Thursday, 10 June 2010

Rape defendant anonymity: update

This post discusses rape, suicide and has links to some extremely graphic news articles. [Trigger warning]

At Prime Minister's Questions on Wednesday, Caroline Flint MP (Labour, Don Valley) followed up on her earlier adjournment debate with more questions for Cameron.

gorilerof3b points out that he may have read the Stern Review, but he didn't comprehend it, and that the sources for some of his statements were unclear.

Yet again, the government are exposed as having thought of the idea first (in the way that eight white cis men in a negotiating room might do), without having any actual evidence to justify it beyond the belief in rape myths of those eight men. So, here's David Cameron PM:

We know that a lot of people are falsely accused, whose careers and lives can be blighted- [Interruption.] Opposition Members shake their heads, but in some cases people have committed suicide.

Yes, it is true, some people have committed suicide after a (presumed by Cameron to be false1) accusation of rape. Let's assume, again for the sake of argument, that this - as opposed to the vast number of rape victims who attempt or commit suicide because society won't help them - is something the government should try to deal with at all costs.

A big problem for Cameron remains even if we unconditionally accept this twisted premise: his proposals would make no difference.

As previously covered here and in the Parliamentary briefing paper, "anonymity" in law, as currently given to victims and now proposed for defendants, only prevents the media from reporting your name or identifying information.

I'm going to make an assumption here: where the press reports on a rape case and names a suspect, and this reporting takes place before a suicide attempt, the press will also report the suicide attempt. In other words, no-one is going to be named by the press as a suspect, commit suicide, and then not have their death reported. This isn't a completely safe assumption, but it seems unlikely that a media organisation, having decided that a rape case was "interesting" enough to report on in the first place, would then decide that the death of the suspect/defendant would lead to the story becoming less interesting (in some cases, the suicide attempt seems to have been necessary for the story to have been interesting enough for the press to report on the case at all).

So, I searched for news articles containing "rape" and "suicide" from the last ten years. I then ruled out those:

  • that came from locations outside the UK,
  • there were a lot of these - where the combination of words resulted from the victim having attempted or committed suicide
  • where the suspect is only reported as having "contemplated suicide" but for which there's no evidence that they made an attempt
  • where the suicide attempt predated any police involvement in the case (i.e. they raped someone, tried to kill themselves, then got arrested)
  • where the suspect wasn't named
  • where the suicide attempt came after they were convicted
  • where I already had an article mentioning this suspect in my list

I don't think I found all of them, but I do think I got a decent sample of relevant articles.

Having excluded those, 18 cases remained, spread across the ten years and from a variety of local and national sources. For each of those, I searched Lexis Nexis UK to see if I could find any mention of the defendant or suspect in the press before the report of their attempted or completed suicide. Trigger warning for all links.

ArticleYearConvicted?In press prior to attempt
12003Dead before trialNo
32004Dead before trialNo
42005Acquitted, attempt beforeNo
52006Dead before trialNo
62006Dead before trialNo
82007Dead before trialNo
92007Dead before trial (confessed to police)No
112007YesYes, after he broke bail
122008Not chargedNo
132008Not charged, committed suicide a year laterNo
152009Acquitted, suicide afterNo
162009Trial ongoingYes, when bailed
172010Dead before trialNo
182010YesYes, after charge

In only three of the eighteen cases was the case reported on in the press before the defendants attempted suicide. In two of those cases, the defendant was later convicted. In the third, the trial is still ongoing.

So, the total number of falsely-accused defendants' lives that would be saved by giving anonymity in the media to defendants, over a ten year period, appears to be approximately zero.

Well done, Mr Cameron.

Meanwhile, this multiple murder suspect, named repeatedly in the press when charged, has recently attempted suicide. I didn't do a detailed study, but even before this report came in today, I didn't have trouble finding cases where murder suspects have attempted or committed suicide. Yet no-one seems concerned about the effect on murder suspects of having their names publicised.

Coming up later in Parliament: at 2:30pm on Tuesday 15 June, is Oral Questions to the Justice department, who "own" this proposal. At 10:30am on Thursday 17 June, the same for Women and Equality. Given the current strong efforts of Labour MPs to keep this issue on the agenda, both seem worth keeping an eye on.

1 which, of course, is also not necessarily true. 5 of the above sample were convicted, and in a majority of the "Dead before trial" cases reported there was an extremely strong case and no suggestion anywhere in the press that there was a false allegation.