The erstwhile popular entertainer Rolf Harris has recently concluded nearly three years at Her Majesty's Pleasure. The previous pleasure he afforded her Royal Highness was in 2005 when he produced a superb painting of Her Maj to mark her 80th birthday. In 2014 he was convicted of a number of sex attacks on young women and girls. The most sinister of the charges was one alleging an attack on an 8-year old child... more about that in a moment.
Now the Court of Appeal has quashed one of Mr Harris’ 12 original convictions from 2014, although the judges have upheld the remaining 11. Importantly, this quashed conviction concerned the most serious and revolting allegation of all, namely that Mr Harris had sexually abused an 8-year old girl during an event at a venue in Portsmouth in 1969.
This conviction was ruled ‘unsafe’ on the grounds that new evidence provided by the complainant’s own stepfather suggested that the girl would never have been permitted to attend such an event by herself at that young age. Moreover, the sole ‘eye-witness’ to the alleged assault - one David James -has now been exposed as a serial liar, fantasist and convicted fraudster, who has repeatedly claimed to have had a military career despite incontrovertible evidence that he is a lorry driver who never wore the Queen’s uniform and never served abroad in Korea, as he had claimed falsely on oath.
The imposture of the key witness was only discovered by Mr Harris’ defence team when preparing his appeal against conviction. In response, the prosecution claimed that its failure to disclose this man's utter unreliability was 'a mistake'. It was, if I may say so, a very convenient ‘mistake’ and yet another example, in a very long line of incidents, in which crucial evidence has been withheld from the defence in sexual assault prosecutions.
Will any action now be taken against the fantasist who stood up in front of a judge and jury and told bare-faced lies on oath? I very much doubt it. It seems that blatant perjury is no longer treated as a serious criminal offence – or even prosecuted – as long as it assists the police and CPS in getting convictions, particularly in prosecutions for alleged sexual offences.
I am currently following another appalling case of an ex-teacher who was jailed in 2014 on the word of a proven liar who was, at the time, facing serious criminal charges himself. Needless to say, any charges against him were put aside.
According to media reports Mr Harris’ accuser has apparently already pocketed £22,000 in compensation payments. No doubt she will be permitted to keep the cash, despite this conviction having been quashed (a less generous observer might prefer to say comprehensively trashed).
The main, obvious point of concern following this latest judicial reversal is, if Mr. Harris was not guilty of abusing that woman when she was an 8-year old girl, what effect did hearing the dubious evidence adduced on this particular charge have on the original jury when they considered all the other allegations against him? Can you imagine sitting on a jury considering the fate of a man who is alleged to have sexually assaulted an 8-year old child? Once they had decided he was guilty of this offence, surely the minds of those jury members must have been influenced when considering all the other allegations. How can they not have? Yet the judges in the Court of Appeal seem to have concluded that all the other 11 convictions are safe.
May I put it to you, Your Lordships, that I defy anyone to hear evidence from a witness who vividly relates a sexual assault allegedly committed against him or her at the age of eight and not form a highly negative view of the person accused. After all, that is why the CPS opts to ‘bundle’ as many separate charges against a defendant as possible, in order to suggest the accused’s propensity to commit similar acts.
Surely, when one convincing complainant gives evidence of a vile crime being committed against him or her, it must contaminate the rest of the trial, since the jurors form a view of the defendant, particularly if that complainant was a pre-pubescent girl at the time of the alleged offence. Had the jury in the first trial been made aware that there were grave doubts about the truth of this crucial allegation – and the fact that the one key eye-witness to the alleged incident was a notorious liar and fantasist – it would surely have led them to be much more cautious about the remaining allegations against Mr Harris.
We live in dangerous times: even totally unfounded allegations of a sexual nature can end a person’s career – and, sadly, even their life – long before they have even been charged, let alone convicted. Publicising such allegations prior to a conviction opens the way for a rag bag collection of liars, fantasists and compensation hunters to invent similar stories which can all too often be seized upon by police officers, who then fail grossly to undertake any rigorous investigation. And, as the quashing of one of Mr Harris’ convictions clearly shows, even when key witnesses are known to the police as liars and fantasists, this crucial information may be withheld from the defence, the judge and, crucially, the jury.
We already have a gross ‘inequality of arms’ in our courts. Most defendants, unlike Rolf Harris, simply do not have the financial resources to pay highly skilled investigators (often retired police detectives) to examine the evidence, check facts and track down potential witnesses – something that can prove absolutely vital in so-called historical sexual abuse cases, where the allegations can date back decades. The police have resources to do this work but often seem to rely entirely on the complainant’s statements, rather than impartially, thoroughly and even-handedly investigating the allegations.
As things stand, our justice system is being brought woefully into disrepute, yet police, prosecutors and perjuring witnesses seem to enjoy complete immunity from any negative consequences of appalling miscarriages of justice. How many innocent men and women are currently rotting in prison, their lives ruined, as a direct consequence of deeply flawed prosecutions?
And, to conclude, does any rational person on the street not now begin to wonder just how many more lies have been laid at the door of the beleaguered Rolf Harris?