Not guilty verdict has dangerous legal implications | Dr Gillian Perry

It’s no longer binding on a man to testify against another, and we could see the resignations of more ministers Not guilty verdict has dangerous legal implications The case that ended with the 29-year-old…

Not guilty verdict has dangerous legal implications | Dr Gillian Perry

It’s no longer binding on a man to testify against another, and we could see the resignations of more ministers

Not guilty verdict has dangerous legal implications

The case that ended with the 29-year-old British student Kyle Rittenhouse being acquitted of rape may have dangerous legal implications for the other complainants.

This is because the jury returned a not guilty verdict – in spite of his victim coming forward after being taken to a police station. The acquittal also means that, in the words of the UK legal website, “the state will be prevented from proscribing even a confession to making a complaint of any crime”.

By definition, a confession to a crime is evidence. So if an accused tells the police that he’s done something, and is proven not to be telling the truth, the decision to take action is therefore pointless.

This trial also demonstrates one of the most damaging consequences of medical evidence – forcing victims to rely on clinical descriptions or scans of their injuries in the absence of any other evidence or investigation.

Failing to take realistic account of risk, especially in cases where it is very different from that in our own culture, can have real consequences – putting at risk the integrity of legal cases, public confidence in the justice system and even bringing the perpetrator of the crime before the courts. The not guilty verdict may make the police sceptical about whether they will be believed.

The Crown Prosecution Service told me they have “learned lessons” but declined to go into further detail, adding that it is a matter for the police. Their previous statement failed to respond to the obvious concern that the trial shows. The CPS say that “following the outcry from the public, and criticism of the police, we will be taking action”. But we know how government departments and prosecution services typically behave. It is hard to see any change arising here.

The inevitable result of an outcome such as this will be the resignation of many senior police officers. There is clearly a battle going on between those who support the CPS’s calls for the police to be given sufficient support to deal with sexual offences effectively, and those who understand there is a special, almost unique, burden on them, especially as the new sexual offences section has only just been set up.

Our approach to this issue is very different. Since March 2010, the Met’s crime directorate has supported the prosecution of offenders in cases where medical evidence gives them enough weight to bring a criminal charge, even if it is based on a “diagnosis”. The intention of that is to ease the pressure on understaffed services and allow victims to take a more active part in their cases.

What the Rittenhouse case shows us is that it can be done well, though not that effectively. What is needed is an improved support system for victims, not a time limit on their ability to submit medical evidence.

Whether the case leads to major structural reform in the way the police handle sexual offences is doubtful. Victim support groups are opposed to creating a new system; “too many resources will be taken away from sexual offence investigations.”

It’s clear that the CPS, the police and the victims will need to learn some lessons in this instance, and urgently. But it will be the victim – and not the guilty man – who ultimately pays the price for this decision.

• Doctor at the Royal Society of Medicine, medical consultant, Manchester University. Dr Gillian Perry is chair of the National Sexual Violence Advisory Network

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