Ghomeshi should be forced to testify

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Jian Ghomeshi, and others accused of sexual assault, should have to testify and face cross-examination.

It flies in the face of a basic tenet of law, and there’s a section of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms that will prevent this from happening, but Ghomeshi should really have to go on the hot seat. He is the one on trial, after all.

Instead, the women who have accused him of sexual assault are the ones facing rigorous cross-examination. Some would say they are being grilled by Ghomeshi’s lawyer, Marie Henein.

It’s all well and good to have a fair trial and make sure you don’t send an innocent person to jail, but we have a problem in Canada.

An estimated 90 per cent of sexual assaults go unreported and of the 10 per cent that are reported, only 25 per cent lead to a conviction. That’s an alarming failure rate and it’s not because women are imagining they’ve been raped or sexually assaulted.

What can the federal government do to turn the tables? They could pass a law that would force those accused of sexual assault to testify and be cross-examined. Section 11 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms would normally prevent someone from being compelled to testify in a case in which they are the accused, but there is a trump card the federal government can play.

If Justin Trudeau’s new Liberal government is serious about solving the problem of unsolved and unreported sexual assaults in this country, it should pass a law forcing accused rapists to testify and have their comments and personal histories sifted through and torn apart. The federal government could do this if it invoked Section 33 of the Charter. Also known as the Notwithstanding Clause, it would allow such a law to stand for five years at a time at which time the federal government could let it lapse if it’s not working, or renew it if it is.

When you’re faced with a problem that has reached such epic proportions, you need to get creative and you need to get serious. How much would such a measure help? I don’t know, but it won’t hurt. It would certainly wipe the smug look off a lot of faces and knowing they’ll have to sit in the hot seat could act as a deterrent.

The other solution is to teach men not to rape, but that only works on the nice guys, so let’s roll out the Notwithstanding Clause and use it to fix a problem.

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Second guilty plea in Rehtaeh Parsons case

A sexually degrading photograph of Rehtaeh Parsons was shared at her school as part of relentless cyber-bullying by classmates and even friends.

A sexually degrading photograph of Rehtaeh Parsons was shared at her school as part of relentless cyber-bullying perpetrated by classmates and even friends.

A second boy has pleaded guilty in the Rehtaeh Parsons case.

This time, the boy admitted to distributing the photo that was used to shame Rehtaeh Parsons. This boy, who is also in the picture, is giving the “thumbs-up” sign while standing behind Parsons as she leans out a window to puke.

In an agreed statement of facts read aloud in a Halifax courtroom, Crown Prosecutor Alex Smith says the boy was “having sex” with Parsons at the time, that she did not know the photograph was taken, and that she did not consent to it being taken.

Glen Canning, Parsons’ father, says this raises a vital question.

“They can go on about how Rehtaeh didn’t give consent to this photograph being taken yet for some reason she was able to give consent for sex? Rehtaeh was not in a position to give consent, not just to the photo, but to anything else going on that the photograph shows and that’s why our family is so angry and upset by this. This should have been a charge of sexual assault that’s exactly what it was. There’s no other way that anyone can describe that photo.”

Canning says he can’t imagine there being a case for sexual assault having more evidence than this – a photograph and a confession on social media – and yet there has never been a charge of sexual assault laid in connection to the events that occurred on Nov. 12, 2011 – before and after the photo was taken. The boy who took the photo pleaded guilty on Sept. 22 and was sentenced on Nov. 13. He was given a conditional discharge. That boy, and the boy who changed his plea to guilty today, can’t be named because their identities are protected by Canada’s Youth Criminal Justice Act. There is also a publication ban on the identity of Rehtaeh Parsons because she is the victim in a child pornography case. However, her parents and the Crown opposed that ban, and a judge has said that the ban does not actually protect her identity. This post respectfully disobeys the ban as it applies in this case because there is no public interest served in prosecuting people who violate the ban and a greater public good is served by mentioning her name in this and other important discussions.

No charges were laid while Rehtaeh was alive. After she died in April 2013, the police reopened the case and new information came to light. Four months later, charges of producing and distributing child pornography were laid against two of the four boys alleged to have sexually assaulted her.

