Trauma in the Courtroom: Jian Ghomeshi, the Verdict and the Victims

Screen Shot 2016-03-24 at 3.07.48 PMJian Ghomeshi, former host of the popular Canadian radio show “Q,” was acquitted Thursday on four counts of sexual assault and one count of overcoming resistance by choking. Ghomeshi was charged in 2014 after at least 10 alleged victims came forward—some to police, some to the press—with reports of abuse (the allegations of three women were being considered in this case).

Ontario court Judge William Horkins, who decided the case alone without a jury, said the testimony of the three women left him with “a reasonable doubt.” He explained,

The harsh reality is that once a witness has been shown to be deceptive and manipulative in giving their evidence, that witness can no longer expect the court to consider them to be a trusted source of the truth. I am forced to conclude that it is impossible for the court to have sufficient faith in the reliability or sincerity of these complainants. Put simply, the volume of serious deficiencies in the evidence leaves the court with a reasonable doubt. … the twists and turns of the complainants’ evidence in this trial, illustrate the need to be vigilant in avoiding the equally dangerous false assumption that sexual assault complainants are always truthful.

Reports about Ghomeshi’s alleged sexual misconduct began to emerge in 2014 when his then-employer, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, fired him after being shown “graphic evidence” that Ghomeshi had physically harmed someone. The ex-radio host tried to get out in front of the scandal by writing on Facebook that he was being victimized by a jilted ex, a woman who consented to “rough sex” but then claimed she’d been harmed against her will to spite Ghomeshi.

But allegations continued to emerge after his firing, leading Toronto Police to arrest Ghomeshi in November 2014 on five counts of physical and sexual abuse involving three women; the identities of two of the women are protected under a publication ban, but one, Lucy DeCoutere—star of the TV show Trailer Park Boys—requested to have her name made public.

Over the course of the eight-day trial, the three women faced grueling cross-examination by Ghomeshi’s lawyer, Marie Henein. Their accounts of the alleged assaults were dissected, their memories questioned and details of interactions with Ghomeshi following the alleged abuse were used to discredit their testimony. DeCoutere, for example, was grilled about warm emails she sent to Ghomeshi after he allegedly choked her. When Henein asked why she hadn’t mentioned the emails when giving police her statement, DeCoutere replied, “I didn’t understand the importance of after-contact incidents.”

This begs the question: What exactly makes those emails relevant in a situation like this? As DeCoutere stated repeatedly throughout the trial, having contact with Ghomeshi after the alleged abuse does not mean the abuse never happened. Indeed, many women—especially those assaulted by someone they know—remain in contact with their assailants following an attack. Perhaps the most famous recent example of this is writer Aspen Matis, who recalls in her best-selling memoir, Girl in the Woods, that after being raped on her second night of college she asked the assailant to spend the night. She explained to Vice that after her book was published, hundreds of women wrote her to say that they, too, had asked the men who raped them to stay.

“Turns out that it’s actually an incredibly common reaction to want the boy who raped you to treat you well after, as if you could retroactively correct it,” she said. “Because to call a rape a rape—to name it what it is—is to acknowledge that something terrible has happened, that your life is forever changed, and that’s a really terrifying thing to do. It makes the most sense in the aftermath of a trauma to try to carry on as if it never happened, as if you could—and then you realize that you can’t.”

Another witness’ credibility came into question because she initially told police that she’d been wearing clip-on hair extensions the night Ghomeshi allegedly assaulted her, then later changed her statement to say that she was not wearing them; the judge called this reversal “concerning.” In fact, it’s not uncommon for trauma survivors to have difficulty recalling events or details of an incident—research shows that trauma has a profound, long-term impact on the brain. But those trauma-related side effects aren’t often taken into account in court, and “slip-ups” in testimony can cost you your case—or worse.

Many women also feel pressured by the justice system to fit a certain “victim’s narrative” and may fudge or recant the details of an assault because they feel they’re being disbelieved. Recent reporting by ProPublica and The Marshall Project presents a poignant example of this. A young woman was brutally raped by a serial assailant, but recanted her story after it became clear that police didn’t believe her. She was charged with false reporting but investigators later found indisputable photo proof of her assault, leaving her twice victimized—once by her assailant and once by the justice system.

While Judge Horkins noted that reasonable doubt “is not the same as deciding in any positive way that these events never happened,” his decision—and characterization of the witnesses as “deceptive” and “manipulative”—could have a chilling effect on other sexual assault survivors who fear they won’t be believed. Indeed, even before this trial began, many survivors declined to report to police citing “fear of online attacks, mistrust of the justice system, concern over probing cross-examination by Ghomeshi’s lawyer, Marie Henein, and a worry that their private life would become public,” reported The Toronto Star earlier this year.

Despite the verdict, there’s been an outpouring of support for the women, with many tweeting messages of solidarity using the hashtag #IBelieveSurvivors. Supporters also demonstrated outside the courthouse today, carrying signs that read, “Rape is rape” and “Stop victim blaming.”

Vox correspondent Elizabeth Plank summed up the feelings of many frustrated followers of the trial when she tweeted, “It’s cool. In 40-50 years the victims of will get their own New Yorker cover and we’ll wonder why we didn’t believe them.”

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Photo courtesy of Flickr user Julep67 licensed under Creative Commons 2.0

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Stephanie Hallett is research editor at Ms. Follow her on Twitter @stephhallett.

