Let’s not make a heartbreaking situation worse

What if the cops and prosecutors were right?

What if competent RCMP officers carried out a conscientious investigation of allegations that Rehtaeh Parsons was sexually assaulted, and that a pornographic photo of the event had circulated among her acquaintances, before concluding there was no prospect of a conviction in the case?

Because we cherish freedom and abhor wrongful convictions, we set a high bar for criminal convictions. Accused persons must always be presumed innocent. To convict them, evidence presented in court must satisfy a judge or jury of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt—not a frivolous or fanciful doubt, or one based on prejudice or sympathy, but a doubt grounded in reason and common sense, and logically connected to the evidence (or lack of evidence).

A jury which concludes only that the accused is probably guilty must acquit, and police and prosecutors who reach the same conclusion should not lay charges.

What are the known facts here? On the night of April 4, Rehtaeh, a photogenic 17-year-old who had been hospitalized for depression had a sudden blowup at home. She ran to the washroom and locked herself inside. By the time her mother broke in, Rehtaeh had injured herself in a manner that would prove fatal.

Who can imagine a more devastating experience for a parent than a child’s death in these horrific circumstances? Everyone who hears this story feels heartbroken for Rehtaeh’s mother, her father, her loved ones. I feel awful for them, and I hope nothing I write here will add to their dreadful burden.

In her grief, Rehtaeh’s mother created a Facebook page in tribute to her daughter, that included the following allegations:

[O]ne dreaded night in November 2011 [Rehtaeh] went with a friend to another’s home. In that home she was raped by four young boys…one of those boys took a photo of her being raped and decided it would be fun to distribute the photo to everyone in Rehtaeh’s school and community where it quickly went viral.

These allegations made a heart-wrenching story utterly sensational, as anyone who has turned on a radio, opened a newspaper, or logged onto Twitter or Facebook in the last few days knows. When photos of Rehtaeh as an appealing, apparently fun-loving child began circulating, public emotions exploded. The hactivist collective Anonymous even threatened vigilante action against the boys accused of the alleged assault, and Toronto Liberal lawyer Warren Kinsella egged them on.

Notwithstanding ritual insertion of the adverb allegedly, many if not most of the news stories about Rehtaeh’s suicide proceeded from the assumption that Leah Parsons’ account is accurate: that her daughter was sexually assaulted, an explicit photograph of the event circulated cruelly among her schoolmates, and these events caused her death 17 months later.* We should bear in mind that these remain allegations; they are an account of the facts originating with someone who has the deepest possible emotional attachment to the story.

Leah Parsons’ account may turn out to be accurate and provable in court. It may turn out to be probable but not provable in court. It may turn out to be an understandable but flawed vision of events through the eyes of a devastated mother. In none of these cases does our collective rush to judgment make things better.

One uncontested fact that has received scant attention is that Rehtaeh was treated for depression, including at least one hospitalization. Depression is a terrible illness, and an often fatal one. Would that society could summon the same passion to combatting this scourge that it has in response to her terrible story.

Finally, if you or anyone you know are having suicidal thoughts, please call the toll-free Kid’s Help Line at 1-800-668-6868 or the toll-free Suicide Prevention Line at 1-888-429-8167. Also please check out this website, and this list of warning signs.

* To varying degrees, FeministingThe Huffington Post, ThinkProgress, The Toronto Star, the Halifax Chronicle=Herald, and the Globe and Mail could all have been more careful about separating their reports of the allegations from their narrative reconstruction of events that remain unproven. The National Post and the CBC, notably Stephen Puddicombe’s exemplary reports, were more circumspect.

Virtually all news media ran roughshod over well known guidelines for reporting suicide in a way that lessens the risk of contagion.