Estimated reading time: 4 minutes
By FACT website editor
Rosalie Burnett DPhil (University of Oxford) and Naomi-Ellen Speechley PhD (University of Manchester) recently published another important report on the experiences of those wrongfully accused of sexual abuse. In 2016 they interviewed 29 legally innocent people and one whose conviction was overturned on appeal. All had been accused of sexual abuse. Their landmark study ‘The Impact of Being Wrongly Accused of Abuse in Occupations of Trust: Victims’ Voices’ can be found on the Oxford University Law Faculty’s site here.
The authors interviewed another group of wrongfully accused who had been convicted, but were concerned that their inclusion in the original study would weaken its credibility. Their latest report ‘Robbed of Everything’now focuses on these people.
If you or someone you know has suffered the devastating effects of a false allegation of sexual abuse, you will have little difficulty in accepting these accounts at face value.
Suspend your scepticism for a moment
If you are a member of the press or the general public you may well approach this report with a large measure of suspicion. I can sympathise with this point of view, because unless you yourself or a close acquaintance has had first hand experience of being wrongfully accused, the default position is to believe that our justice system is trustworthy. I would respectfully ask that you suspend your scepticism for a short time and try this thought experiment.
Imagine the following situation. One day, early in the early morning without any warning the police arrive at your door and arrest you. You are accused of abusing a child 30 years ago during the course of your work. You are taken away in a police car in front of your neighbours.
Once you have been ‘processed’ at the police station you sit in a cell waiting to be interviewed. You are totally unprepared to answer any questions, how can you be? You have long since retired. Your memory of the complainant is hazy, you have cared for thousands of children during your long career. You are in a state of shock and almost paralysed with fear as the implications of your arrest sink in. You try to answer the detectives to the best of your ability but can’t think straight because you are still in shock and the detectives are aggressive and appear to be convinced that you are guilty. You are released on bail with the condition that you can no longer see your children.
After several months of agonised waiting you are charged. You and your legal team try to prepare a defence but all records of the circumstances surrounding the alleged event have been lost and many colleagues who were around at the time have died. A year later you are on trial.
The judge explains to the jury that corroboration of the allegation is not needed, and that it’s not unusual for the testimony of an abused person to be inconsistent. There are no witnesses and there is no forensic evidence. To your horror you realise the jury have to decide on your fate by judging whose story is the most convincing. You can remember very little about the event you are accused of because it didn’t happen. You can’t understand how your accuser* is able to give a detailed account of the offence which you know you didn’t commit. The whole experience is unreal, as if you were in the court scene in ‘Alice in Wonderland’. Then comes the earth shattering verdict. You are found guilty.
Prison, and beyond
You are sent down, and spend the next several years unjustly imprisoned, sharing a cell with a genuine sex offender. You try to appeal but discover that you need new evidence to make an appeal. Evidence to prove that something didn’t happen several decades ago is impossible to find. Many years later you are released, but your suffering continues, you are on a sex offenders’ register for life and can’t get a job. Your neighbours threaten you and deface your home.
If you have read this far, perhaps you will now have some small insight into the terrible plight of the wrongfully convicted. Please read the first section in the report which sets out in detail the reasons innocent people can be imprisoned. Once you have looked at this, you may well be able to read the heart-rending testimonies of these men and women in a non-judgemental way. Finally, if you have the courage, speak up for those who have been so ill used.
* The reasons why people can give detailed accounts of something that didn’t actually happen are discussed in detail here.
By FACT website editor