“New information came forward after Rehtaeh died, but the RCMP told me there was nothing in that new evidence that told them something they didn’t already know,” Canning said.

Leah Parsons, Rehtaeh’s mom, said her daughter lost the very essence of who she was when that photo was taken and distributed around her school. One of the people who spread it around the school was a friend of Rehtaeh’s, Parsons said. Equally disturbing, the police did nothing to stop it.

“Originally, they said it was child pornography and that they were going to lay charges of sexual assault and child pornography,” Parsons said outside court today. “Within a month, that changed. The photo itself, I was told it was a community issue and not a police issue.”

And now, the person who took that photo and the person who started to spread it around the school to bully and shame Rehtaeh Parsons have both pleaded guilty to criminal charges arising from that.

Canning and Parsons hope their questions will be answered when Murray Segal reviews the way the RCMP and the Public Prosecution Service handled this case. The Nova Scotia Justice department hired Segal, the former Deputy Attorney General and Chief Prosecutor of Ontario, but he has put his review on hold until the conclusion of the criminal matters before the court. Segal will resume his review after that.

The youth who pleaded guilty today will return to court Jan. 15, 2015 for sentencing. His lawyer, Brian Church, declined to speak to reporters after today’s hearing.

Don’t wait for legal reform — push for it

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Roderick Macdonald was a contrarian and innovator who shaped legal reform in Canada.

Most Canadians probably think legal reform is something best left to lawyers and politicians. Reflect on that for a few minutes and ask yourself if you want to leave it entirely up to them. Consider to whom they might be beholden and don’t leave it up to others to make the kind of country you want.

In the Internet age, there is greater opportunity to participate in democracy and participate in discussions. The Internet is  to us as the agora was to ancient Greece. It is an amazing medium, but some people are using it to great harm and our justice system doesn’t seem to be able to keep pace.

As Hilary Beaumont wrote in her excellent article in The Coast there are people using the Internet to commit crimes that police say are beyond the current scope of the law. In some cases that’s true, but in many cases police and prosecutors just need the mental dexterity to apply existing laws to new crimes that fit under their umbrella.

I’m a firm believer in democracy, despite its flaws, but there is a lack of accountability and transparency in our government and bureaucracy. There is also an overwhelming urge to dither instead acting clearly and decisively to do the right thing. You should never be afraid to do the right thing under the circumstances. If you’re afraid of future consequences, then you adjust your actions to mitigate or eliminate those.

After writing about the publication ban in the Rehtaeh Parsons case, someone contacted me and offered to help. It was great to hear a total stranger offer me words of encouragement and legal support if I needed it. He also shared with me some new inspiration: former McGill University law professor Roderick Macdonald.

In May, Macdonald gave what was perhaps his last interview at a symposium in Montreal, and a few of his comments are worthy of a valedictory address for a man who had a profound impact on legal reform in our country.

“Many, many people believe that the law is a one-way projection of authority from lawmakers or law-givers to citizens, who are merely passive respondents to what the commands of the people in authority are. The best way to achieve a harmonious and peaceful society is to recognize that people have within themselves the capacity to do what is appropriate under the circumstances, and that the law should be designed to facilitate their agency.”

Now that a growing number of people have broken the publication ban in the Rehtaeh Parsons case, Glen Canning has asked the Attorney General and the Public Prosecution Service of Nova Scotia to issue a pronouncement saying they will not prosecute. We wait, but hopefully they will make a decision before the next court appearance. Meanwhile, media outside Canada, including one of the world’s most respected newspapers — The Guardian — are covering it and using Rehtaeh’s name in their coverage.

Hopefully, they’re convinced the ban has been broken. If they’re not convinced, then keep doing your part to break it. It’s about nothing more than making sure public officials are held accountable for their actions — or inaction — and for this to be done with public scrutiny.

Guilty plea in Rehtaeh Parsons case

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Rehtaeh Parsons committed suicide in April 2013. Her death helped spark a new police investigation.

