I used to be a criminal defence lawyer and have been involved in several rape cases. I’ve always been able to see both sides of the story, and understand the rational reasons why people commit terrible crimes. But nothing in my professional experience prepared me for what happened when I was sexually assaulted.
Despite working in the legal system for years, I never appreciated how much it lets victims of sexual assault down.
A couple of years ago, I went to a house party with a female friend. I didn’t know anyone else there, but I was looking forward to it. I wasn’t disappointed -- the party was fun, full of fellow professionals in their 20s and 30s. One guy in particular caught my eye -- he was dark, tall and quite stocky. I remember talking to him about my job and making general small talk before going back to my friend.
Later on in the evening I danced with him, and kissed him briefly, but I wasn’t interested in taking it further. At about 1 AM, my friend decided that she wanted to go home. I wanted to stick around for a bit. An hour or so later, it was time to leave, so I called a taxi, and then went to the bathroom while I was waiting for it.
The guy I had kissed earlier sneaked in behind me and locked the door. This didn’t particularly phase me at first, I laughed and told him he had to leave, but instead he pinned me against the shower screen and tried to kiss me again. I looked at him and saw that there was no expression on his face, no movement at all -- his eyes were completely dead.
I realised that I was trapped and knew what was about to happen. I remember thinking to myself, "Right Caroline, you’ve got yourself into this and now you are going to be raped." Thinking about it now makes me shiver.
I don’t know why, but halfway through, he stopped. I took the opportunity and ran off, managing to make it home before I completely fell apart.
My first thought when I woke up the next morning was that I had been overreacting, that these things happen, maybe he just went a bit too far. Then I felt how sore and bruised I was and realised that I had to report it. I knew what he was capable of -- what if he did the same thing to someone else?
What I didn’t know when I went to the police was that he had allegedly raped another girl a week before me, and she didn’t report it. She was at the party that night, and didn’t say anything. She could have just taken me to one side and told me he was bad news -- I guess she was too scared, but I knew I had to stop him before he did the same thing to someone else.
He was arrested and charged with sexual assault by penetration, and offence that goes straight to the crown court and carries a sentence of 6-11 years of imprisonment. It took 18 months for the case to go to court. My witnesses were all barristers, solicitors and policemen, which complicated things.
In the meantime, there were the examinations, medicals and interviews immediately after I reported the rape. Then I started getting panic attacks on public transport. I had no control over anything -- the police cannot tell you most of what is going on. Although I knew the best ways to chase them and what to ask, I was in the dark. I begged them for more information.
I had a CPS witness service liaison who was absolutely useless. I had to point out that we needed to get the court for the case changed because my flatmate, who was a witness for the prosecution, worked at that court. Had I not pointed this out, the trial would have been adjourned as soon as it got to court.
And even with all my prior knowledge and experience, I wasn’t prepared for arriving on that morning, having a 10-second chat with my barrister, whom I met for the first time that day, and then being left in a room on my own before being called in as a witness. If I could have legged it there and then, I absolutely would have done.
I later found out that they used to have specially trained ushers in the room to sit with witnesses for that very purpose, but they’re no longer used -- a result of budget cuts at the Ministry of Justice.
I chose to give evidence in court, but behind a screen. I wanted to be able to look my attacker in the eye while I gave evidence against him, but in my heart of hearts, I knew I wouldn’t be able to go through with it. I could have chosen to just give evidence in advance on video camera, but conviction rates for rape are much higher if you actually attend the case yourself (although either way, they’re still really low).
This meant I had to be cross examined. Criminal defence barristers have an extremely hard job, and for what is now very little pay, but there’s no way the defence’s barrister didn’t cross the line when he cross examined me. There were certain lines of questioning that I felt he didn’t have to take.
I have a tattoo on my waist, and on the night of the party you could see the outline of my tattoo through the mesh of my top (I was wearing a Halloween costume). I showed my attacker the tattoo whilst we were talking, and from the way I was cross examined, it seems that showing a guy a tattoo is the biggest statement of intent known to man. I showed him my tattoo, so of course he thought I wanted to have sex with him.
At the party, I was chatting to my attacker along with a group of other people I hadn’t met before. I invited them all to come and speak to me again later -- again this was apparently a clear indicator that I wanted to take things further with him. The amount of alcohol I drank also came up that night. For the record, I’d had a few drinks, but was far from drunk, not that that should have made the slightest difference to anything.
While all of this was happening in court, I’ll never forget the looks I got from several of the jury (the male, middle-aged ones). It was pretty obvious what type of person they thought I was.
And despite all of this, the thing that made me angrier than anything else was the fact the defence could argue that I was a liar, they could make something as incongruous as the fact that I have a tattoo part of this argument, and yet the jury were not allowed to be told that I was both a solicitor and a high court advocate (a member of the higher court, which meant I had taken a professional oath to never lie in court).
There are good legal reasons why my occupation was withheld from the jury -- I understand that better than most people. But the fact I was a solicitor and that my witnesses were all barristers, solicitors and police offers, spoke volumes about my credibility as witness. Yet the jury weren’t allowed to know this. This man had assaulted me, yet it was my integrity in question, and I was unable to do anything to defend myself.
Inevitably, he was found not guilty. It was not an unanimous verdict, which means that some members of the jury found him not guilty. Unanimous or not, I assume he’s still free.
I feel indifferent toward my rapist now. He’s taken enough of my time and energy and he’s not getting any more. What makes me really angry is the way I was treated as a victim in the British court system. In these types of offences we are are a long way off from providing the support that a victim needs.
And I put my friends, my boyfriend and myself through the trauma of a court case for nothing. Given how low conviction rates in the UK are, I’m not the only one.
I will never know why the jury found my assailant not guilty -- and why they decided that I was a liar who would falsely accuse someone of something like that. But given the way I was cross examined, I can only assume that it was because I was a woman who went out with friends, and drank. I chatted to people I’d never met before, and I kissed a boy. I even showed him my tattoo -- therefore I deserved everything I got.
I wasn’t in court when the verdict was announced, but the policeman in charge of my case was. After the jury announced their decision, the judge decided that they should be told about my occupation and the fact that I was a high court advocate. Apparently several members of the jury looked ashen at this news -- I guess that once they realised that I was an educated professional, rather than a drunk woman with tattoo at a party, I stopped being the sort of woman who deserved it.