Why rape convictions are so hard to get

Our writer, reflecting on her experience on a rape jury a few years ago, says that regardless of avoidable police mistakes getting a guilty verdict is exceptionally tough

Fran Yeoman
Thursday 10 January 2013 18:13
Justice Secretary Kenneth Clarke told Sky News the changes would allow judges and coroners to have access to more information instead of the "silence" that happens now over sensitive evidence
Justice Secretary Kenneth Clarke told Sky News the changes would allow judges and coroners to have access to more information instead of the "silence" that happens now over sensitive evidence

I was on a rape jury a couple of years ago. I can clearly remember the indictment being read out; hearing what the man in the dock a few feet away was alleged to have done, what we would be asked to decide upon.

At that moment you cannot help, particularly as a young woman, remembering the countless stories you have read about shockingly low conviction rates, about rape victims not being believed, about justice gone undone. You know that many rapes go unreported, and many more never reach trial. This one has made it to the courtroom, I thought. We are going to do our jobs properly.


The next week of my life was one of the most depressing and frustrating I have experienced. The young complainant was distraught as she gave her compelling evidence, which was horrible to sit through. But almost more upsetting was the paucity of the other evidence with which we were presented. Of course, as the jury, we were not party to the various twists and turns of the police investigation. We weren't told of the practical problems that officers might have had in gathering artefacts, or persuading – even finding – key people to come to court and give their versions of events. Nor should we have been.

But just from sitting through the trial, it seemed clear to me that whatever unavoidable problems they had experienced, the police had also made some very avoidable mistakes. At least parts of this case had been handled by the Metropolitan Police’s Sapphire Unit, supposed specialists in investigating rape and serious sexual violence, and yet I felt that the prosecution case was hampered by human error and sloppiness.

We found the defendant not guilty. I don’t know if we were right, and that uncertainty is not a nice thing to live with. There is part of me that would have liked to have done my small bit to improve this country’s woeful rape conviction rate, which has made me angry on many occasions. But of course that is ridiculous. As a juror, you are not trying the system, you’re trying the defendant, and I know for sure that there was no earthly way, on the basis of the evidence I was shown, that I could be sure beyond reasonable doubt that he was guilty. In that sense, we absolutely made the correct decision. I would no more want to convict an innocent man than free a rapist. Yet I would have liked – and the complainant deserved – a better-managed case on which to base our verdict.

No excuse

One other thing. After the case had finished, I went home and mentally re-ran the trial, this time with a prosecution based on a perfect police investigation, and wondered whether our verdict would have been any different. While it is impossible to know what evidence there might have been, the truth is I find it hard to imagine anything that – in the specific set of circumstances of this case – could have made me be sure to the legal standard needed for a conviction that sex between complainant and defendant had both taken place and been non-consensual.

That does not excuse the failings of those who, from what I saw, let that young woman down. Who knows? Maybe there was a smoking gun in this case that went by the wayside. But my mental re-trial did make me realise how hard it must be, in many instances, to secure a guilty verdict for the crime of rape even after model investigations and with conscientious, unprejudiced juries. This was a case that the Crown Prosecution Service brought to trial; one of those that they thought, unlike many others and despite the apparent police shortcomings, stood a reasonable chance of securing a conviction. It didn’t get close. That was perhaps the most depressing bit of all.