Devil in the Harbour – reader rebuttal

Contrarian reader Joyce Rankin reacts to Contrarian’s caution that justice will not be served by presuming a hearsay accusation of sexual assault to be true in every detail. I don’t usually print reader responses at this length, but in the interests of fairness I will do so in this case without edits.

Please, please, please don’t be one of those men who keep doubting that a rape took place. Every woman knows that there are many many rapes that are never reported because the victim knows exactly what kind of a shitstorm she will letting herself in for and decides not to report. Decides that the trauma and hurt of being raped is bad enough, and she doesn’t want the trauma and hurt of being insulted and be-littled and her private life examined in public. I’ve read that the incidence of false reports is something on the lines of 2%, and that’s including the grey area of women raped by their partners.

The Groveland case is not something I know much about, but for you to say that it’s doubtful a rape took place because the woman was a “bad egg” –how 1950s of you! I think it more likely that the woman was raped by someone either close to her, or someone in a position of power, and .she had to come up with a story to account for things. Knowing that an accusation against the true perpetrator would not be believed (maybe because he was a white man with influence, and she was a young woman with none), she blamed it on those young men more vulnerable than herself. Otherwise it’d be HER OWN FAULT, because we all know women aren’t supposed to let it happen to them, and if it does, they must have done something to cause it.

And exactly what made her a “bad egg”? Had she actually had sex before? been known to take a drink? I guess that meant that she was “asking for it!” Because we all know that no men, young or old, has ever had sex, taken a few drinks, or gone out of the house after dark.

So does that mean that if you were with a group of work/classmates and you were all having a few drinks, that they decided they wanted to have sex with you and you didn’t want to, and they said, “well, you came to the party, what else did you expect?”, they raped you, does that mean that it would be your fault? That you should have known better than to go there, or that by having a drink you might expect something to happen?

In the Cole Harbour case, it seems the existance of photos show that the rape did indeed happen. The fact that some of the perpetrators bragged about it, and spread the photos around, shows just how ingrained this rape culture is. The boys expected the victim not to say anything, because they knew that she knew that their word would carry more weight, and that their possible futures would be considered worth more than hers. That they had the upper hand. Again.

You can doubt that a rape took place, if you want to delude yourself. But I ask you: why is the occurrance of rape held to a higher standard of proof? If I called the police and they came to my house and my door was standing open, the lock was broken, items were missing, my computer was gone, and the house was torn apart, they (and my neighbours) would assume that I’d been burglarized. If I called and the police came and found that there was a person lying in the street dead, with injuries that could not be self-inflicted, they (and passers-by) would assume that a killing had taken place. But if a woman calls the police and she’s been beaten and had forcible sex, they ask her about her sexual history, and everyone starts trying to find reasons why it was her fault -the way she was dressed, she was out at night, she had a drink…….. If the burglar breaks into your house, no one tells you it is your own fault for owning nice things.

It is true that we should not assume guilt in a court of law, but I think if the boys were bragging about it, then we are pretty sure it happened. The question is, why did the police take so long to do anything?

I was going to say, please don’t conflate these two stories, but on second thought maybe you can. Because the common thread is that many people don’t believe a woman who says she’s been raped, and the questions always come down to the victim’s conduct, rather than the rapist’s.

Because many sexual assault victims do not report the crimes, and because the nature of sexual assault is such that testimony often comes down to he-said-she-said disputes that cause genuine victims to be disbelieved, some feminists have come to the position that all such allegations must be believed; to doubt them is to abet rape culture.

I understand how they reach that point, but I believe they are wrong to do so. Such blanket assumptions will inevitably lead to wrongful convictions.

Rehtaeh reaction – continued

I have more reader mail on the furore around Rehtaeh Parsons’ death and the factors that led to it. Once again, a few preliminary points.

  • Rehtaeh’s family and friends are going through an unimaginably horrible experience, one they have handled with grace and courage. The one point that united everyone in this case is sympathy for their ordeal.
  • It bears repeating that, 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.

In a post on April 11, I raised a number of misgivings about the frenzied public response to Rehtaeh’s death. I expected my views to provoke controversy, but in fact, most of the emails directed to Contrarian’s comment link (at the top of this page) have been positive. There’s an initial sample here.

Many more negative comments appeared on Twitter, where I had a series of vigorous exchanges with people who thought I was too trusting of police, and not sufficiently sensitive to “rape culture” and bullying. In particular, some reacted angrily to my contention that photogenicity played a role in the explosion of media interest in this case. Others thought the existence of a photo depicting the November, 2011, encounter between Rehtaeh and four young males ought to have been an open-and-shut basis for a “child pornography” prosecution. Much of the discussion focused on exactly what we know and do not know.

