by Bunty Kerray
TW: This article contains discussion of sexual violence, trauma and mental illness (PTSD). All details of any attacks discussed in the article have been removed, but reader discretion is still advised.
Criminal justice systems across the world have failed to respond appropriately, if at all, to women*’s victimisation, especially in the context of sexual violence. This failure comes as a result of the male-dominated nature of the system and its stereotyped views of women*. Although no institution is free from sexism, it is particularly offensive when it is so prevalent in the very institutions, such as the courts and the police-force, where it is crucial for officials to be free of such prejudices in order to provide victims with adequate protection. These enduring failures of justice systems across the world have resulted in vast inequities within the law, allowing sexual violence to be severely under-prosecuted and, in the worst cases, turning the female victims into the ones being investigated.
Two high-profile cases within the last ten years have shown how a culture of disbelief when it comes to reports of sexual violence can result in devastating miscarriages of justice. The case of Marie Adler, 18, who was raped in her apartment by a stranger in Washington in 2008 (this story has now been dramatised into a Netflix series entitled ‘Unbelievable’) and the very recent case of a 19-year-old British woman who was raped in her hotel room while she was working in Cyprus in the summer of 2019, both tell the same story of poor and dismissive police work, confrontational tactics, and a widespread misunderstanding and misconception of the effects of trauma. Cases such as these are the perfect examples of why three out of four rapes go unreported, often because the victims fear retaliation or that the police will not be able or willing to help them (RAINN, 2017).
In both cases, after each woman reported the rape, they were subsequently subject to interrogation-like rounds of questioning. In Marie’s case, police were said to have asked the same questions over and over again, telling the victim to be more specific, and asking her to repeat her story several times. Those closest to Marie also did not support her claim, even her former foster Mother reported that she doubted her story. The police threatened her with jail time and the loss of her much-needed housing assistance. Finally, broken, Marie ‘confessed’ to making up the accusation and was charged with filing a false report. A report surrounding the details of Marie’s case written by ProPublica and the Marshall Project in 2015, was described by the Pulitzer Prize Organisation as “a startling examination and exposé of law enforcement’s enduring failures to investigate reports of rape properly”. The detectives elevated ‘minor inconsistencies’, which are common among the reports of victims as a result of trauma, into discrepancies while ignoring strong evidence that the crime had occurred. Enduring this abhorrent line of questioning must have made Marie, and many others, feel as though she was being attacked a second time by those who were meant to protect her. Investigation, done in this way, can become its own form of trauma.
Similarly, in the Cyprus case, 10 days after her initial report, Cypriot police called the young woman in for additional questioning and told her that their investigators had found inconsistencies in her statements. This unrecorded questioning lasted for eight hours. The woman did not have access to a lawyer or translator during this time. In the early hours of the morning, the woman signed a statement retracting her assault claim, and the police charged her with “giving a false statement over an imaginary offense”. She subsequently spent a month in Cypriot jail, while all the suspects were freed, allowed to go back to their home country, and were not called back for questioning during the trial proceedings. In her trial later in 2019, she was let down further by the opinions of the court. Judge Papathanasiou said he thought she made up the accusations because she was “ashamed” of the footage of her having sex (her attackers had filmed the assault) being circulated online. The judge also ignored the woman’s account of suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as a result of the attack. Michael Polak, the woman’s lawyer and the Director if Justice Abroad argued that the woman had been suffering from PTSD, which may have contributed to her retracting her statement. He said to the BBC that “people suffering from PTSD can make retraction statements just to get themselves out of the situation in which they find themselves”. This claim was supported by a statement from a psychologist about the condition of the victim. Human rights barrister Adam Wagner, has stated that the circumstances of the case “sound very troubling indeed”, “the absence of a lawyer during her ‘confession’, and the duress she says she was put under, would be enough to make the entire proceedings, including her conviction, a breach of her human rights”.
These cases are indicative of a systemic problem in justice systems and institutions. Many of those officials working in high profile detective jobs are men who are insufficiently trained in dealing with trauma and how to listen to and report assault claims. I suspect that this experience rings true for many women* who have gone through a similar process. It is essential that victims do not feel as though they are the ones on trial. They must be made as comfortable as possible in reliving their trauma, should they wish to report their aggression and press charges against their assailant, and supported through the effects of this.
The experience of the women in these two cases are the exact reason why women* are too scared to come forward. The message given to victims is that it is probably safest not to speak up instead of playing Russian roulette with a system that might not be on their side. This sentiment was poignantly demonstrated by a group of 30 protestors from the group Network Against Violence Against Women outside the courthouse where the Cyprus case was taking place. Across their mouths, some of them wore white scarves with pictures of stitched lips on them, to signify how they felt the woman’s story had been silenced.
