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False Accusations Are Not Very Rare; Ellie Williams is Exceptional

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Estimated reading time: 8 minutes

Like many of those who have been affected by a false accusation of sexual abuse, my heart sank when I turned on Women’s Hour on January 9th 2023 and heard yet again the claim that such cases were very rare. I’m afraid it was too upsetting to go on listening. The comment was made in the context of the sentencing of Ellie Williams. This bizarre case erupted in 2020.

On May 2020, Ellie posted an image of her bruised and battered face on social media, together with other images of injuries to her legs and stomach and a description of how she had been “put in the back of a car, taken to an address to have sex with 3 Asian men” and later beaten.

Ellie Williams with self inflicted injuries
Ellie Williams’ self inflicted injuries

20 minutes after making this post, Ellie was arrested by the police for breaking her bail. She had omitted to mention in her post that she had been charged with making multiple false allegations of rape.

Initially the police had believed these allegations; she had been reported missing on 32 occasions in just one year and often was found with injuries or half naked or intoxicated. However, once they checked CCTV footage, flight records and mobile phone data they concluded that she had been lying. They also had forensic evidence that suggested that she had deliberately injured herself with a claw hammer which she had bought from Tesco. The hammer was covered in her blood but nobody else’s DNA.

Despite this evidence, the police were powerless to stop the fallout from this toxic post because they could not make their findings public before her trial. Effectively she had pressed the ‘nuclear button’ and set off a chain reaction of disaster which struck fear into the Asian men of Barrow in Cumbria, divided the community and shattered lives. There was an abrupt rise in racism and anti-Islamic sentiment so that curry house windows were broken, restaurants boycotted and a far right group established itself in this beleaguered town.

Ellie’s family started a Facebook page, ‘Justice for Ellie’ which soon had thousands of followers. An Essex man started a Crowdfunder raising £22,000. One of her old teachers created a logo of a purple elephant in support of her cause. This logo appeared on T-shirts, bracelets and in people’s windows in her home town.

Men’s lives were wrecked by the false allegations

Meanwhile, men were having their lives ruined. One was called Trengrove. Ellie had faked Snapchat messages to make it appear that he was messaging her to boast about raping her. He was arrested and remanded in custody. He spent 10 weeks in prison until the police realized that Ellie had framed him. They discovered that the Snapchat account had been created using the Wi-Fi at her mother’s house. In fact Ellie had a number of phones which she used to create false accounts in which she linked the names of her victims to sexually explicit messages and images she had garnered from real men on Snapchat, Tinder and an intimate photo sharing site.

Tragically, his suffering didn’t finish when he was released. He was branded a rapist and a ‘nonce’ in his own town and decided to move home. He had only been at his new address for a day when someone shouted ‘rapist’ at him. A convoy of cars drove from Barry to his new home with ‘Justice for Ellie’ banners. The protesters would not listen to him as he tried to convince them of his innocence. He tried to take his life.

It wasn’t until January 2023 that Ellie was convicted of perverting the course of justice. She will be sentenced in March after psychiatric reports have been submitted. There is a possibility she may have Munchhausen’s Syndrome, a condition in which people fake illness in order to gain attention.

False allegations are not very rare

As always, when someone has made a false allegation of sexual assault, the police have been at pains to say that such instances are ‘very rare’, and victims should not be afraid of coming forward.

Although cases of such an extreme nature are very rare, wrongful allegations of sexual assault in general are not. Wrongful allegations are made for a variety of reasons; the perpetrator may be mentally ill, they may identify the wrong person or they may make wrongful allegations maliciously. In the case of historical allegations, sometimes concerning events that were alleged to have happened decades earlier, their memory may be faulty. In a healthcare setting, where professionals are particularly vulnerable, intimate examinations which are medically necessary may be misinterpreted as sexual in nature.

Even maliciously motivated allegations are made for different reasons, such as attention seeking, revenge, to gain advantage in a dispute over child custody, and for financial gain in the form of compensation.

How are false allegations counted?

If wrongful allegations aren’t very rare, how common are they? This has always been a very difficult question to answer. It depends on how they are counted. There are two obvious methods.

Method 1.

We could count the number of people convicted for perverting the course of justice. Not many people are convicted of perverting the course of justice. As mentioned earlier, there are many reasons why people make a wrongful allegation, and it can be difficult to prove that the allegation was made maliciously or that it was false. It is the nature of such cases that there is unlikely to be any forensic evidence or witness to the alleged offence. The police of course are at pains to avoid frightening away genuine victims of sexual assault, so are unlikely to seek a prosecution unless there is a very strong case.

