Anonymity for suspects could help to nail rapists

The rape figures are climbing horrifically, while convictions are now far more difficult to achieve than ever
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The Independent Online

There can be no doubt that the media firestorm which has engulfed the former television presenter John Leslie has been shameful. The anonymous allegation in Ulrika Jonsson's autobiography was quickly taken up, with Mr Leslie being named on a Channel Five gossip show.

After that the floodgates really opened. There were further allegations, some solicited via newspaper hotlines, others reported to the publicist Max Clifford. Some, quaintly, were even reported to the police. Finally, after allegations from several dozen women, many reported in graphic detail, one woman's accusation led to charges.

Now, after many months, the charges have been dropped. No legal action will be taken against John Leslie. He is free and innocent. But his life has been changed completely. No decent person can survey this chain of events without distaste. Here is trial by media, with no court of law needed for punishment to be handed down.

Predictably, of course, the case has been cited by many people as the latest in a long line of celebrity allegations which have petered out, leaving the named men shamed, and with a question mark hanging over their heads, even though the legal process has vindicated them.

The obvious conclusion is that those in the public eye are particularly vulnerable to malicious or hysterical accusations of sexual crimes and in special need of protection. But actually, the celebrity of these people - and there's nothing to be gained from trotting out a role call - is not that pertinent. Yes, life in the public eye means that there is a lot of recognition and a lot of notoriety when mud is slung about. But for ordinary people who are accused of rape, even when they are found innocent, the experience can be no less devastating, the local notoriety no less paralysing, and the change in fortune no less serious.

Take 50-year-old John Anderson, who was acquitted of rape charges in Scotland a couple of years ago. Despite the not-guilty verdict, he was driven from his home by angry locals, and chased away from hostels when he tried to obtain a bed for the night. Then he was attacked and stabbed, and left bleeding in the street with his intestines hanging out of his body. After a stay in hospital, which saved his life, he left Scotland, and now lives a lonely, alcohol-soaked existence on a run-down housing estate in Tyneside.

Readers who have been horrified by the brutality which awaited Mr John Anderson after he had been found innocent may, for example, find the actions of his community less outlandish when they learn that local people knew more about Mr Anderson's history than the jury had been allowed to know. Specifically, they knew that his last trial had been his fifth rape acquittal. Angered that the law could not seem to touch this man - as they saw it - people, quite wrongly, took the law into their own hands.

The case gives backbone to the increasing calls for anonymity for sex crime defendants, be they celebrities or not. Clearly acquittal, the dropping of charges, or the failure to turn an arrest into a charge, does not stop people harbouring unfounded suspicions that there is no smoke without fire.

Sex crime cases are judged to be so prejudicial that alleged victims need anonymity. But maybe defendants should be afforded the same protection. The snag is that they used to be, and it didn't work. In 1976, when anonymity for rape cases was first brought in, basic tenets of the English criminal justice system, such as the duty to ensure that the prosecution does not gain an unfair advantage and the presumption of innocence, ensured that both accuser and accused got anonymity.

There were serious problems with this, though, not least the one which meant that if a known and dangerous rapist was at large, the police were unable to warn the public to be wary of him, or co-operate with the public in apprehending him. This difficulty does not seem insurmountable though. Surely an exception to anonymity could be made when there was a direct and credible threat to public safety.

Another problem often cited is that when the defendant is anonymous, others who have suffered similar attacks cannot come forward and report them to the police, and important evidence is lost. This is a more worrying difficulty, because information gathered in this way can be pivotal to a trial in a way that previous convictions and acquittals, considered much too prejudicial, cannot.

Although many are rightly troubled by proposals in the Criminal Justice Bill which suggest that in some cases previous convictions ought to be told to juries, it seems to me that in sex crime cases, when it is so often one person's word against another's, it is particularly pertinent if it is one person's word against the word of many.

Such suspicions were borne out in the trial a few years ago of Nicholas Edwards, who had stood trial for rape seven times, with five of the women losing their case. On his eighth trial, in a landmark ruling by the Lords, previous victims were allowed to give evidence, and this serial rapist was convicted.

Conversely, a woman who brought retrospective rape allegations against her doctor lost her case, even though the man was actually serving a sentence, unbeknownst to the jury, for nine other assaults against patients. The woman only took her case to the police when she saw a television report of the doctor's conviction, but the jury did not know this either.

If there is to be anonymity to protect the innocently accused, there must at the same time be provisos which help the police not only to apprehend dangerous people at large, but also to work out whether certain people are committing similar crimes, using similar techniques.

Let defendants in rape cases have anonymity, but balance this by letting other accusations, convictions and acquittals be heard in court. Instead of launching rape trials which have only a one-in-10 chance of securing a conviction, encourage women to report offences which may not stand up in court alone, but could alert the police to serial offenders and ensure the bringing of a case which relies on several witnesses. At the same time, the police can keep an eye out for serial accusers as well. The tiny minority of women who do cry rape maliciously would be tracked on such a system as well.

If all this sounds illiberal, then maybe it is. But the rape figures are climbing horrifically, while convictions are far more difficult to achieve now than ever. What's more, the pattern of rape is changing. Complete strangers raping in the street are as uncommon as in the past. But men hanging round bars and clubs, scraping acquaintance with women, then raping them, are on the increase.

Rapists know they only have to insist that they believed they had consent to walk away if they are caught. Proposed new laws which will address cases where a man has sex with a woman too drunk to give consent will make marginal, if any, difference. On the contrary, it seems that the idea that any drunk woman is fair game is gaining ground rapidly. In a recent, nightmare case, men appeared to believe that they could get away with filming the rape of a near-unconscious girl in a Brighton pub lavatory on their mobile phones. And the culprits may well do.

I for one would happily grant the rapist anonymity if it would help to nail him in the end.