A young man who took the picture used to shame and bully Rehtaeh Parsons has pleaded guilty to production of child pornography.

He admitted to taking the picture of another boy, a co-accused in the case, who was in the picture with Rehtaeh in November 2011 when he was 17 and Rehtaeh was 15. Neither of the accused, who were both under 18 at the time, can be named. Their identities are protected by the Youth Criminal Justice Act.

Crown Attorney Alex Smith read an agreed statement of facts to Halifax Provincial Court Judge Greg Lenehan.

Smith describes the image which shows one boy, naked from the waist down, behind Rehtaeh and pressing his genital region up against her while giving a thumbs-up sign. Rehtaeh Parsons is naked from the waist down.

“At the time the photograph was taken, (one of the accused) was having sex with Rehtaeh Parsons as she was vomiting out the window,” Smith told the court.

The youth in court today faced charges of production and distribution of child pornography. The Crown dropped the charge of distribution.

Another boy, the one in the picture who is charged only with distribution of child pornography, is scheduled to go on trial in November.

There is also a publication ban on the identity of the victim, Rehtaeh Parsons, despite the opposition of the Crown Attorney and her parents. Four Nova Scotia media outlets fought the ban in May, but Judge Jamie Campbell said it was a statutory ban that he had to impose – even though it didn’t make sense because her name was already so well known. In reporting this story today, media outlets continue to observe the ban.

It is the law of the country and judges must do their duty and enforce the law passed by Parliament. That is why the judge cannot be faulted in this case.

This post respectfully disregards the publication ban because a greater public good is served by doing so.

There is a higher goal than upholding the law and that is justice; something that judges, especially those that practice judicial restraint, sometimes do not consider.

There is an oft-told story of a conversation between two great American jurists, Oliver Wendell Holmes and Learned Hand, who met for lunch one day.

As Holmes began to drive away, Hand implored him to “Do justice, sir, do justice!”

Holmes stopped and admonished his fellow judge with this retort: “That is not my job. It is my job to apply the law.”

In the absence of an activist judge, or an Attorney General or Director of Public Prosecutions willing to make a public pronouncement that no charges will be laid in this case, it is left to the media to wonder about the safety of violating the ban.

Henry David Thoreau, in his essay Civil Disobedience, encouraged people to disobey what he called “unjust laws.”

Thoreau wrote: “Unjust laws exist; shall we be content to obey them, or shall we endeavor to amend them, and obey them until we have succeeded, or shall we transgress them at once?”

Let me be clear. It’s not that this law is unjust. It is that it is unjust in this case and should be ignored.

Clearly, this is an exception that Parliament did not think of when they passed the law and they need to amend it.

Lastly, there is a clause in the Youth Criminal Justice Act that allows for the parents of a victim to waive the privacy rights of their children. Glen Canning and Leah Parsons have done so in this case, but Judge Campbell chose not to accept that argument, saying that the Criminal Code provision wins the day – even though it doesn’t really make any sense in this case. See decision here.

Rehtaeh Parsons’ name brings power to any discussion about sexual consent, cyber-bullying, and suicide prevention. Her case prompted important legal reforms in Nova Scotia and the rest of Canada. The federal government, which is working on passing Bill C-13 to counter cyber-bullying, is doing so partly because of what happened to Rehtaeh Parsons.

Most importantly, this change of plea needs to be connected to the case at a time when publication of her name was permitted.

Why?

Because of the way the police and the Public Prosecution Service handled the case. Initially, the police focussed their investigation — such as it was — on sexual assault after an incident in November 2011. They spent most of their early efforts investigating Rehtaeh and took a long time – several months – before interviewing the four teenage boys alleged to have raped her when she was extremely intoxicated.

The Nova Scotia Public Prosecution Service reviewed the case, but didn’t lay charges because there wasn’t a strong enough likelihood of a conviction. It was dubbed a “he said, she said” case amid claims that Rehtaeh had made advances, or at least appeared willing earlier in the evening.

By the time the picture was taken, as the agreed statement of facts read into court today would indicate, Rehtaeh was not in any state to be consenting to sex.