Method 2.

Perhaps all those who were not charged or convicted could be counted as falsely accused. Many people accused of sexual assault are not charged, due to ‘insufficient evidence’ or are found not guilty at trial. If all these were assumed to be factually innocent then the wrongful allegation rate would be much higher. The degree of level of proof required for conviction can be high though, therefore some of this group of suspects will in reality be factually guilty.

A Compromise Solution?

Method 1 underestimates the number of false allegations and Method 2 probably overestimates it. The true number is probably somewhere between these two extremes because is not unreasonable to assume that at least some of those who are not charged or convicted and even some of those convicted are factually innocent. Without a thorough police investigation looking for evidence that supports the defendant, we will never know. The experience of those contacting FACT is that the police do not have the time or inclination to seek out evidence that would prove the defendant innocent.

Professor Steve Herman (2016) argues that about 25% of uncorroborated reports of child abuse made to paraprofessionals in a study of 1,249 cases in 1989 in the USA were wrongful allegations. He had to make various estimates in coming to this figure, and others may disagree with him. I think it is fair to conclude that even if there are errors in this estimate, it is likely that the number of wrongful allegations is substantially higher than the usually quoted figure of between 2 – 8% (also based on the same 1989 study).

FACT’s experience is that false allegations are not rare. Unfortunately, far too many people in distress need to contact us every month for support because they are victims of a wrongful allegation. But, even if it were true that false allegations were rare, that would not be a reason for not doing everything possible to support those affected because the damage caused is so serious.

See our page about the suffering of the wrongfully accused

There is always a victim

Whenever an allegation of sexual assault is made, there is always a victim; it is either the complainant or the person(s) accused. In this case Trengrove was one of many victims of Ellie’s campaign. He suffered arrest, imprisonment, and the mob forced him out of his home. He was driven to make a suicide attempt. He is a genuine victim that should be compensated by the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority (CICA). Sir Richard Henriques report on Operation Midland concluded that those known to be falsely accused should be treated as victims. See recommendation 25 in box below.

Sir Richard Henriques’ Report should be implemented

Trengrove spent 10 weeks on remand before the police realized he was innocent. Would he have been released sooner if the recommendations made to the police in the Henriques Report had been acted upon? Following the disastrous Operation Midland investigation Henriques strongly criticized the advice given to the police to ‘believe the victim’ (see recommendations 1 and 2 in the box below). He said that the “instruction to believe complainants has over ridden the duty to investigate objectively and effectively” and that “believing the victim” “strikes at the very core of the criminal justice process”.

Four years after the Henriques Report into the conduct of Operation Midland was published, The HM Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services (HMICFRS) reported that the Met Police had been slow to learn the lessons of the Henriques Report

Isn’t it time that the recommendations in the report were fully implemented in all police forces? If you were one of the many people who have suffered from a false allegation you would agree.

Henriques Report

Recommendation 1

Throughout both the investigative and the judicial process those who make complaints should be referred to as ‘complainants’ and not as ‘victims’ by the Metropolitan Police Service (MPS).

Comment by the Met Police

This recommendation was not accepted by the MPS as this is a commonly accepted term across a wide range of guidance, policy and legislation. This issue has been widely debated and differing views exist. The use of the word victim is not intrinsically linked to the issue of belief. The Met police continues to support the use of the term victim. This does not confer any judgement on the allegations they make which will always be investigated impartially and with an open mind.

Recommendation 2

The instruction to ‘believe a victim’s’ account’ should cease. It should be the duty of an officer interviewing a complainant to investigate the facts objectively and impartially and with an open mind from the outset of the investigation. At no stage must the officer show any form of disbelief and every effort must be made to facilitate the giving of a detailed account in a non-confrontational manner.

Comment by the Met Police

This recommendation was fully accepted, and the MPS supports the view that allegations should be investigated impartially and with an open mind.

Recommendation 25

In exceptional cases where suspects have been falsely accused of crime, they, and their families, should be treated the same as ‘victims of crime’ invariably are and should be offered support and liaison compatible with the gravity of the allegations made.

Comment by Met Police

This recommendation was fully accepted and if/when there are reasonable grounds to believe an allegation is false the ‘suspect’ would become a victim and will be considered under the Victims Code of Practice.

Access the full version of the Henriques Report here.
Read from page 384 of this lengthy report to see Sir Richard’s recommendations and the response of the Met Police

Reference

Herman, S., 2016. Reducing harm resulting from false allegations of child sexual abuse. In: R. Burnett, ed. 2016. Wrongful allegations of sexual and child abuse.

See Also