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Aaron McKenna: Le Vell trial highlights argument for defendant anonymity in rape cases

The UK should follow Ireland’s example and put anonymity provisions in place for defendants in rape trials, writes Aaron McKenna.

Aaron McKenna

THE CORONATION STREET star Michael Le Vell was found not guilty on all counts of raping a child this week. He has been dragged through the mud of late with horrendously vile allegations hanging over him, the media following the trial in graphic detail and with his career put on hold.

Even now that he has been exonerated, elements in the media continue to rib him. Details emerged during the trial about his private life and in particular his struggles with alcohol. Many newspapers were pointed in their front page headlines picturing Le Vell enjoying a beer after his acquittal. The inference wasn’t all that subtle, and thanks to this trial he will likely have to put up with media scrutiny about his private life and troubles for much time to come.

We have here a man who has done nothing wrong. He was, according to a jury, falsely accused of some of the most heinous crimes imaginable to civilized people. Yet he has suffered a substantial loss in earnings and massive public embarrassment that will continue, thanks to the incidental details revealed during the trial. He will also most likely have the cloud hanging over his head for the rest of his days. Weeks and months of fevered media reporting of the trial will have implanted an idea in the minds of many people, regardless of the outcome of the trial. It’s human nature for gossip to stick.

‘Cry-wolf’ cases are absolutely in the minority

Sexual assault is one of the most sensitive and difficult types of crime to get a successful prosecution in. “Cry-wolf” cases are absolutely by far and away a minority of those that make it to trial. A great many more cases of sexual assault, primarily endured by women, don’t even make it to investigation.

In Ireland we have seen shamefully lenient sentences for individuals accused of sexual crimes, ranging from short custodial sentences to slaps on the wrist and judges ordering a cheque be sent to a victim to supposedly make good the incalculable damage done.

We clearly need to improve the quality of justice that victims of sexual crimes receive; and make it easier for them to come forward and make a complaint in the first place. Here at home we need to take a hard look at cases like that of convicted sex offender Danny Foley, who famously had his hand shook by about 50 individuals from the local community – including the parish priest – whilst awaiting sentencing. There is clearly some warped thinking by some in this country about the nature of these crimes.

Reputational damage is being overlooked

Nevertheless, a person who is tried for a crime is not guilty of that crime until a jury says so. Whatever it says about our society, and that is another discussion, being accused of a crime like rape is mud that sticks.

Being charged is something that few people walk back from in terms of the instant reputational damage that it has, and even if exonerated the subtle negative effects it has on ones’ life is astounding.

An employer may never say that they are refusing to hire an individual because they were once trialled for something; or a landlord refuse to let a property; or a person refuse to socialise or associate with someone… But it is there and a person accused of such crimes will face barriers in life.

We already acknowledge the special nature of sexual cases

You could say this for any crime, of course. But we already acknowledge the special nature of sexual cases by allowing anonymity to victims in a way that is not seen in other trials; in Ireland, unlike the UK, anonymity provisions are in place for defendants in rape trials because the stigma and the nature of the personal recriminations are different to other crimes.

Granting anonymity to those accused of sexual crimes during their trial is not a perfect solution to sidestepping the damage that can be caused to those who are falsely accused. The ongoing historical inquiry into celebrities who committed crimes against children in the UK would likely not have gained the traction it did if not for the publicity it received. Victims have come forward in part because they feel they are doing so en masse, and there is security in numbers.

Innocent until proven guilty?

Anonymity may stymie investigations, as without the widespread press coverage it sometimes might be difficult to get victims to come forward. On the other hand, justice is replete with examples of procedural rules that protect the accused. The philosophy of innocent until proven guilty drives this, quite rightly for all the frustration it can occasionally cause when faced with the glaringly obviously guilty.

Le Vell will likely spring back from his troubles and recoup his financial losses and loss of face through promotional deals, getting back to work and perhaps dropping a memoir or similar.

Most Joes who are wrongly accused of such crimes don’t have that luxury.

This article was updated at 12.15pm, Saturday.

Aaron McKenna is a businessman and a columnist for TheJournal.ie. He is also involved in activism in his local area. You can find out more about him at aaronmckenna.com or follow him on Twitter @aaronmckenna. To read more columns by Aaron click here.

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