Tuesday 25 February 2020

Waiting for the drop

Yesterday I was informed that in 2013 I physically assaulted two people at my work. When I asked what I was supposed to have done and to whom, I was told that this was confidential. When I asked whether there was any physical evidence that I had assaulted these people, I was told that there was none. There were no photographs. Neither of the complainants had gone to a doctor. In fact, there was no evidence at all that I had done anything wrong apart from their witness statements. When I asked whether there was more than one witness to each of the supposed assaults, I was told that there was only one. In each case someone has accused me of physically assaulting them at some point in 2013, but the
re was no more evidence than that. How am I to defend myself?

The problem is that I can only very generally remember 2013. I couldn’t tell you for certain what I was doing on any day in that year. I simply don’t remember. I might be able to look up diaries or check other sources of information, but otherwise if you asked me what I was doing on November 15th, 2013 I wouldn’t have a clue. I couldn’t even tell you with certainty that I was in the UK. I might have been on holiday.

So if I don’t know who has accused me and I don’t know what it is I am supposed to have done or when, I have no way of saying I didn’t do that, because I don’t even know what that refers to. I might remember generally that I have never physically assaulting anyone, but I can’t specifically defend myself against an accusation unless I know what it is.

My guess is that if someone accused me of physically assaulting them five years ago, but with no more evidence than their witness statement, no-one would even bother to investigate. Likewise, if I said that my house was broken into five years ago, but I have no evidence for this apart from my witness statement, the police are not going to waste any time trying to discover the supposed criminals. If I say that I witnessed a murder, but there is no evidence even that the supposed victim is dead let alone that I saw it, my witness statement will not be taken seriously. I will likely be accused of wasting police time.

I disagree with Harvey Weinstein’s lifestyle and morality, but justice ought to transcend differences of opinion. We have rules about evidence for burglary, for murder, for physical assault and for fraud etc. that depend on objectively verifiable facts. Everyone is innocent until proven guilty and in order to be proven guilty there has to be evidence that proves that guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. I am in no danger of going to jail for burglary unless witnesses can establish that I broke into the house, my fingerprints were found at the scene of the crime, the stolen goods were found in my house or unless I make a confession. No judge is going to send me to prison because of a single witness statement about a burglary that happened five years ago for which there is no other evidence.

But somehow, we have established a class of crimes, which must be investigated even if there is only a single witness who states something happened years ago and there is no other evidence at all. This single witness statement which would not be enough to convict someone of burglary, murder, physical assault or fraud, is taken seriously in only one type of case. These cases always involve sex.

Why should there be a special class of crime for which the normal rules of evidence are suspended? Would you feel safe if a single witness could convict you of burglary, murder, physical assault or fraud, even if there was no other evidence? I wouldn’t. So why should that single witness be enough to convict someone in a case involving sex?

There is something deeply unjust going on in the world at the moment. People’s reputations are ruined because someone makes a claim, which may or may not be true, but for which there cannot possibly be any other evidence.

Imagine there was a ceilidh in Aberdeen in 2013 and I went to it. Imagine if now in 2020 a man complains that I put my hand up his kilt and sexually assaulted him. How am I supposed to prove whether I did, or I didn’t? The only witnesses are me and the man. Who are you supposed to believe? There may be all sorts of reasons why this man wants to ruin my reputation. On the other hand, I may have assaulted him. But it is simply impossible for us to find out now.  He should have complained there and then during the ceilidh in 2013. Perhaps then it might have been possible to determine what happened. But there is no point whatsoever waiting five years and then making claims that cannot be verified either way.

I have no idea what Harvey Weinstein did or didn’t do. But I dislike intensely how people’s reputations are being ruined because of accusations that cannot justly be proved one way or the other. We have already seen how Cliff Richard’s life was shattered by accusations that turned out to be false. Leon Britton died while being accused of abusing children based on evidence that later turned out to be discredited. Other people’s lives have likewise been ruined because of accusations about things that supposedly happened decades ago.

Sexual crimes are as serious as any other crime and people who commit them deserve to be punished severely, but the evidence that convicts must be just as strong as in the case of burglary, murder, physical assault and fraud. This is not least because sexual crimes are so serious, are rightly severely punished and have a more damaging effect on someone’s reputation than most other crimes.

I think Metoo has become a very dangerous witch-hunt, which is leading to great injustice. For this reason, it is deeply immoral. The only way to stop it is this. People who make claims of any form of sexual assault must be told that they have to make the claim immediately and provide evidence which corroborates their claim to having been assaulted. Making a statement that you were sexually assaulted five years ago without any other evidence should have no more likelihood of conviction than making such a claim about a physical assault or a burglary.

There is not a special class of witness whose evidence ought automatically to be believed. We do not in Britain think that the witness statement of one man is worth that of two women. It would be equally contrary to justice to suppose that when a woman accuses a man of sexual assault that she ought automatically to be believed.

Women’s lives are being ruined by sexual assault and to make it easier for them to convict those they accuse they are routinely given anonymity. But the lives and reputations of those who are accused are often ruined too. Cliff Richard, I suspect, is at least as damaged because of the false accusations made against him as many victims of sexual assault. For this reason, only those actually convicted of sexual assault should have their names revealed in the papers.

Harvey Weinstein has been convicted, but none of really know what happened in the rooms where the crimes occurred. None of us know beyond a reasonable doubt, because all we have is conflicting testimony. We would all be justly terrified if we could be convicted of murder, theft or physical assault by a single witness who asserted with no more evidence than the mere testimony that we committed a crime.

Imagine if murderers could be sent to the gallows merely because one witness said they killed. Imagine if there wasn’t even a body, a weapon, or a fingerprint, but a single statement that had to be believed put your head in the noose. Imagine what you would feel like standing there waiting for the drop.