Rape on trial: Why one woman's attacker went free?

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1: The rape

'Everyone has the basic human right not to be forced to have sex'

Cherie Blair QC

Two years ago Christina Peterson (not her real name) was raped by a stranger. The attack had such a devastating impact on her life that she moved hundreds of miles away from the place where it happened. Going out to a bar is still too much of an ordeal for Christina, and even inviting friends into her own home sends her into a panic.

But what made her trauma even worse is the fact that her rapist was found not guilty by a jury. Despite being presented with DNA evidence, a witness to the attack and a compelling testimony, the court allowed her attacker to walk free.

She is one of thousands of women who have been let down by the criminal justice system, which even the police admit has a stereotypical attitude towards rape victims.

On the evening of the rape, Christina, who is in her thirties, had been walking her dog Daisy near her home in Oxfordshire. Although it was quite late at night, the path was lit and there were plenty of other people around. Daisy kept straining at the lead which eventually snapped.

Then she heard what seemed like a friendly man's voice behind her. He introduced himself and managed to retrieve her dog. Then he offered to help bring her home as Christina was struggling with heavy shopping bags. Christina said that there was no reason to believe at first that her attacker was anything other than trustworthy.

"He was casually dressed but smart with a nice jumper and cleanshaven. His voice seemed so friendly. It seemed completely plausible that he was just on his way home and stopped to help."

It was rude, she thought, not to offer him a cup of tea so she invited him in. Until now, Christina said she did not feel at all threatened. But within moments of him entering the house his manner changed.

"He said I had nice eyes. I've got lots of male friends so I'm comfortable with them, but at that point I felt uneasy. I laughed saying he was young enough to be my nephew. But suddenly his face glazed over and he became like a robot."

Christina, who is 5ft 6ins, was pushed on to the sofa by her 6ft attacker and subjected to a savage attack which lasted for nearly an hour. Eventually her neighbour raised the alarm after finding her stripped naked and struggling with her assailant.

2: The police investigation

'It can be very difficult for a victim of rape to report it'

Chief Constable Matt Baggott

By the time the police arrived, Christina was so hysterical she had wet herself. She was put into the back of a police car and left there for what seemed like ages. Next she endured hours of medical examinations, a blood test and had to provide statements. The police were sympathetic but she was devastated when she overhead them saying that her attacker had claimed Christina had consented. The police overlooked the broken dog lead which she pointed out was vital evidence.

For a time, she was unable to go back to her house because it was officially a crime scene, and forensic teams had been searching it for clues.

"It was like I was on autopilot. My whole body was aching because it had tensed up during the attack. I kept asking them if it was going to court but they said it was up to the CPS."

Throughout the investigation she suspected that her attacker had offended before but the police refused to tell her anything.

The local police felt sure they had enough evidence to secure a conviction. The investigating officer on the case, Detective Constable Colin Haynes, who was based at Didcot police station said they had no doubt he had raped Christina.

"He knew how to play the system and had committed sexual offences before," said the 35-year-old, now a Detective Sergeant at Thames Valley Police.

3: The trial

'People are getting away with it'

Mike O'Brien, Solicitor General

The case came to court in March 2005. Christina was confident that her attacker would be found guilty. She even declined to have a screen because she was used to public speaking and wanted to see her attacker. On the day of giving her evidence, she arrived at court with her mother at 9am but did not enter the witness box until 12pm, and then the judge told the court to break for lunch.

"I'd never been to a crown court in my life. They told me not to look at him [her attacker] but I wanted to stare at him. He looked like a complete wimp, like a pathetic little schoolboy. They had told me to focus on a member of the jury so I chose this woman who was about 25."

The worst part, said Christina, was having to give such intimate details of every moment of the rape and the attack using graphic language.

The defence barrister also kept trying to portray her as a woman who had wanted to have sex and had somehow known her attacker.

"They said 'why did you let him in? You wanted to have sex with him.' They were trying to make out I knew this guy and kept mentioning details about me as though I'd told him things about myself."

But still Christina remained confident that the man would be found guilty. With hindsight, she wishes she had spent more than just one day in court, then she might have got a better idea of how her attacker was portraying himself to the jury.

On the day of the verdict Christina received a phone call from the detective in the case.

"I immediately knew that it was bad news. He just said 'Christina, I don't know how to say this...' I just went up to my room and lay there with the lights off and the curtains drawn. It was as though something had been knocked out of me."

It was after the verdict that she felt most vulnerable and also let down by the system. There was no explanation of why he was let off or what had brought the jury to such a devastating verdict.

"I was walking around thinking 'what the hell was said? Did I do something wrong?'"

It was only later that she found out that the alleged rapist was a known offender. Worse than that, he had raped Christina only weeks after being released from jail for sexual assault and robbery on a woman in a charity shop.

It took an attack on another victim for him to be put back behind bars. In October 2006, the 19-year-old was sentenced to five years for attempted rape.

4: The aftermath

'Rape crisis centres are closing'

Yvonne Traynor, Rape Support Centre

Christina says that she has "not looked at anyone" since the rape and finds it difficult to leave her home. Counselling did not help but she realises that she desperately needs professional help. What makes her angry is the fact that she was not told when the alleged rapist was eventually jailed.

"No one can ever reverse the verdict. But I should have been told he had been locked up. It's bad enough if you are raped and the person is found guilty.

"When I went to visit the doctor they just said I should get on with my life. There was no proper 24-hour support. There is so much anger inside me.

"When I found out he had been found guilty of another attack for a moment I felt euphoric but then I broke down and wept for the fact that he had been allowed to do this to another woman."

Christina even had to contend with the possibility of a civil action by her attacker because he claimed that she had tipped off his employer about his past.

Her ordeal has deeply affected her life.

"I've not looked at anyone since. I used to go out and talk to anyone. I was so successful in my job. My friends say 'We love you so much but we did not know what to say to you.'"

Rape in England & Wales

Published today by The Independent on Sunday for the first time, this new analysis of Home Office data on rape conviction rates show the gulf between reported cases of rape and those that end with a conviction. These figures illustrate the scale of the problem that the Government has in trying to improve conviction rates.

In 1980, one in three reported rapes ended in convictions. Today only one in 20 does. Only about half of reported rapes get past the initial police investigation stage and a quarter end up being reported as no crime having taken place. As this map demonstrates, success rates vary widely between police forces. The majority of rapes are carried out by somebody that the victim knows. Strangers account for 8 per cent of rapes. Only 12 per cent of all reported cases actually get to trial.

The numbers of rapes shown on this map are those that have been reported to the police. But both the Home Office and campaigning organisations estimate that only 15 per cent of rape victims get this far.