judge described it, but a soul-destroying, degrading ordeal. Approximately 69,000 women are raped in England and Wales each year, 400,000 sexually assaulted and 1.2 million experience domestic violence, with two women a week killed as a result. It’s sobering to note that violence is a bigger threat to the health of European women than cancer.

Juries need to be reminded that it doesn’t matter if you are a 16-year-old virgin, a practicing prostitute, or paralytic and lying naked on a bench. The blame lies with the perpetrators of rape not the victim.

And Judges, who too often display the compassion of a piece of petrified wood, also need to stop the kind of aggressive cross examination which leaves the victim in shreds. Until then, it is the way sexual assault cases are handled in Britain which remains on trial.

Courting Trouble is published by Bantam. I do hope you’ll slip between my covers….

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