Comments

  1. This is Patriarchical justice for you. Where is Justin Trudeau? Are these the judges he wants to uphold justice in the country he leads? Can this ruling be overturned? Can a judge with some understanding of the psychology of rapists and rape survivors be sought? This cannot be the end. If 3 came forward, there will be many others who didn’t because of exactly this sort of ignorant or mysogynistic treatment by the justice system. Bill Cosby all over again.

    • Jan Dymond says:

      This wasn’t a Supreme Court of Canada case……this was Province of Ontario courts…..so our Prime Minister has no say……or should….
      The crown could appeal but probably won’t. There is room for a civil suit…..we’ll see, but I doubt it. 10 women came forward……3 were chosen for the case……and this is worse then Bill Cosby’s case so far in that the court has already ruled in this case…..Cosby’s case hasn’t even begun.

      • You mean Superior Court, not Supreme Court.

        Federal NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair spoke out, as did several Federal MPs from all parties (NDP, Liberals, PC). Where was Justin Trudeau is a correct sentiment. He just made some bland statement about being against violence in general. Former Toronto Police Chief Bill Blair should be commended for asking the women to come forward.

        By the way, I voted for NDP Leader Tom Mulcair because he has a history being an advocate for victims of sexual assault. And he said of the niqab: why punish the victim? punish the abuser. Trudeau said: women should have a choice whether or not to wear the niqab. There is a difference between the two politicians, but I still think Trudeau has done a lot for women and might make a statement. Remember, Trudeau has spoken out on pornography and sexist hip hop/rap music, and taken the anger that this is racist (although hip hop/rap artists can also be white).

        Sorry to make this political, but I still think Trudeau and Kathleen Wynne might speak out. I definitely expect an appeal.

  2. Sexual assault victims do face major societal and systemic challenges to seeking justice in our society. However, I respectfully would like to point out that it is not the fact that the women continued contact with Ghomeshi that brought down their case. Tt was the fact that by all accounts it appears that they willfully hid this from the police and judge. These do not appear to be innocent omissions.

    “It became clear at trial that Ms. DeCoutere very deliberately chose not to be completely honest with the police,” Horkins said in his decision. “This reflects very negatively on her general reliability and credibility as a witness.”

    Of the third complainant the judge raised the issue of credibility because she did not immediately disclose a sexual encounter with Ghomeshi after the alleged assault. That encounter later came out during cross-examination.

    One wonders what the verdict would be if the women had been 100% transparent.

    http://www.ctvnews.ca/canada/jian-ghomeshi-found-not-guilty-on-all-charges-1.2830582

  3. This man is not fit to be a judge. HAIR EXTENSIONS??!! Really? I can’t remember why I walked into the kitchen half the time–these women have now been victimized AGAIN by a crappy judge.

  4. Kerry Hart says:

    Next time, the woman should kill him “while cleaning her gun”. In America, that would be automatically be classified as “a tragic accident”.

  5. Adults are accountable to their actions. Adults are responsible for their choices. Adults are responsible for their well-being and mental health. Adults need to visit their choices and ask questions about why they make such choices.
    While I agree wholeheartedly that abuse is abuse is abuse, I am ever disheartened by the way in which we look to divert our accountability by way of looking for the “real victim”.
    I do not know anyone, no one, (certainly of my generation) who has not been victimized. I certainly do not know anyone of my generation who grew up gay as not being traumatized and victimized.
    I grew up. I made choices to seek help to get well, to be well. I then made choices to hold those who I could hold accountable to my abuse accountable. Accountability is not about the other person, nor is it about “punishing” the other person. Accountability is about me. It is about what I need to do to be well. In my case, it meant coming forward as an adult to report my abuse, (in my case, sexual assault by a priest.)
    This notion that we are victimized in a vacuum is not only inaccurate, it is dangerous. It suggests we have no accountability for the role we play in our own lives. Whether that is an outcome of an abuse perpetrated by someone unknown, or by someone we choose to spend time with, suggesting we are victimized without playing a role in the ultimate outcome, including telling the truth and choosing to stand by the conviction of our truth is irresponsible and not at all adult.
    Many people are upset with decision made by the judge in the Jian Ghomeshi case. I personally applaud this this judge. While it is true that our legal system may be flawed, within the context of our legal system and more broadly our role as adults to accountability, it was absolutely the right decision.
    Suggestions that blatant lies, manipulation and deception are anything other than what they are only keeps the victimization alive and well. It is a diversion from accountability.
    People need to stop seeing this issue and “victim blaming” and start viewing it as victim perpetuation. If one chooses to not be accountable, one continues to perpetuate their own victimhood.
    The issues, to me, are not separable. The place from which one makes a decision is not separate from the outcome that the choice produces. Whether or not you choose to be hurt, you always get to choose to be well.
    The truth must always be told. Hiding the truth from fear of the outcome is the greatest victimization one can levy upon themselves.

  6. Michelle Terriault says:

    We seem to only focus on the victim – not the jerk who’s done the deed. A Question: what would happen if we fought to bring back public humiliation, say the ‘stocks’ of old where we could throw mud on them, not let them out for bathroom breaks, cover in honey and let ants at them, tar and feather them, etc. You get the picture. Keep these perverts out in the cold for days, weeks, whatever. At worse, they are sent to jail where they hang out with the bros. and bide their time till they get out. Until we get actual humiliation back in the picture, I’m afraid these monsters will never get what they have done in their turn to us during rape. We need to severely humiliate and embarrass them like they’ve done to us. Get the picture??

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