“Not guilty” does not mean she lied

// 11 September 2013

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Content note: This post contains a description of child rape.

 Coronation Street actor Michael Le Vell was yesterday found not guilty of raping and sexually assaulting a child. Since the verdict was announced, the Internet and media have been awash with assumptions about the child in question. She is a liar. She made “false allegations”. She “wants more drama in her life”, as Le Vell himself suggested.

There is no proof to back up these accusations. All the “not guilty” verdict tells us is that the jury were not 100% sure that Le Vell committed the crimes of which he was accused.

In a rape trial, it is the prosecution’s responsibility to provide sufficient and strong enough evidence to convict the defendant. The alleged victim’s testimony is part of this evidence, but their role in the case is as a witness: they are not being put on trial for accusing the defendant. If there is insufficient evidence to convict, the fault lies with the prosecution, not the main witness.

It is therefore a huge, inaccurate and misleading leap to assert that the girl in the Le Vell case made “false allegations”. As Director of Public Prosecutions Keir Starmer pointed out earlier this year, false allegations of rape are very rare – accounting for less than 1% of all cases – yet the myth that women and girls frequently lie about being raped persists.

It is a myth bolstered by the kind of beliefs about rape and rape victims trotted out by Le Vell’s defence. According to the Guardian:

Le Vell’s barrister, Alisdair Williamson, poured scorn on what he said was a number of inconsistencies in the complainant’s account of being attacked.

Williamson said the girl had told one family friend the attack happened when she was 10, and told other people it happened 10 times. He said: “There’s an agonising lack of detail from this witness. She can’t give you details because it did not happen, and that’s why her story varies according to who she’s talking to.”

Williamson added: “Had she really been raped as a young child it would have been extremely painful. There wasn’t even a muffled scream. She just didn’t make a sound. Is that real?”

The expectation that a victim of repeated sexual assault – let alone a child victim – should be able to remember the exact details of what happened and when fails to take into account the damaging and long-lasting effects of such violence. It is very common for people who suffer sexual abuse to psychologically block out what happened in order that they can continue to function, and post-traumatic stress can play havoc with one’s ability to recall and describe the trauma in question. As for the child not making a sound, this is based on the assumption that all victims will respond to rape in the same way. Some may indeed scream in such a situation, but others may simply shut down. There is no right or wrong way to respond to abuse.

While the inconsistencies in the girl’s account may have contributed to jury members feeling they could not be certain enough of Le Vell’s guilt to convict him, they do not mean she is a liar.

To interpret the outcome of this trial as a case of false allegation is wrong. This obsession with false rape accusations persists because it allows men to rape and sexually assault women with impunity. It helps maintain the illusion that sexual violence is a rare occurrence. And it enhances the stigma suffered by victims, detering them from seeking justice.

We need to stop treating women and girls who report sexual violence like criminals and start facing up to the reality that too many men – ordinary, everyday men – make the choice to rape and abuse.

Rape Crisis freephone help and support line: 0808 802 9999 (12.00-2.30 pm and 7.00-9.30 pm).

Photo of a “stop” street sign with a sticker reading “rape” under the word “stop” by Steve McLaughlin, shared under a Creative Commons licence.

Comments From You

Philippa Willitts // Posted 11 September 2013 at 11:27 am

Thanks for writing this, Laura, it’s been angering me all morning. The accuser has been described as “highly emotional” (well, who wouldn’t be?), who “gave evidence from behind a screen and embellished and changed her conflicting story at every turn”. (DailyMail).

Firstly, giving evidence from behind a screen should not be used in a way that implies it makes it more likely that she was lying – it’s something she’s entitled to do, and that is totally understandable. And secondly, “embellished” and “conflicting” are horrible ways to describe an accuser’s accounts. Remembering and recounting details of any trauma are very difficult, and especially in a child – as you say – there will be inconsistencies due to traumatic memory storage, the level of comprehension about what’s happening, the ability to speak about what happened, and so on.

The other thing I’m finding difficult to stomach is the glee of the accused’s supporters. Everybody who has ever known him has talked of how unfair the accusations were, how he’s a good guy etc. Now, this man has been acquitted, and I’m not suggesting that he shouldn’t have been. But the fact of having worked with someone, or been friends with someone, does not mean you are necessarily aware of any abusive tendencies they may have. Most people who *are* convicted abusers also had friends and family who wouldn’t believe they would do such a thing.

Most abusers present as perfectly nice people who don’t boast about the rapes they commit or the beatings they inflict. They put on a front, and we can’t ever assume that an accuser must be lying just because we like them. As I said above, this is not a point about Le Vell, it is about the general assumption that the guy at work, or our mate’s brother, or whoever, must be innocent because he’s a good laugh, or does voluntary work for charity.

Anna // Posted 11 September 2013 at 3:53 pm

thank you for writing this, I could not believe my eyes this morning when I saw the Daily Mail coverage of the story.

what is a tough concept to grasp for a lot of people, let alone the Daily Mail, is that the presumption of innocence for an accused rapist (or indeed, for a man legally cleared of rape accusations) MUST go hand in hand with the presumption of honesty for rape witnesses/victims. It’s a bit of a mind twist, granted, but there’s no other way to be fair to everyone. Everyone is presumed to be telling the truth unless ruled/proven to be a liar, including both the accused and the accuser.

LauraB // Posted 11 September 2013 at 4:33 pm

Thanks Laura, everything you’ve written is spot on.

monkyvirus // Posted 11 September 2013 at 9:16 pm

I agree. My own abuser was never found guilty because before the trial could end the jury became prejudiced (one overheard one of my friend’s who was also a witness say something that prejudiced them and instead of telling the judge they told the rest of the jury). Unfortunately the traumatic trial had already ruined my Advanced Higher exams and I was due to start lectures at uni in the scheduled retrial. I was unwilling to risk ruining friendships or finding myself outcast by missing the first opportunity to meet my classmates and I would not do the retrial.

So he was found guilty despite having raped my own mother as a child and her cousin (they refused to testify so I, still in school, had to represent all the children he’d abused).

Though I urge anyone who is being abused to leave and seek help. I honestly found the trial more traumatic than the 10 years of abuse. They have no other defence so they just yell at you “you’re lying aren’t you? It never happened did it?” constantly. They also try and ruin your character by saying you’re promiscuous or a troublemaker (which is beside the point if your a child). The judge had to stop the trial and ask the defence to stop harassing me.

If they could prove you made a false allegation the police would charge you with perverting the course of justice / wasting police time, unless this happens you should assume the person told the truth.

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