The issue of false rape accusations is an emotionally charged one. Rape is the unspeakable crime. It is one for which the evidence often relies on one person’s word against another’s. Rape conviction rates are notoriously low. Just 6% of all reports of rape result in a conviction. The police have frequently come in for criticism for how they dealt with these cases. Now society’s mores have changed, but until relatively recently a woman could not be raped by her husband. And women who went to the police claiming that they had been raped were not taken seriously or even disbelieved. The lawyer and Fox News commentator Susan Estrich argues that, “the myth of the lying woman is the most powerful myth in the tradition of rape law.” Such attitudes have been challenged in recent years. But we need to be careful that we don’t create a counter-myth: that of the woman who never lies. I tend to believe Doctor Gregory House: everybody lies. I do feel uneasy about some feminist perspectives on this question. The subject came up on a BBC Radio Four programme, The Report, which was broadcast late last year. It featured two famous cases of fabricated rape accusations – Eleanor de Freitas and Rhiannon Brooker.
Eleanor de Freitas had met Alexander Economou in London just before Christmas in 2012. They slept together but 11 days later she went to the police and accused him of raping her. But as police began to investigate her they discovered all was not as it seemed. The day after the alleged rape CCTV footage showed de Freitas and Economou laughing and smiling together while shopping in an Ann Summers lingerie shop. What’s more she had sent him a number of SMSs. In the end it was Economou who brought a private prosecution against de Freitas. The case of perverting the course of justice was subsequently taken on by the CPS. It had tragic consequences as de Freitas, who suffered from bipolar disorder, killed herself three days before her trial. She was just 23.
Rhiannon Brooker, a 30-year old law student, claimed Paul Fensome, 46 a railway signalman, heavy metal fan and former roadie for Iron Maiden and Metallica, had forced her to have sex with him on 11 occasions. This is very different to the de Freitas case. Given her knowledge of criminal law and procedure she was not the typical rape complainant. Brooker faked text messages and injuries. She told a friend she was pregnant but six weeks later claimed she had lost the baby because her boyfriend punched her in the ribs. Fensome was arrested, charged and held in custody for 36 days with rapists and other sex offenders before police realised there was no evidence against him. In June last year Brooker was found guilty of perverting the course of justice and sentenced to three and a half years in prison
I am sure these cases are extremely rare. I am sure that false accusations are rare. A 17-month Crown Prosecution Service study showed 5000 prosecutions for rape and just 35 prosecutions for false rape in this period. Figures for false accusations are said to range between 2% and 12%. But in such a complex area it is impossible to know. Moreover, people also lie in cases of robbery or fraud. Nevertheless, I think a lot of radical feminist advocates are forgetting William Blackstone’s classic formulation: It is better that ten guilty persons escape than one innocent suffer. There are ideas that I have reservations about. One is the culture of the victims will be believed. You hear this said a lot now in relation to rape and other sexual abuse cases. The word victim, as opposed to accuser, implies the presumption of guilt.
Seeking justice for female victims should make us more sensitive, not less, to justice for unfairly accused men. The wrongly accused, such as Alexander Economou and Paul Fensome were real victims too. Guardianista Julie Bindel, who appeared on the programme, called the prosecution of Rhiannon Brooker a waste of time.
The conviction rate is very low for rape, but it is also low for robbery or fraud. You cannot assume that the only fair verdict in a rape trial is a conviction. Trials are messy processes. The guilty do not always get their just desserts. Someone may be guilty, but the evidence may just not be enough. It is an inevitable fact in the case of it being one person’s word against another there may be a reasonable doubt; you have to be sure before you convict. We must try to eradicate this vile crime but it cannot be at the expense of sending innocent people to jail. Once someone has been convicted, then I do feel they should face the full brunt of the law. The case of Ched Evans, the footballer convicted of rape is outrageous; he served just two and a half years in jail. I’m all in favour of toughening sentences on those found guilty, but let’s not sacrifice due process.