This month, the highly-acclaimed When They See Us by filmmaker Ava DuVerney, dropped on Netflix. It chronicles the true story of five teenage boys of colour, who were wrongly convicted of the brutal rape of a young white woman, Trisha Meili, in Central Park, New York in 1989. The show has received rave reviews for its unflinching look at the injustice and mistreatment of these men and the racial prejudices that led to their false conviction. But when controversy shrouds a rape conviction, where does that leave the rape victim? What does it actually feel like to face your rapist in court? One young woman bravely shares her own powerful experience with GLAMOUR.
In the early hours of the 1st December 2013, after a night out with friends in London, I was raped by a taxi driver. Over the years, this is something I have spent time sitting quietly and repeating, over and over to myself, to practice saying it out loud to other people. There is no wording that makes it easier news to deliver, no tone of voice that makes it easier to hear. For a long time, the only way I could talk about it was by coming from a place of complete disconnection. With the help of a brilliant therapist, I now feel able to sit with the sadness of what happened without feeling like it will overpower me.
I reported what had happened to the police later on that same day. Around 9pm, the first police officers arrived at my house to take my initial statement. Then at midnight, the officer assigned to my case from the Sapphire division of the Metropolitan Police (their specialist rape unit) arrived. She would go on to become my closest source of personal support within the system – and was also the woman who, at 3am that same night, took me to have a rape kit done at The Havens, a Rape Crisis centre.
It's important in these cases to run tests as soon after an assault as possible so that crucial evidence can be collected. Appointments at the Havens are three hours long and run 24/7, so that victims can have the entire facility to themselves – it's not possible to predict the trauma that a patient might have suffered or how recently it might have occurred, so they provide total privacy.
I was in a daze the entire time. It was almost like an out of body experience. I had no choice but to check out completely and take it moment by moment. Everyone I met gave me the space to respond to events however I needed, and while a lot of the questions asked and tests taken were by nature invasive, they were handled incredibly sensitively.
From there, things moved fast. Within a week, I had given a longer video statement and had identified my attacker from an on-screen line up. A few days later he was charged with rape, held without bail. He remained in prison for several weeks before being released awaiting trial.
But then suddenly, in the May of 2014, the charges were formally dropped. An administrative error had been made in the write up of the forensic results on the central piece of evidence – that proved intercourse had taken place – making it inadmissible in court and consequently voiding the charges.
I felt blindsided. I had been trying to rebuild myself. The court case was a core part of that. It was as if the floor had been pulled from underneath me. Entirely thanks to the tenacity of the officers working on my case, the administrative error was corrected, and the same piece of evidence was re-submitted and the charges were reinstated in the autumn.
My trial ended up taking place over the course of a week in July 2015, by which time my life had been on hold for 19 months. I spent the entire time with the impending ordeal front and centre in my mind, and I felt unable to move out of my trauma until it had been resolved.
I was twenty-two when this happened. I am white, middle class and supported by wonderful family and friends. The man who raped me was a stranger. There were no social barriers to me reporting. I was also aware that this man's next victim could be unlikely to have my privilege, and I felt a responsibility to see it through. I would still encourage anyone who feels able to, to go to trial. But the brutal truth is that there is no way to describe the reality of it that will make it sound appealing.
During the year and a half between being raped and going to court, I tried repeatedly to make myself feel less helpless by finding out what it was like to go to trial. I wanted to feel better prepared – but there was nothing out there.
This is why I am telling my story. I want the information, the truth, the inescapable facts of facing down an attacker in court in the public domain. I'm hoping that this might offer some relief to someone.
The run up to trial was long and exhausting, but my experience with the police was wonderful. They were supportive, and non-judgmental, and the same two officers were with me through the entire process. Our main difficulty was that they couldn't share anything about the case or upcoming trial with me at all, given that I was the central witness. At trial, I would need to be able to answer every question based on my truth, not including any information I might have accidentally gathered from the wider investigation. They were kind people, and I could see them struggle to maintain a balance between treating me like a witness and treating me like a victim. The information I craved would have come at the expense of the integrity of the case, so my emotional safety had to be sacrificed.
I was taken to visit the court two weeks before the trial. I walked around the courtroom, stood in the witness stand and took it all in. It had already been agreed that I would have screens so that I wouldn't have to see the defendant at the back of the room – I would only be able to see the barrister questioning me, the jury and the judge. I had asked about the possibility of giving evidence by video link in moments of terror (reserved for children and vulnerable adults) and without screens at all in moments of defiance (not reserved for anyone, but a bonkers idea).