To follow some of these discussions, check out the Twitter feeds of Daily News alumnus Ryan Van Horne, Herald reporter Selena Ross (who was the first to break the Rehtaeh story), Tim Pratt, @allisomething, @KristiColleen, Raveen S. Nathan, and André Pickett.

Meanwhile, Sydney lawyer Candee McCarthy has called me out on a point of law. I wrote that, “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” [Emphasis added]. Replies McCarthy:

Although I agree with your assessment regarding a jury’s obligation, I don’t believe that police and prosecutors should be held to the same standard as a jury. I submit that police should not lay charges frivolously, but they should lay charges if there is evidence or information to support a charge; a charge is not a conviction and should not be held to the same standard as one. The police shouldn’t need to prove a case to lay a charge. They have to be reasonable, sure, but out of the “three tiers” (for lack of a better way to put it), their burden is the least onerous.

The Crown then has the job of proving the case. It is the Crown Attorney that determines whether to prosecute the charges laid by the police, but the crown is not (and shouldn’t be) the judge and jury. In the interest of serving the public’s interest they need only ascertain a reasonable prospect of conviction. (As such I submit they should be prosecuting cases where they believe the accused is “probably guilty”.)

I confess that in writing my quick summary of the presumption of innocence, I relied on that prestigious legal journal, Wikipedia. And when I wrote the clause McCarthy objects to, I wondered if I was overstating it. Apparently I was. I am not a lawyer, but I do wonder if McCarthy overstates the ease with which police should lay charges in cases where they are uncertain of guilt. I know that the Marshall Inquiry devoted a lot of time and thought to the roles of police and prosecutor. If any lawyers or judges out there want to weigh in and help educate the public, I’d love to hear from them.

McCarthy concludes:

This is a sad case all around and I agree that folks and the media are quick to pass judgment… just as all too often they pass judgment on young women for their private sexual behavior (consented to or not) by calling them a “slut” and thinking it’s ok to disrespect these women’s bodies by sharing personal and intimate photos. It’s not like these types of allegations are rare lately… If we as a community are becoming more outraged over victim allegations, I say so be it. Maybe we need it – it’s a hell of lot more comforting to me than to continue to bear “rape culture” commentary and victim blaming.

Tim Segulin:

The outrage and sadness is so palpable at the moment that it is virtually impossible to remind people that while a beautiful young woman has lost her life in a most horrific and tragic way, and allegedly 4 young men were somehow involved, nobody has been convicted of anything, and the police have so far been unable to build a strong enough case leading to charges that would lead to such a conviction. Vigilante justice will only lead to further crimes and in all likelihood more injustice. All the publicity and the extent of public reaction since this story broke may well provide the impetus for somebody to come forward with something the police could build a case. This sad story is far from over.

Janet Connors:

I have… feeling a bit ill about the hysteria. The British gossip media has now picked up the story. This poor, sad girl, seems be getting forgotten in the frenzy of public grief, blame, politics and just plain old bad journalism.

I wonder how this has become a story about bullying, and the reactions of others who seem to think the solution is to bully the boys. I don’t understand a lynching mentality and hopefully, never will.

I hate the expression, “this could have made her death mean something,” because nothing could ever make this death worthwhile. However, this sad affair could have become a lightning rod for so much positive discussion about social justice, teen alcohol consumption, depression, sexual rights, and sexual health, etc. What a shame that we, in Nova Scotia are so lacking in visionary leadership, be it social, political, or educational….  My 2 cents…

I guess it’s obvious I agree with Janet. If this awful set of events does not spur concerted community action on “teen alcohol consumption, depression, sexual rights, and sexual health,” instead of kneejerk demands for vengeance, we will have missed a tremendous opportunity.

Jack Garnett:

“What if the cops and prosecutors were right?” I guess now we will find out, unfortunately still much too late for the teenager’s family. In other cases, the cops ask publicly for anonymous tips to help with their investigation of criminal activity. I wonder/doubt if this was initiated in this case, perhaps because it was not considered to pass the test of “criminal.”

Reinforcing the inadequately defined “vigilante” boogeyman (which the Anonymous press release you provided addressed and denied), and raising the girl’s “depression” in an ambiguous manner that should have clearly clarified that there was no suggestion it could have caused this suicide independent of the [alleged] rape and subsequent internet humiliation, seemed a little bit manipulative to me.

