Rehtaeh Parsons: a thought experiment

Christie Blatchford’s controversial National Post column from last week purports to explain why prosecutors in Nova Scotia decided not to proceed with charges against the four boys who allegedly raped Rehtaeh Parsons.  According to anonymous sources (who, of course, could be desperately trying to cover their asses) there were serious problems with the case, and convictions in court weren’t likely:

…Postmedia sources point to huge problems with the case that made it virtually impossible to take to court, chiefly the shifting accounts from Rehtaeh herself and independent evidence, including retrieved online messages, that supported the suggestion the sex that took place was consensual.

Even the notorious cell phone picture, first sent by one of the alleged assailants and re-circulated thereafter, shows virtually nothing that would stand up in court.

The photo is of a male naked from the waist down, giving a thumbs-up sign, pressing into the bare behind of another person who is leaning out a window.

[…]

The case was handled by a joint Halifax Regional Police/RCMP sex assault team, the lead investigator a woman.

It took almost a year for the police to bring the case to a senior Crown attorney within the province’s Public Prosecution Service (PPS). Also a woman, she is an experienced sex assault prosecutor.

While in a few provinces, Crown attorneys have to approve charges, Nova Scotia isn’t one of them, though police often ask for legal advice.

(These two arms of the province’s justice system have different legal standards to meet. For police, it’s what’s called RPG, or reasonable and probable grounds, to lay a charge. For prosecutors, it’s “a realistic prospect of conviction” in court.)

Essentially, what police ask is, “Do I have a case here?”

The prosecutor “looked at it really thoroughly,” PPS spokesperson Chris Hansen told Postmedia in a telephone interview Thursday. “She concluded there was no realistic prospect of conviction.”

The officer then turned her mind to a possible child-pornography charge, so the prosecutor referred her to a colleague, one of two PPS specialists in cyber crime, particularly as it relates to child pornography.

“He looked at it carefully as well,” Ms. Hansen said, and also concluded the case had no realistic chance of conviction.

Among the general public – and even among some alleged lawyers who should know better – there seems to be a sense that this matter should have been brought to trial, regardless of any misgivings prosecutors may have had about whether Parsons’s alleged attackers would have been convicted.

But think about what a trial would entail.  Rehtaeh Parsons would have been obligated to tell her story in court, in front of the people who allegedly violated her.  (She may have been allowed to testify behind a screen, so she wouldn’t have to look at the accused, but this wasn’t certain – and in any event, she still would have been in the same room.)   Then she would be cross-examined by counsel for the defendants, who would not be timid in their interrogation of the complaint.

And after all that, a verdict of “not guilty” could have been the result.  It’s not enough for the judge or jury to believe the accused likely carried out the offence.  Guilt must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt, even for accusations like these.  (Actually, especially for serious accusations like these.)

Imagine that you have to decide whether to prosecute this matter.  You believe there are serious, perhaps fatal, weaknesses to the case.  You know forcing this young girl to tell her story in court could be extremely traumatic.  And you think she could be put through all of this only to have the accused walk away.

Without the benefit of hindsight, what would you do?

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2 thoughts on “Rehtaeh Parsons: a thought experiment

  1. I think the problem is that we can’t throw out hundreds of years of law on emotion. Here in Toronto, an obviously mentally ill man was found not guilty by reason of insanity in the death of a police officer.

    Would those who are dumping on the prosecutors and cops in this case (and Blatchford for simply doing her job) also demand that the killer be sent to prison, and not a hospital? I somehow doubt it.

    My response to someone who asked “what if she were your daughter” was “what if your son was falsely accused?”. Shut him up for a few minutes anyway.

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