My first day in court, I was met by volunteer witness support officers who chaperoned me for the entirety of the day. Opening statements took so long that I ended up not giving evidence. I waited all day, not knowing what was being said in there or what evidence was being presented to the court, so afraid to even be in the building that I became numb to my surroundings. A private waiting room in the depths of the building, accessible through back entrances, was provided so that I wouldn't ever have to cross paths with the defendant. On the way back from a cigarette break my witness support officer thought she would chance a shortcut and we bumped into the man who raped me coming out of the toilet. In the next corridor as I had a panic attack, I strangely couldn't form any coherent thought other than the fact that he looked like he had lost weight. This should never have happened and I am still angry that it did. At the time, I justified the mistake by telling myself that the support officer was a volunteer and that she was giving up her time to help me, but with hindsight it was unforgivable incompetence.
I took the stand on the second day with no idea of what to expect, and I felt like a lamb going to the slaughter. I had met the barrister for the prosecution the previous day: a ten-minute hello and rundown of broadly what would take place. The previous day's numbness gave out and I started crying from fear before I went in and could barely speak by the time I was taking my oath. The screen was in place and I was facing the jury – it is unimaginably isolating to cry uncontrollably with twelve strangers staring at you wordlessly.
The barrister for the defence began his cross-examination. My rapist had claimed the sex was consensual. In fact, I was read the defendant's statement from beginning to end, which described in excruciating detail how I had forced myself on the man who had raped me. I was read a graphic account of how I performed fellatio on him while he slept before mounting him. The barrister stopped after every sentence, looked at me smirking and said: 'I suppose you're going to tell us that you don't remember that?' It went on for three hours. It's the worst thing that's ever happened to me.
I heard the same thing repeatedly before going to court: 'remember that it isn't you who is on trial'. I was suspicious that this wouldn't feel true once I got there, which is what happens to so many victims. My suspicion was validated in court, and I still have real trouble understanding how that defense barrister was able to do what he did to me. Although in the UK, a barrister is not allowed to ask about your personal sexual history whilst you are on the stand, it doesn't prevent them alluding to it in regard to the case, as this defense barrister did to me. At one point he dared to ask me about my usual method of contraception and the judge had to stop proceedings completely.
If today, I had to choose one person to punch in the face, it would be him and not the man who raped me. With all the information at his disposal, all the intelligence and education in the world, he looked me in the eyes and destroyed me. There's also the small matter of his victory putting a rapist back on the streets...
I received a gold star for my testimony – yes, I had been emotional, but I had been incredibly clear and it had been impossible to shake me on the details of my statement. Towards the end of the trial, the outlook was positive. I was asked not to attend any of the case outside of my own cross-examination, in case we had a hung jury and had a retrial (again, any information I received might mar the purity of my testimony). By this point, though, I had had enough of being kept in the dark, so I asked a friend to sit in and report back. Apparently, the defendant had been unconvincing, and we appeared to have the judge on our side. When he was summing up, he reportedly advised the jury to think about who they thought was the more credible witness. The only hard evidence that they had was forensic evidence of intercourse – everything else was circumstantial. He urged the jurors to think about who they believed.
The jury deliberated for 50 minutes before giving a unanimous not guilty verdict. My immediate feeling was one of betrayal - I really didn't understand how a jury could have sat with me through such a vicious ordeal and not have taken my side. Quickly, though, I became angry. I don't feel that his imprisonment would have offered me any kind of personal recompense, but I did want him put away so that he wouldn't hurt anyone else. There is no doubt in my mind that by now he has assaulted or raped more women.
For a jury to be able to put someone in prison, they need to think that they are guilty beyond reasonable doubt. So, in a 'fair trial', we have no choice but to cross-examine and re-traumatise victims, it's irrelevant that they are statistically unlikely to be lying. This is why #BelieveWomen hasn't spread to our juries: because it is fundamentally incompatible with an evidence-based justice system. Rape is a square peg and the system is a round hole.
Despite the trauma of this, there are some things I hold onto with optimism. Firstly, that every member of the police that I met was committed and kind. Second, that those jurors did actually believe me - they each knew that my pain was because the man at the other end of the room raped me, and their verdict was down to a lack of space for compassion in courts of law, not a lack of compassion in themselves. The third thing is that there is always a chance, so long as individuals remain compassionate, that it might eventually seep into our verdicts.
A change must be possible. That's what I dare to hope.
[Via GLAMOUR UK]