'It's been hell' - Commuter cleared of 'preposterous' sexual assault on famous actress at tube station now wary of travelling alone
Mark Pearson bears the crumpled expression of a man who has just emerged from a protracted period of darkness, yet can barely summon the enthusiasm required to readjust to the light.
On Friday, after a three-day trial at Blackfriars Crown Court, he was acquitted of sexually assaulting an award-winning actress - who for legal reasons cannot be named - while crossing paths with her during evening rush hour on the concourse of Britain’s busiest train station.
“My brain is one big jelly at the moment,” says the 51-year-old artist and picture framer, cutting a somewhat forlorn figure beside his partner, Carol Ho, 41, at their kitchen table in Bromley by Bow, east London.
Though he has come through this half-second-turned-whole-year of hell with his reputation entirely intact, it has taken a terrible tarnishing - and the whole process had subjected him to a clear physical and mental toll.
Pearson’s bewilderment at his predicament is made all the worse because he believes his case should never have reached court – not even got close.
The claims, which he denounced as “preposterous” from the start, were that he assaulted the TV, theatre and radio actress penetratively for “two or three seconds” as he walked past her at London’s Waterloo station, before landing a heavy blow to her left shoulder as he pushed past her.
Though the pair were surrounded by swathes of commuters, there were no witnesses, no forensic evidence and the woman herself failed to pick Pearson out of an identity parade.
CCTV footage of the encounter was unearthed, but still didn’t establish if the two strangers made physical contact as they swept past each other, let alone whether there had been enough time for such an attack. A forensic scientist for the defence told the court that Pearson had passed the actress in half a second - concluding any assault was a logistical impossibility.
The jury agreed and took just 90 minutes to unanimously reject the actress’s story - but for Pearson, the damage had already been done. He has suffered anxiety attacks, resorted to cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) in search of sleep and, at his lowest, refused to go leave the house, see friends or pick up a paintbrush. He has been, by his own admission, “a nervous wreck”.
Today, he is angry that the case got so far on such sparse evidence - and for this, he lays the blame squarely on the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS).
“I blame the CPS because they had the CCTV evidence right from the beginning,” he says. “They could have compared that with her statement, realised it was total cr*p and dismissed the whole thing. For some reason they couldn’t see that and decided to take it to trial.”
The case raises further questions about the CPS’s decision-making in sexual assault cases; in particular, pressing ahead withimproperly investigatedprosecutions beset by gaping holes in evidence.
It is Pearson’s belief that, in the wake of of high profile mistakes in cases such as Jimmy Savile and Rolf Harris, the CPS is now overly keen to get convictions “at all costs”.
He says: “It has swung too far the other way now. If people like me are being put on trial for walking past someone in half a second, that’s ludicrous.
“It is the very last thing I would do to anyone. To be accused of something so vile and to be threatened with imprisonment - when I know what happens to sex offenders in prison - that scared me more than anything.”
His grave concerns over the way in which the CPS handled evidence in his case centre on CCTV footage, which they supplied and had amended to slow its speed – a critical change, given the case rested on whether Pearson had enough time to commit the assault. Instead of one frame per second it was running at one frame every two seconds. “They said they did it for technical reasons; what they were we weren’t told.”
Pearson’s defence team drafted in Jacob Blythe, a specialist CCTV forensic expert, to present the footage at the correct speed and create a storyboard of what happened - which showed he was carrying a newspaper in his left hand (the one he was alleged to have used in the assault) and holding his bag in his right.
The first Pearson heard of the accusations levelled against him was the early morning of 5 February 2015 - two months after the 'groping’ took place on 3 December 2014 - when six policemen, armed with a CCTV photo of him, arrived on his doorstep, having traced his location through data from his Oyster card.
He will never forget the journey to the station for questioning, because he was “shaking so much - wondering what the hell was going on”.
Despite advice from a duty solicitor to say nothing, Pearson was keen to co-operate with police questioning, as he knew he had nothing to hide: “It is always the villains in TV shows who say no comment. I was sure this was a mistake and I wanted to sort it out as soon as possible”
He has no memories of the day of the alleged assault itself; it was the same “boring journey” home from work he had completed countless times before. If he bumped into someone, he imagines he would have apologised and remembered, but in a station which sees 300,000 people pass through each day, a knock is hardly unusual.
Although he was released that afternoon, four months later - out of the blue - charges were brought. Soon Pearson was waking up at 4am, his whole body “shaking every night.“
He says, “I couldn’t stop thinking about it. You get into a mind set where you’re not thinking realistically. You know you didn’t do anything, but you have heard about miscarriages of justice in the past where people have been convicted.”
Carol, his partner of more than ten years, never questioned his innocence and remained “100 per cent” behind him. A fellow painter, the couple met at the Royal College of Art, and Pearson says she knew he “would never do anything like that”.
It is testament to their relationship that the process didn’t drive a wedge between them; quite the opposite: “It has been a strain but, if anything, it has brought up closer together. We have helped each other through it.”
In court, he had to employ his CBT techniques to keep him calm while he faced his accuser- who he obviously can’t discuss, but says he didn’t recognise.
“It doesn’t get rid of [the terror] entirely. Your whole life is on the line. It is a very odd experience, to watch someone blatantly lie about you.”
By the day three of the court case it was “pretty obvious” the jury were unconvinced by the actress’s story. She had not recognised herself in the CCTV footage and, at one point, suggested the man who had attacked her had hair.
Still, the verdict, says Pearson, left him “numb”.
“I was expecting something more to happen. Maybe the judge would apologise for what had happened to me - anything, but he said nothing. It was a deflation.”
His accuser’s motivation for pursuing the allegationsagainst himremain unclear, but Pearson concedes “you have to question her state of mind”.
Though he thinks it is too soon to tell what the lasting impact of the ordeal on him will be, it has made him understandably wary of public transport; he now keeps his arms up and in full view on the tube and says he would never get in a lift with a woman if she were on her own.
With the aquittal now behind him, what does he hope, for the future?
“I would like a change in the CPS and the way they carry out their work. There is some sort of systemic fault. Maybe it is to do with funding being cut, maybe it is to do with inexperienced people being put in charge of things they are not capable of doing.”
A CPS spokesman said: “There was sufficient evidence for this case to proceed to court and progress to trial. We respect the decision of the jury.”
“That’s the reverse of an apology really isn’t it?” says Pearson.