Sunday 15 September 2019

Nicola Anderson: 'Judge's call for the 'cruel gaze of the public' to be averted from rape trials'


Stock photo
Stock photo
Nicola Anderson

Nicola Anderson

A rape trial was under way at the Courts of Criminal Justice in Dublin. In the court were judge, jury, both legal teams, a stenographer, a court usher, the defendant and a lone woman who was supporting him. On the stand, was a taxi driver giving evidence.

Two reporters down the back were awaiting the resumption of another trial and at one stage, the usher tiptoed down to see who they were and what their business was here.

A red cardboard 'in camera' sign on the courtroom doors warned off any members of the public.

In all, there were around 26 people present. Quite enough at a sensitive hearing, no matter who might be on trial.

The atmosphere was hushed, formal and unheated.

We don't always get things right in this country - particularly when it comes to rape trials.

But contrast this situation with the so-called 'Belfast trial' which took place last spring, with Paddy Jackson and Stuart Olding accused of raping a young student at a party.

Into the court on day two had trooped a number of high-profile rugby players, celebrities across the entire island.

Rory Best, captain of the Ireland rugby team, was joined by Lions, Ireland and Ulster star Iain Henderson, Ireland and Ulster winger Craig Gilroy and Ulster prop Kyle McCall.

They cut a startling swathe through the courtroom, as they squeezed onto the narrow seats.

"The reason I was there, it's on the record I've been called as a character witness," Best explained afterwards.

"I was advised it was important to attend, so I got both sides of the story. Because it's an ongoing legal matter, I will make no further comment than that."

It prompted a storm that was well-merited.

Whatever Mr Best's rationale, his appearance at the trial was controversial and, potentially, significant when you take into account how the jury might have factored in the support of these local heroes for those standing trial.

Only last month, Mr Best described it as a personally difficult time - but remained defiant.

"It's a lesson I hope my kids take from it," he claimed.

"If you have friends that are in trouble and need a bit of help and support, and if they are promising you that they have done nothing wrong, even though people may not think it's the right thing to do, I think it is."

But that was not all that was very wrong with the Belfast trial. It was a bunfight from start to finish. The public were allowed to attend, and daily there was an unseemly scrum for seats.

With thick glass walls dividing the public area from the body of the court, people felt free to comment loudly on what they were hearing.

The atmosphere was extremely heated.

At several points of the testimony of the young woman in the witness box, there were jeers, scoffs and even mocking laughter .

"Choking on her lies," an older woman said amid satisfaction at one stage.

As they awaited the verdict, another woman brought in a long swathe of crochet to work on, for all the world like the grisly 'tricoteuse' who sat, knitting calmly, at the foot of the guillotine in revolutionary France.

This circus is exactly what Northern Judge John Gillen was talking about when he included a recommendation that the public should be barred from rape trials because many complainants found the prospect of giving their innermost details in court humiliating, in "the cruel gaze of the public".

The gaze of the public was indeed cruel and merciless during this trial, with the lines drawn very early on.

Another of his recommendations proposes legislation to curb the "inappropriate" use of social media during trials.

As well as the dangerously active comments posted on the evidence in the Belfast trial unfolded, pictures of one witness were widely disseminated on social media - wrongly identifying her as being the young woman at the centre of the trial - amid much comment about how she looked.

After the acquittal of the four defendants, the alleged victim never gave a public interview. But in John Gillen's report, she must feel some vindication in having done Northern Ireland some service.

Irish Independent

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