Several other people pointed out that the Anonymous statement I linked to specifically rejected vigilante action, a point I should have noted.

“Given that the topic of your post is on the nature of reporting in the matter,” wrote Brad Fougere, “that’s kind of reckless, no?”

Here is the pertinent excerpt from the Anonymous release:

We do not approve of vigilante justice as the media claims. That would mean we approve of violent actions against these rapists at the hands of an unruly mob. What we want is justice. And That’s your job. So do it.

The names of the rapists will be kept until it is apparent you have no intention of providing justice to Retaeh’s family. Please be aware that there are other groups of Anons also attempting to uncover this information and they may not to wish to wait at all. Better act fast.

Be aware that we will be organizing large demonstrations outside of your headquarters. The rapists will be held accountable for their actions. You will be held accountable for your failure to act.

Surely paragraphs 2 and 3 belie the pro forma rejection of vigilantism contained in paragraph 1. Like so many others, Anonymous presumes guilt (not innocence, as a civil societies do). It presumes the right to gather names and release them, if the criminal justice system does anything other than prosecute the implicated boys. And since all bullies are cowards, Anonymous does this from behind a mask of anonymity.

Fifty years ago and 1,000 miles to the south, they would be called the Ku Klux Klan, and like the Klan, they are deserving of community scorn and disgust. In this regard, it is astounding that the CBC and other media outlets have shielded the identity of the local bully who speaks for Anonymous, while giving him a platform from which to spread bile. Surely some journal or journalist must be up to the task of outing him.

Patrice Bolvin:

A free society relies on functioning governmental institutions and police forces. Right now we don’t have that in Nova Scotia, in my opinion, because there is too much bureaucracy, a lack of public accountability, and a lack of effective coordination of services.

Thanks again to all who contributed. Join in by clicking the “Email a Comment” link near the top of the page.

Rehtaeh reaction

Not surprisingly, yesterday’s Contrarian post on the furore over Rehtaeh Parsons’ death has produced a lot of email, pro and con. Much of the angry reaction appeared on Twitter, where Contrarian tweets as @kempthead.

Before sampling the reader response, two important preliminaries:

  • What Rehtaeh’s family has been through this week is about as awful as human experience gets. They have been loyal in support of their daughter, and courageous in their rejection of vigilante action against those accused of abusing her. Whatever one’s views on the issues I raised, compassion for this family ought to be universal.
  • As I said yesterday,  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.
  • Any effort to completely decouple sex and alcohol is bound to fail, but by the time they reach puberty, all boys and girls ought to clearly understand that a person of any age who is drunk to the point of throwing up cannot legally consent to sex, and anyone who has sex with someone in that state is committing a sexual assault.

Jeremy Akerman writes:

Just because we think we know something does not make it fact. Nor does something become fact because we want to believe it. Actually, we know very few actual facts about this whole affair. Of the original incident, we know what one person said that another person said had taken place. This whole matter has been subsumed by mob hysteria. The role of Anonymous is particularly sinister. They talk of sending “teams of investigators” to uncover the truth. More like a few self righteous people picking up gossip around cafes and school gates. These “investigators” got the Amanda Todd case horribly wrong when they “outed” a totally innocent man. It is surprising he was not killed.  What I have been saying is this: Leave the torches and pitchforks in the shed for the time being. Let us wit until we get all the facts before we start lynching people.

A reader called Patrice (no last name) writes:

Did you read Anonymous’ response? According to the boys’ peers, they were bragging that they committed the rape, even while showing them the picture they took to prove it. Similarly to the way teens sometimes arrange, film and upload videos of school beatings to Youtube.

Did they feed false testimony to the RCMP? Did their parents? Maybe all the kids who heard them brag but didn’t report it should be charged as well for not reporting it.

I would read Patrice’s comments and those from Anonymous, in the context of Jeremy Akerman’s remarks. Anonymous is not gathering evidence. It’s gathering rumours, gossip, and multiple hearsay in a superheated environment from excited and possible distraught or fearful young informants. Such activity has no place in the justice process.

A reader who asked that her name be withheld out of concern for her employment wrote:

In the rush for a salacious story, the media have—with a couple of notable exceptions—told one side of this story, while ignoring the pivotal issue: mental health.

Parents sometimes want someone to blame because they cannot accept that this happened to their child. But it does. And sometimes there is no blame. Ask the Fountain family, which lost their much-loved son to depression. Or the family of Jay Smith, who was talented, popular and loved.

