The Sunday Times Magazine: Falsely accused of rape: is the justice system biased against men?

 

I noticed his hands shook as he spoke. He looked different to how I had expected. More boyish, less confident. But then what should somebody accused of rape look like? He’d suggested we meet for tea in the Delaunay, just off the Strand. He used to come here often, but now he feels self-conscious in the city, nervous about being recognised. The other day in Starbucks the woman making his coffee suddenly realised she knew his face from paparazzi pictures of him walking, head bowed, into court: the man accused of raping a woman at the Houses of Parliament.

For 14 months, during which time he turned 24, Samuel Armstrong stood accused of two counts of rape and two of sexual assault. Then, last December, at Southwark Crown Court, after last-minute evidence was presented that undermined his accuser’s story — evidence that had been withheld from his defence team — all charges were dropped.

His legal case is over, but it is not clear what he has won. “Victims of sexual assault talk about being violated,” he says, “the fact that their autonomy is taken away. One of the things that false allegations do is take autonomy away from accused individuals. Now there is an image of me scarred into the public psyche. I have been robbed of the chance to live a quiet behind-the-scenes life.”

Armstrong’s is one of several recent high-profile rape trials that have collapsed due to the emergence of last-minute evidence — often electronic, from phone and computer records — or evidence not being disclosed correctly by police and the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) to defence teams. The Oxford University student Oliver Mears lived branded as a rapist for two years after a woman accused him of attacking her at a party in July 2015. Days before his case came to trial, evidence from a diary — which had gone unexamined — revealed his innocence. Isaac Itiary, a 25-year-old father, spent four months in prison on remand after being charged with raping a child under 16 last July. He insisted the girl had claimed to be 19. Crucial texts confirming his story emerged only two days before his trial, causing all charges to be dropped. And the criminology student Liam Allen, 22, spent almost two years on bail and was charged with 12 counts of rape and sexual assault. In the opening days of his trial last December, text messages supporting his case came to light.

In January, after these and other trials collapsed, the CPS announced that every rape and serious sexual assault case in the country was under urgent review. Earlier this month, Alison Saunders, director of public prosecutions, announced she would step down in October, at the end of her five-year contract with the CPS.

In rape cases, police and prosecutors are expected to disclose evidence that could assist the defence or undermine the prosecution, but this evidence is not being shared enough or only at the 11th hour. Such failures of disclosure may be the result of insufficient investigations by police and prosecutors, but there are fears they signal a more worrying trend — an unconscious bias by the CPS in cases of sexual assault. Where once the police and criminal justice system were criticised for their treatment of alleged victims — often not believing their stories or subjecting women to heavy-handed cross-examinations about what they had been drinking, how they dressed and previous relationships — now the pendulum has swung the other way.

When Saunders became head of the CPS in 2013, she promoted a focus on female victims. In rape cases where the complainant is known to have been drunk, Saunders put the onus on men to prove explicit consent. She advised prosecutors to examine alleged rapists’ previous sexual behaviour and encouraged women to seek advice from a rape counsellor if they woke up in a man’s bed with no memory of the previous night.

Meanwhile, those accused of such crimes continue to be named, but their accusers remain anonymous.

On Saturday, October 15, 2016, an unnamed woman told police that Samuel Armstrong had raped her the previous night. Three officers handcuffed him on the pavement outside his shared Clapham flat that day, as people watched.

“I just felt a real sense of shame,” he tells me. At Brixton police station a “big group of police officers” watched him strip, took swabs and gave him a grey prison uniform. It was a “wholly dehumanising” experience that left him feeling profoundly alone. By the time he was allowed to call his parents he was “very, very upset. My dad’s in the construction business and we’re not really the sort of family to get emotional. That was probably the first time since I was a teenager we had an emotional conversation.”

We meet again at his family home, in Danbury, Essex, where roads weave through woodland, past fields of sheep and red-brick cottages. Armstrong answers the door in beige jeans, white shirt and pink socks. He has pale-blue eyes, neat hair and awkward, fumblingly English mannerisms. As he says himself, he is geeky and shy. “I’m relatively boring, quiet, reserved.” He is so slight that when he sits on the sofa and crosses his legs, his body folds over itself.

It sounds romantic, the way he recalls that Friday night in 2016. He was working as chief of staff for the South Thanet MP Craig Mackinlay and had gone out in Westminster with friends. Eventually, he says, only he and the woman who would later accuse him of rape were left. They had been out drinking together before. It was “quite a flirtatious relationship”. She would send him late-night messages, “uninitiated, about her bikini wax or Brazilian — I don’t know the difference. It did seem that she was flirting.”

YOU CAN READ THE FULL FEATURE HERE: https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/falsely-accused-rape-men-reveal-deepest-shame-gvxh88f9w

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