Op-Ed

Photo: CC, Canadian Film Centre.

Victim stereotypes take centre stage in final verdict

The long-awaited verdict in the Jian Ghomeshi case was released on Thursday March 24,, and the former CBC host was found not guilty on all charges. This case highlights the discussion that our society needs to have in order to better respond to instances of alleged sexual assault.

Judge William Horkins presided over this case, and made several references in his verdict to the tendencies for witnesses to change their statements. As there was very little physical evidence, this case relied heavily on the credibility of the witnesses.

There were details that the three victims didn’t share with police until close to the end of the trial, such as contact with Ghomeshi after the assault. While it’s understandable that when a witness commits perjury under oath it undermines their credibility, the new information didn’t change any of the circumstances surrounding the alleged assaults. When Lucy DeCouture’s story went from not being able to accurately recall the details of the assault to a clear order of slaps there was no change in the fact that an assault had taken place, in her version of events.

In his 30-page statement, Judge Horkins carefully outlined his decision, at one point saying that “the twists and turns of the complainants in this trial illustrate the need to be vigilant in avoiding the equally dangerous false assumption that sexual assault complainants are always truthful.

“Each individual and each unique factual scenario must be assessed according to their own particular circumstances.”

While the Judge is right in his commitment to facts, the fact is when it comes to the “dangerous false assumption that sexual assault complainants are always truthful”, it usually isn’t an assumption, but the truth. Only 2-10 per cent of reported sexual assault allegations are demonstrably false.

Aside from their failure to disclose all information, there were some inconsistencies that are difficult to reconcile, such as one witness’ distinct memory of being in a car with Ghomeshi that he wouldn’t actually own until seven months after the alleged assault.

But other inconsistencies, such as one witness’ changing descriptions of the order in which the kissing and slapping in her assault took place, shouldn’t discredit her assault accusation.

It is unreasonable to expect every moment of a traumatic event to be remembered in perfect detail, because that simply isn’t how the mind works. Especially if you consider that these assaults allegedly occurred up to 12 years ago, and these women probably tried their best to forget them at that time.

In a traumatic experience your critical thinking shuts down, and you tend to focus on smaller details of a scene. Not only are you not thinking clearly, but fear also makes it more difficult for both long and short term memories to form.

Another big lesson is that a verdict shouldn’t be given based on how the judge feels a victim should have acted after an assault. In his verdict Judge Horkins says that “The expectation of how a victim of abuse will, or should, be expected to behave must not be assessed on the basis of stereotypical models.” He then does exactly that by declaring that the behaviour of one of the complainants was odd. “Having said that, I have no hesitation in saying that the behaviour of the complainant is, at the very least, odd.”

I’m left wondering what it will take for us at this point to begin listening to survivors and trusting them, not just in our legal system but in our society as a whole. It was  reported to supervisors at the CBC that Ghomeshi had engaged in sexually aggressive behaviour, yet an investigator found that these complaints were not adequately handled by management.  In another case, Brock University tried to keep its sexual assault victim from going public with their allegations.

This verdict has led Canadians to question our legal system. How can it treat victims of sexual assault in a manner that is respectful, and still give prosecutors the information they need to mount a case?

The Ghomeshi case has shown that there exists elemental differences in the way that sexual assault is handled versus other crimes. As a society, we need to get better at identifying these differences to even begin to solve the problem.

Instead of asking what sexual assault victims can do to help the justice system, lets ask what the justice system can do for sexual assault victims.