The verdict has been read in the high-profile sexual assault trial of former CBC radio host Jian Ghomeshi. The Ontario Court judge acquitted Ghomeshi on four counts of sexual assault and one count of choking. The judge’s verdict was based on his finding the women who accused Ghomeshi not to be credible witnesses. A heartbreaking excerpt from his full verdict:
The success of this prosecution depended entirely on the Court being able to accept each complainant as a sincere, honest and accurate witness. Each complainant was revealed at trial to be lacking in these important attributes. The evidence of each complainant suffered not just from inconsistencies and questionable behaviour, but was tainted by outright deception.
I think that for many of us who were following the proceedings, it was not Ghomeshi on trial, but the women. Ghomeshi himself did not testify in the trial, so his behaviour was not similarly scrutinized.
This is troubling, because despite his acknowledgement that there is no single way in which sexual assault survivors behave, many of the judge’s issues with the complainants’ credibility had to do with a lack of “harmony” between Ghomeshi’s having assaulted them and their behaviour. For example, Judge Horkin did not seem to think that DeCoutere’s post-assault contact with Ghomeshi could be properly explained as an attempt to normalize their relationship. Further, even her involvement with sexual assault advocacy seemed to be portrayed in the verdict as an attempt to get attention.
It may be entirely natural for a victim of abuse to become involved in an advocacy group. However, the manner in which Ms. DeCoutere embraced and cultivated her role as an advocate for the cause of victims of sexual violence may explain some of her questionable conduct as a witness in these proceedings.
This of course is perfectly in line with the stereotype that of women who fabricate false sexual assault claims in order to get attention. Never mind, of course, that the very reason there might have had to be an #ibelievelucy hashtag was the default perspective that she was not, in fact, to be believed.
For many survivors, the fear of disbelief is precisely a reason not to come forward. Survivors continue to have their stories doubted – and even in cases where the stories are believed – to be blamed for the things which were done. So it is very sad in this case for these women to be found lacking in credibility, while the defendant’s credibility was not even called into question on the stand. But something also disturbing with far-reaching implications is Horkin’s claim that the presumption of truthfulness is equally dangerous as false stereotypes of expected victim behaviour.
Courts must guard against applying false stereotypes concerning the expected conduct of complainants. I have a firm understanding that the reasonableness of reactive human behaviour in the dynamics of a relationship can be variable and unpredictable. However, 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.
While it might be true that not all sexual assault complaints are truthful, the function of this claim seems to be to dissuade us from believing survivors. At least nine women had come forward claiming that Ghomeshi had harassed or assaulted them in some way. Three went to trial and we were told that their testimony was not only unreliable, but also tainted by deception.
It doesn’t seem to me as though believing too many women is one of the pressing problems facing our justice system.