6 Jul 2011

Victims do deserve more protection in court...

...it's just a shame that this has been wilfully ignored until a massively high-profile case like the trial for the murder of Milly Dowler, brought it to the public's attention.

It's no news to any feminist that victims of rape have historically been treated appallingly in court, and despite token attempts to tighten up on how much a victim themselves can be 'put on trial', there's still a long way to go. In the past, rape victims have had to endure cross-examination about their sexual history, sometimes by their rapist himself, and have had their clothing and underwear paraded in front of a jury in an attempt to undermine their credibility as a 'believable' victim of rape. I asked a lawyer friend if he would hesitate to use such tactics if he was defending an alleged rapist, and he replied in the negative: "My only priority as a lawyer is to win the case" he said, adding "I'll use anything I can to make the victim less believable".

It seems these were the exact tactics that the defence team for Levi Bellfield, now convicted of Milly Dowler's murder, decided to opt for. They dragged the Dowler family's name through the proverbial mud, exposing Mr Dowler's prediliction for bondage and speculating that Milly's discovery of his bondage equipment may have led to her running away (although it seems the seed they were really trying to plant in the jury's mind was that of Mr Dowler being some kind of sexual sadist and ergo possibly the murderer himself), and attempting to paint Mrs Dowler as a depressive, unstable person who was a bad mother and who favoured her other daughter over Milly. Private letters and journals were read out, depicting Milly as an isolated, unloved teen. Given the amount of evidence clearly indicating Bellfield's guilt, the only justification for these irrelevances being admitted in his defence, was as a blatant attempt to distract the jury's attention from the fact he was guilty as sin.

But that is how it works in a British court - as a newspaper commentator pointed out, what Bellfield's defence team did may have been immoral, but it was not illegal. The same goes for the appalling treatment doled out to rape victims, who often find themselves more 'on trial' than their attackers. Yet no one has been up in arms about their ordeals, and I can't help but think no one would be so interested in this case if it didn't attract the prurient interest of a dirty-minded tabloid-consuming public, who love nothing better than a gruesome murder case involving a pretty young girl and a nice hint of sexual deviance. If that sounds disrespectful to the dead, then please be assured that my attack is not on those whose lives are violated by twisted, deviant psychopaths, but on those in the judicial process who attempt to make the violation worse, and those in the gutter press who pretend to be on the victim and victim's family's side, all the while regurgitating degrading private details of their lives and splashing them across tabloid front pages.

But it does provide some interesting food for thought. Imagine a rape victim trying to obtain justice if the defence for her attacker had found out she was into bondage and kept a ball gag and rubber hood in her attic? You know she wouldn't have a chance at obtaining a fair trial, much less a conviction for her attacker. "She was kinky your honour, she liked it rough - just look at the evidence." Case closed. Imagine a rape victim being believed once the defence team have done some digging and found out she has a history of depression? Just look at the public dissection of the woman who accused Dominique Strauss-Khan of rape - she's been accused of being mentally unstable, a pathological liar, a gold-digger, a prostitute, HIV-positive....Why are we suddenly so surprised that victims are dragged through the mud just as much as their alleged attackers are, as if the Milly Dowler case was the first time this had ever happened in a courtroom? If only.

If the promised review into how victims of crime and their families are treated brings an examination of the disproportionately harsh treatment doled out to rape victims in court, fantastic. But I don't think it will. We're so used to it going on that we don't even bother to comment on or analyse it any more, even when presented with a golden opportunity for it. Yes, I feel deeply sorry for the Dowler family and the insult they have had added to the already permanent injury of their daughter's murder by the treatment they received during the trial. But they are not the first to be metaphorically violated and invaded by a British court, and they will not be the last.

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