I take issue with the media coverage of this case for the reasons you have mentioned. They have—with a couple of exceptions—made her death a one-cause suicide, which is the very thing that psychiatrists advise them not to do. They have glorified her death and made her a martyr. Mental health is more complicated than that.

We don’t know if she was medication, some of which produces suicidal tendencies. We don’t know why she released from hospital. We don’t know if she was raped because we have only heard from her mother, who is devastated and grief-stricken. The RCMP say it was a he-said, she-said case, but we have not heard from the he side.

The one thing I did find unsettling about this story was the family’s contention that it took the RCMP ten months to interview the alleged rapists. If this is accurate—and hopefully we will find out—then I do not believe that was acceptable.

This is one point I hold in common with those demanding an inquiry. If the facts Rehtaeh’s family hve reported are true—that it took 10 months to interview the boys, and they were interviewed in a group—then this requires an explanation. But there may be an explanation. No one is compelled to give evidence against themselves, and the boys may have had legal counsel who set the conditions for the interview. The point is: we just don’t know, and assuming the worst is unhelpful.

Colin May writes:

We don’t know all the facts, and never will. TV news has been treating this quite sensationally, including Evan Solomon. The lust for ratings knows no bounds, although CTV this afternoon had a very good interview with a Toronto criminal lawyer; tasteful and sensitive.

Chris McCormick quoted the moving public statement by Rehtaeh’s father, Glen Canning. [Link is to the Toronto Sun, because Canning’s website has been overwhelmed by traffic and knocked offline.]

“You have the opportunity here to do something good and let’s face it, the court system in Nova Scotia was just going to rape her all over again with indifference to her suffering and the damage this did to her. My daughter wasn’t bullied to death, she was disappointed to death. Disappointed in people she thought she could trust: her school, and the police. She was my daughter, but she was your daughter too. For the love of God do something.

“I’ve been contacted from media outlets from all over the world and as a past member of the media I understand why you all want to speak with me. You have all been very courteous, professional, and respectful. Please know, however, this is the only statement I am able to make. I’m [too] devastated. I feel like I’m dead inside.”

From Ian Johnston via Facebook:

I’ve appalled by what I’ve been reading from here in Toronto. Come on folks. Get a grip. It’s like hysteria….

[T]he most telling repeated line I continually see is that, “We need an investigation to get justice….” assuming of course a re-investigation will reveal an injustice. Seems a bit of a leap. As you said, folks seem to have leapt to the assumption of wrong-doing and are unprepared for if a new investigation gets the same result.

From another reader who asked me to withhold his name because, “I do not want to be attacked by a vigilante mob, or hacked by a bunch of outlaw geeks.”

Thank you for publishing your thoughtful perspective on the Parsons case. I find it deeply troubling on a number of levels – not just the obvious and utterly justifiable grief her family and friends must be enduring, but perhaps even more due to the apparent public reaction or, perhaps more accurately, overreaction.

This is an extremely complex situation, and as seems to happen far too often, the news media is appearing to overlook some basic questions that seem rather obvious.

[This reader then speculates on certain unknowns about the case, which I will omit out of concern for those involved, and the fact that, just like the inflammatory comments of those demanding vengeance, they are pure speculation.]

…I am deeply troubled by the knee-jerk reaction by far too many people towards wanting to lock the alleged perpetrators up forever without due process. I am equally troubled by those who in one breath blame our public institutions for what happened, and in the next call for MORE institutional  intervention to solve such problems. The disconnect there seems rather obvious to me…

I am going to try to tune much of this out over the next while. I fear nothing good will come out of this, and vigilanteism is never pretty

Longtime Contrarian reader Denis Falvey writes:

While I agree with you that there should be a high bar for conviction, I do think it would be a good idea to formally register society’s disgust with these “boys'” alleged behaviour, by at least challenging them to prove their innocence—likelihood of conviction notwithstanding. The facts as know would then be before the public, and there would not be the suspicion of the matter being swept under the rug. As it is, the public has only bile and innuendo on which to gnaw.

Innocence until proven quilt should not mean that everyone charged is somehow automatically quilty; nor should it mean that if you are not charged, you are therefore innocent.

There is talk on an enquiry now, probably at great expense. But isn’t that what could have been achieved by a judge and jury, at less expense?

Also, sometimes maybe, proving one’s innocence of the accusation of wrong doing may be enough to trigger self-examination of behaviour against acceptable standards of society? Isn’t that what we want in this type of situation?

Your underlying point is correct; we don’t know what happened here.

Thanks to all who contributed. Join in by clicking the “Email a Comment” link near the top of the page.  More later…

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.