This silencing is further exacerbated by the way the law across the world views and defines rape. In 2018, Amnesty International published statistics from the European Union Agency for Fundamental rights (FRA) that stated only 9 out of 31 European Countries analysed by Amnesty International have laws that define rape based on the absence of consent, instead defining rape by other measures, such as whether violence or the threat of violence was used. This is a shocking gap in the law, which means that many cases of rape in which the woman was either physically unable, or felt too frightened to fight back, is ultimately blamed for what has happened to them. It must be acknowledged that as laws guide societal attitude and behaviours, it is crucial to make crystal clear, in law, that sex without consent is rape. This sort of victim blaming is inexcusable and sickening, as it lessens the culpability of the perpetrator and instead places it on the victim.
The Cyprus case is still ongoing, and the lawyers involved have promised to take the matter to the European Court in Human Rights in order to get a satisfactory ruling. However, Marie’s case had a delayed triumphant ending thanks to the incredulous work of two female detectives in Colorado years later. The story of these women’s work is a rare success story in this field, and an example of how rape cases can and should be handled across the world. Three years after Marie’s initial report, two female detectives began investigating a string of sexual assaults with some clear similarities between one another. After realising the connection between the attacks in their respective districts, they eventually joined forces and their investigation widened to other districts and other similar assaults. After 40 days of investigation, the detectives made a breakthrough and successfully charged a man in Colorado. He was then sentenced to 327 ½ years in prison. In his house, the authorities found a hard drive with pictures of each of his victims, one of which was of Marie in Washington. Finally, this was authoritative proof that she was telling the truth.
Although this ending paints a very positive picture of the work of the criminal justice system in the US, success stories such as this one are very much the exception. The work of these female detectives is a stellar example of how a rape case should be handled by authorities, with rigour and care, and not one ounce of dismissal. This is very unfortunately rarely the case. Despite the work of the female detectives highlighting the shortcomings of the original investigation, none of the initial detectives who dismissed Marie were disciplined for their mishandling of her case, despite her winning a civil case against her county and proving their wrongdoing.
Closer to home in the UK, the story is very much the same. Rape convictions are at a record low, despite record counts of cases being reported to the police. The Annual Violence Against Women and Girls report from the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) shows that there were just 1,925 convictions for rape during the financial year 2018-19, down from 2,635 in the previous 12 months - a drop of 26.9%. This is despite the number of rape claims dealt with annually by police in England and Wales rising from 35,847 to 57,882 during the last four years – an increase of 61.5%. This means that only around 3.3% of all reported rapes end in a conviction, according to the BBC. Andrea Simon, head of public affairs at the End Violence Against Women Coalition, provided a damning analysis of these statistics. Simon states that “these numbers represent real women subjected to rape, a crime which does enormous harm, who are then further victimised by a system that does not take them seriously”, “these shocking and unjustifiable failings speak to a clear and concerted shift in how the CPS has decided to prosecute rape”, “Leadership across the CPS needs to answer for these figures which we say can only represent what is becoming the effective decriminalisation of rape.”
Criminal justice systems across the world, including the law makers, the courts and the police force, must re-evaluate the way in which sexual violence cases are handled in order to ensure that institutional sexism does not continue to cause such grave miscarriages of justice. The victims of these crimes deserve to be believed, and we must work harder to encourage those who have been affected to come forward. However, until the consistent failures of the criminal justice system are corrected, and women* are not deterred from and frightened of making a report, the initial narrative and culture of disbelief evident in both Marie’s case and the Cyprus case, will continue to play out.
If you have been affected by any of the issues raised in this article, here are some resources that may be useful:
Sexual Harassment and Violence Support Service (run by University of Oxford independently of Colleges and Departments) - https://www.ox.ac.uk/students/welfare/supportservice?wssl=1
Oxford Sexual Abuse and Rape Crisis Centre (for women) - https://www.osarcc.org.uk/
Survivors UK (for men) – https://www.survivorsuk.org
National Sexual Assault Hotline (run by the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network [RAINN]) - https://www.rainn.org/national-resources-sexual-assault-survivors-and-their-loved-ones
Galop (an LGBT anti-violence and abuse charity) – http://www.galop.org.uk
This Article also contains a list of many helplines and resources with information on which one would be best suited to you - https://www.itv.com/thismorning/rape-helplines
If you would like to read more about the two cases discussed above (reader discretion advised):
Marie’s Case (the true story behind the Netflix Series 'Unbelievable') -
The Cyprus Case -
Bunty is a third year law student at Magdalen College. She is particularly interested in human rights law and the importance of equality and diversity. She is also a Student Ambassador for Access and Outreach and Women’s Officer at her College. You may reach her at email@example.com