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Are convictions in historic sex abuse cases reliable?

Penelope Gibbs
24 Jul 2016

How can anyone judge who is telling the truth now in the case of alleged crimes which happened thirty years ago?  Many historic sex crime cases are based on a judgement as to whether the alleged victim is sincere, and whether they can genuinely remember the incidents concerned.  A couple of weeks ago an ex-firefighter, David Bryant, was freed on appeal – his conviction for raping a boy some time between 1976 and 1978 was overturned.  He had always protested his innocence but the jury believed (or were nudged to believe?) his accuser rather than himself.  This blog is really a homage to two brilliant lawyer bloggers – Matthew Scott, @barristerblog and Nicholas Diable, @Defencebrief.  Both have blogged recently about the unreliability of many historic sex cases, and whether the police should be spending time pursuing them.

The comments following Matthew’s blog are well worth reading (if depressing) including this from Jim: “I, as an ordinary person, just don’t mentally or physically understand how it is possible under our legal system. What I think is being said is that our criminal courts will accept a case where it is simply a claim, an allegation, with no supporting evidence whatsoever?”  Jim is right – the problem is that someone can be convicted for a sex offence simply on the word of another.  There needs to be no other corroborative evidence for a conviction.  And because there is no need for any other evidence, it is extremely difficult to appeal these convictions, because the defendant has to prove the “victim” was lying. As Matthew points out “in theory the Court of Appeal can quash a case because of a “lurking doubt.” In practice it never does, or rather it never admits to a lurking doubt. The jury’s verdict is sacrosant”.

If the commentators on Matthew’s blog are just a fraction of those fighting what they perceive to be miscarriages of justice, then there are hundreds of people convicted on the basis on one person’s word of something that happened over ten years ago.  And those convicted get very long sentences in prisons, where sex offenders are treated as the lowest of the low.  If any prisoner protests their innocence, they do not get access to the programmes which allow them to apply for parole.  So they risk spending even longer in prison than those who admit their guilt.

Nicholas Diable relates a recent news story  where “a woman says she was sexually assaulted by a man when she was a child. The offence appears to have taken place sometime between 1974 and 1978, at the time the report was made that is between 42 and 38 years ago. The suspect was a lorry driver in his 30s or 40s at the time, so will now be anywhere between 68 and 91 years old. He had short hair at the time, we don’t know what colour the hair was then and have even less idea what colour it is now, if he even has any. He was of large build then with a fat face but may not be large now; indeed, he may be nothing more than bones or ashes for all we know”.  Nicholas disputes the worth of the police spending their very limited resources hunting down someone when the information is so vague.  I agree, and am concerned that if he is identified, he will be subject to the same unbalanced justice.

I am passionate about abusers being punished – victims of sex abuse are deeply traumatised, sometimes for life.  But I am equally passionate about justice – which involves equality of arms, and where conviction should be beyond reasonable doubt.  Like Matthew Scott, I can’t understand how a conviction based only on what someone said happened twenty years ago can be beyond reasonable doubt.  But many (most?) juries – “good men and true”- disagree with me.

As a postscript I highly recommend anyone interested in the problems of trying historic sex cases to buy and read “Justice in a time of moral panic”.