Rehtaeh Parsons: be outraged – but careful

A day after The Chronicle Herald‘s atom bomb of a story about Parsons, I’m still haunted by what happened to that poor girl – especially that her fellow classmates not only circulated photos of her alleged rape, they tormented her personally.

The story has now spread around the world, and there is pressure on the provincial government to commence in inquiry into the case, particularly the RCMP’s seemingly inexplicable decision not to lay charges against the animals who allegedly raped Rehtaeh Parsons and then circulated photos of their own brutality.

I agree wholeheartedly.  The “system” – our schools, our police, our social workers – is supposed to protect young people.  And in this case, it failed miserably.  But here’s the thing: once an inquiry is called, it must be allowed to do its job.

Lawyer and Liberal Party operative Warren Kinsella undeniably speaks for many people in this “open letter” to the controversial online hackers’ collective, “Anonymous”:

Rehtaeh was thereafter harassed and abused and bullied by students at her school.  The torment got bad enough that Rehtaeh had to move to another town.  Months later, she returned, but the bullying and abuse never stopped.  She was sent messages calling her a “slut.”

You may ask what happened to the four males who raped her, and who circulated the photograph of Rehtaeh being raped – which, incidentally, meets the definition in Canadian law of child pornography.

Nothing.  Nothing happened to them.

The RCMP, who allegedly investigated, are led in Nova Scotia by Alphonse MacNeil.  He calls himself a “consensus builder” and has two daughters.  I’m sure you could find his email address if you needed to.

The Nova Scotia government, which agreed with – and energetically defended – the RCMP’s decision to do nothing about the rape or the child pornography, is led by NDP leader Darrell Dexter.  Interestingly, he represents Cole Harbour in the provincial legislature.  His email isn’t readily available, either, but I know you’ll find that, too.

His Attorney-General is Ross Landry.  Yesterday, Landry refused to reopen the case; by the afternoon, he had seemingly changed his tune.  His constituency office email is here.  I don’t know what his email is.

The names of the little bastards who did this, and who are still alive and walk free in Cole Harbour, are unknown to most of us.  But, as in the Steubenville, Ohio case, I am certain anyone who is sufficiently motivated can find out who the little bastards are, and name and shame them.

I’m unclear how to appeal to you, Anonymous.  But if there was ever a case that cried out for your attention – and if there were ever men like MacNeil, Dexter and Landry who deserved to be fired, or worse, for their pathetic responses – I don’t know what it is.  What happened to Rehtaeh and her family is so horrible, so evil, I am ashamed that it happened in my country.

In closing, I should note that Rehtaeh’s heart was sent to Toronto yesterday, to be transplanted into another person.  I don’t know why I feel a need to mention that to you, but I do.

Maybe because, in some way, it feels like Rehtaeh is still watching now, to see who will do something, and who will do nothing.

My own feelings about this kind of online activism are decidedly mixed.  The Steubenville, Ohio case – the first one that came to mind when I read about Rehtaeh’s story yesterday – may never have been resolved at all had it not been for the work of Anonymous.

But I also know that online activism – especially when particularly reprehnsible criminal allegations come into play – can go very, very wrong.  When George Zimmerman shot unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin while patrolling a gated community in Florida, Zimmerman’s address and contact information quickly circulated online.

Just one problem: it wasn’t the same George Zimmerman:

An elderly Florida couple have been forced to move into a hotel after their home address was wrongly tweeted as belonging to the man who shot teen Trayvon Martin.

The tweets were traced back to a man in California and the address was also reportedly retweeted by director Spike Lee to his almost 250,000 followers.

The couple, aged 70 and 72, have been harassed with hate mail, been hassled by media and had scared neighbors questioning them since the tweet, their son Chip Humble told the Orlando Sentinel.

Fearful for their safety, and hoping to escape the spotlight, the couple have temporarily moved to a hotel.

The confusion seems to stem from the fact the woman’s son is named William George Zimmerman and he lived briefly at the address in 1995.

When William Zimmerman pleaded with the man who tweeted the address, the man responded, “Black power all day. No justice, no peace” along with an obscenity.

One of the most devastating books about the legal system I’ve ever read is Dorothy Rabinowitz’s No Crueler Tyrannies, about the infamous Fells Acres abuse cases in Massachusetts.  The Amirault family, who ran a child care centre, were caught up in the “Satanic Ritual Abuse” hysteria – remember that? – of the mid-to-late 1980s, and falsely accused of molesting young children in the most shocking ways imaginable.

The Amiraults were innocent, but thanks to overzealous prosecutors, exploitative media coverage and opportunistic politicians, their lives were destroyed.  If the internet had been around then, do you believe they wouldn’t have been targeted online as well?

I went to high school, I know how freaking horrible teenagers can be, so I’m inclined to believe Rehtaeh Parsons’s grieving mother.  However, we are only hearing her story – we have not heard from the police, her teachers or school officials, or her classmates.

That’s why I want an inquiry.  But emotional cases like this can lead to bad information, bad law, and innocent people getting caught in the net.  I work on criminal cases myself – albeit on the defense side – and I know how what gets reported in the media can bear only the slightest resemblance to what actually happened.

Even before Kinsella posted his open letter to Anonymous, they were already on their way to tracking down, naming and shaming the people who did this to that poor girl.  If they find them – and if they actually did it, assuming they get the right guys in the first place – well, I will shed no tears.

Justice must be done.  But our system protects criminal defendants, and places the burden of proof squarely on the prosecution, for very good reasons.

Postscript: according to CTV, Parsons’s family says donations in her memory “can be made to the East Coast German Shepherd Rescue, Metro SPCA, and the Laing House – a Halifax-based peer support organization for youth with mental illness.”

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