Monday, 3 June 2019

The Case For Anonymity

Last Thursday, as I watched singer-songwriter and founding member of the pop combo JLS, Oritsé Williams, walking from Wolverhampton Crown Court, having just been cleared by a unanimous jury of having raped a woman in a hotel bedroom in December 2016, I had a good idea of how he was feeling. Relief would be his principal emotion; relief that he wasn't going to spend years of his comparatively young life behind bars, confined in a prison within a prison – a special area reserved for that most hated category of the prison population: sex offenders. But the relief will probably not last for long because Mr. Williams, an innocent man, will then have to adjust to a life inextricably linked with the story of how he was once accused of rape.

Oritsé Williams
The fact that he was cleared of this heinous accusation will help him somewhat but even this 'not guilty' verdict is still likely to cause him unjust pain for the rest of his life. Just being accused of a sex offence is catastrophic for any person so targeted. Recognising the inevitable serious damage caused, the Sexual Offences (Amendment) Act 1976 extended anonymity to suspects in such cases prior to a conviction. However, since that protection was repealed in 1988, the law has allowed an accused person's name to be made public – with a few limited exceptions – and the living experience of hundreds of innocent people has been made tortuous, while the law-makers don't seem to give a damn.

Sex offences are viewed throughout our society here in the UK as a crimen exceptum and they carry a particular stigma. I, myself, was accused by a pair of lying opportunists in 2012 of having 'touched them inappropriately' in the school shower room, when I was a teacher at the school where they were pupils, back in the early 1980s. Their lies were seen for what they were by a unanimous jury in a matter of minutes, but only after I had spent 672 days on bail in the full ghastly glare of publicity. There was not a scintilla of truth in what they had claimed but, nevertheless, those preposterous claims, apart from destroying a highly successful teaching career, will be linked to me for the rest of my life due to the indelible online footprint. While I live with references to these false allegations for evermore, my perfidious accusers can continue their own lives with both anonymity and impunity. Is this fair?

It is almost impossible to convey the deep feelings of humiliation and depression an accused person feels when he or she reads reports in the press, or comments by the untutored mob circulating on the net, about what he or she was alleged to have done, even many years ago. There used to be a saying that 'today's newspaper stories are tomorrow's fish-and-chip wrapping paper'. Since the birth of the internet, this is no longer the case. Two hundred years ago, criminals would have been branded on their foreheads. Nowadays, the internet does the branding just as effectively but the difference is, as Mr. Williams will find, you don't even need to be guilty of a crime to be seared for life. For the baying mob on the Net and nervous prospective employers, an accusation is enough to damage seriously an accused person's life even after an acquittal. Once Pandora's box has been opened, no one and nothing can re-close the lid.

Work that would have been coming Mr. Williams' way will be diverted elsewhere; comments will be made behind his back that 'there's no smoke without fire' and there will be the predictable vile comments issuing from the keyboards of those malicious trolls on the net, who will enthusiastically offer their opinions as to why he should have been found guilty and locked up at the very least. Whenever anyone 'googles' Mr. Williams' name, instead of immediately finding references to all the splendid songs he wrote and performed for our immense pleasure, at the top of the search engine findings there will be multiple references to the fact 'Oritse Williams has appeared in a court of law, charged with raping a young woman'. He'll never escape his connection with this alleged crime and his descendants will have to bat off comments even after he has joined the choir invisible.

In short, although an innocent man, Mr. Williams, talented musician and performer, is inextricably linked to the repellent topic of rape for the rest of his life.

In the eyes of the public, there are few more heinous crimes than sexual assault, which makes it imperative that anyone accused of such a crime should remain anonymous until he or she is found guilty in a court of law. The argument against this is some people believe that, by concealing the identity of the accused, it will make it harder for the complainant to secure justice, as he or she might be a lone voice in a court of law, while other victims of the same defendant remain unaware that he or she is on trial.

I would argue that - if the evidence is strong enough - a jury will convict even on a single charge and, once the offender is found guilty, his or her name will be widely reported. Then, if there other victims, they can step forward if that is their wish. Besides which, even if an accused person is granted anonymity until a court verdict, those who live locally to him or her are likely to hear about the complaint by word of mouth as soon as the person is arrested.

The questions are as follows: i) are we prepared to continue to ruin innocent people's lives in order to give support to complainants, on the chance there might be others who have suffered at the hands of the accused? ii) are these innocent, unconvicted people just collateral damage in our desire to make it as easy as possible to have real culprits brought to justice? Besides which, there are obvious dangers in the common police practice of trawling, and advertising, for fresh complainants to step forward, particularly in a country which hands out enormous amounts of money in compensation to those claiming abuse.

Sir Cliff Richard
I'm calling for a statutory ban on identifying sexual offence suspects until they are found guilty in a court of law. We bang on about human rights and the rights to privacy in this country ad nauseam, yet we seem to pay little respect to so many innocent people who are having their lives turned upside down, in the full glare of publicity, by false sexual allegations.

The unjust, abhorrent police practice of the 'fly paper' technique has to stop. I refer to the common m.o. of the police of arresting someone, leaking the person's identity to the press, endlessly re-bailing him or her, all in a bid to secure more complainants (where there's no 'quality' evidence, the police endeavour to make up for it in 'quantity' so-called evidence). The damage to the accused is both cruel and irreparable.

If a judge feels a suspect could well be responsible for multiple offences, then, on a case by case basis, that judge can make a decision to have the accused person's identity disclosed, as sometimes happens with children who have been accused of a heinous crime.

Few MPs take an interest in the unedifying topic of false sexual allegations and anonymity for the person accused, as it's unlikely to secure for them many votes. Far better to keep to campaigning about issues such as the inordinate number of pot holes in our roads: much safer ground (if you'll excuse the pun). Nevertheless, publication of an innocent person's name in relation to a sexual allegation is catastrophic for the person concerned, as poor Mr. Oritsé Williams knows all too well. It's an issue which needs to be attended to before even more innocent people have their lives utterly ruined through no fault of their own.

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