A recently dismissed case in the court has raised the question of how can we better protect and support sexual assault victims. Before we start, let us all be clear that the matter discussed in this piece was never tried in court, and there was no verdict pronounced, therefore, everything that we reference is an allegation. As in all sexual assault cases, the names of the accused and the victim are withheld. Having said all of that, we are going to reference the allegations to highlight our points. So, let’s get to it.
The case involved a police prosecutor who was accused of kidnapping a 13 year-old girl and having sex with her on two occasions in 2016. According to the initial report, during the height of the Carnival activities, the child, who was working with a woman who was operating a barbecue stall in St. John’s, was sent to a nearby shop. While on the way, the officer apparently approached the young teen and told her to join him in his vehicle. When she refused, the man allegedly forced her inside and took her to his home. It was there that the first alleged incident of sexual assault occurred. The following day, it is alleged that he reached out to her again and persuaded her to visit his home where he had sex with her again.
As the police began their investigation into the incidents, the officer left Antigua and Barbuda. He remained overseas for weeks before returning with a medical excuse that he was unable to travel. Upon his return, he was charged, briefly remanded and then released on bail. That bail was revoked when the man paid a visit to the girl’s school to enquire about her and some evidence – a cellular phone, for his defence. Eventually, he was granted bail a second time.
That all led to the difficult day in court where the child, now 15 years-old, indicated that she did not want to proceed with the case. She indicated that she did not want to re-live the incidents and apparently came to the decision after she spoke with her mother, counsellor and guardian. She also stated that she has forgiven the accused. That allowed the accused kidnapper and child rapist to walk free without the matter being heard or a stitch of evidence being presented. It sounds crazy, but that is how the justice system works.
As we said, we have used this case to highlight the plight of victims and especially extremely young victims. In this particular case, an impressionable young child, who is still below the age of consent and can’t even get a driver’s permit, must choose whether she wants to go through with the trial – whether she should abandon a case that could release an alleged predator to go hunting for a new prey. It is a decision that most adults would strain to make, so we can only image the stress that led to this child’s decision. It leads to the general question, are we doing our best when it comes to supporting the victims of sexual assault?
We understand that this is an extremely complicated topic but there is just something about it that does not feel right. Just think, if the allegations are true then a dangerous sexual predator is on the loose. But we must also be mindful that there is a process that must be followed. ‘Innocent until proven guilty’ is the foundation of our justice system. It is bolstered by the right of an accused to face his or her accuser and challenge any evidence or testimony. Then, of course, there is the “he-said, she-said” nature of the majority of sexual assault cases that have little or no corroborating evidence as it was in this incident which was reported several months after the alleged offences occurred.
In the midst of the global #MeToo movement, it is interesting to see a case like this make the headlines in Antigua and Barbuda. In many ways, it validates what victims around the world have said about the horror of re-living the events and the added embarrassment of doing so in front of others in a court of law. Maybe, too, our small size amplifies the intensity of those horrific memories and causes even greater trauma when victims realise that there is a high likelihood that they will come face-to-face with those that have been in the courtroom hearing of their suffering. After all, in Antigua and Barbuda, there is little or no chance of anonymity.
At the core of this is the fact that you cannot compel a victim to testify. Some have proffered that victims should face some type of sanction or imprisonment as it serves a greater good (i.e. if a predator is kept off the street) but that simply penalises the victims for a second time. We do not have a solution, but we do know that it should start with the police and support services. Every effort should be made to unearth corroborating evidence through forensic and DNA avenues so that all the weight of the trial does not rest solely on the victim, which in some cases may be just a very young person.
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