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.”

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Julep67 licensed under Creative Commons 2.0

About

Stephanie hails from Toronto, Canada. She is a Ms. writer, a Master of Journalism candidate and a hip hop dancer/instructor/choreographer. She got her start in feminist journalism at the age of 16 when she was a member of the first editorial collective at Shameless magazine—and she has never looked back.