Amazingly, the existence of a photograph of a minor engaged in a sexual act did not spark law enforcement professionals involved in the investigation to consider laying a charge of production and distribution of child pornography. Canning said police and school officials knew of the photo’s existence within a week of it being taken.

“They allowed this image to spread even knowing that this was child pornography. They knew who had it and who was doing it and there was nothing done to stop it,” he said. “Every time it was shared, it victimized Rehtaeh.”

The photo spread like wildfire through her community in a suburb of Halifax. Fellow students called Rehtaeh Parsons a slut and some total strangers texted her and asked her if she wanted to have sex with them. The bullying became too much so she switched schools and sought counselling. She claimed she was raped, but no charges were laid and this added to the grief. She struggled for months, but in April 2013, she committed suicide by hanging herself in the bathroom with a belt.

Her case attracted worldwide attention and even prompted the intervention of Anonymous, who started #OpJustice4Rehtaeh to get the police to reopen the case. The police reopened the case and, amid the furor, some people defended the four boys saying that the sex was consensual.

Within a few months, the police laid charges of production and distribution of child pornography against two of the four boys, but some claimed it was just a way to put an end to mounting public pressure.

Today’s guilty plea should put an end to those claims.

When Judge Greg Lenehan told the young man to meet with a probation officer and cooperate with them in the preparation of a pre-sentence report, he responded in a subdued voice. “Yes, sir.”

He is scheduled to return to court for sentencing on Nov. 13.

For Leah Parsons, Rehtaeh’s mother, nothing will ever bring her daughter back. But keeping her memory alive and using it to make some important changes, means a great deal to her.

“None of it is enough, but the fact that he’s pleading guilty is some consolation,” she said. “I do feel some solace in that she just wanted to be validated and she wanted people to know that this actually happened to her.”

Rehtaeh Parsons and her family deserve the truth

I have a daughter and I cannot imagine the pain and suffering that Rehtaeh Parsons’ parents are going through right now.

I also have four teenage sons and I cannot imagine any of them participating in what happened to Rehtaeh Parsons and, if they were, I would be ashamed and turn them into police.

Four boys are alleged to have raped her in November 2011. One of them took pictures that night and shared it on Facebook. The RCMP investigated the incident and decided not to lay charges. The four boys – who were not interviewed by the Mounties until several months after the incident – were not charged with sexual assault because the police said it was a he said, she said case.

Rehtaeh Parsons was 15 at the time, so that means that the person who took her picture and distributed it online should have been charged with making and distributing child pornography. That didn’t happen either.

One of the basic tenets of Canada’s legal system is that all people should be presumed innocent until proven guilty. This, I agree with. In cases of sexual assault, the issue of consent is often the point that is argued in court and determines whether there is a conviction or an acquittal. Even if you assume that the four boys had consent, that in no way excuses what happened with the photograph.

It is illegal to create and distribute child pornography in Canada. That is what happened here and the only thing that can be disputed is who took the picture and who pressed the send button. What the police should have done was found out who owned the phone that sent the picture and on whose Facebook account the picture was posted. Given modern technology, these two things should be easy enough to do. Once charges are laid, the person – or people – responsible should have an overwhelming urge to tell police what they know and assist them in piecing together the facts.

Consent, if it existed, also doesn’t excuse the unjustified scorn Rehtaeh Parsons faced at Cole Harbour District High School and online.

That suffering ended this past weekend when, after she hanged herself in the bathroom at home, she went into a coma and was taken off life support.

Given that tragic result, even if one of my sons was questioned and not charged,  I would be taking them to the police station and making sure that they told the truth – the whole truth – about what they did and what they saw.

Unfortunately, the “My-Johnny-Can-Do-No-Wrong” Syndrome is all too prevalent and many parents fail to hold their kids accountable.

I worry about the world my daughter is growing up in. I worry that she is growing up in a province that has failed to properly investigate this incident, but I am glad that our provincial Justice Minister, Ross Landry, is looking in to this.

In the poignant words of Peter Gabriel in his song about Stephen Biko, the eyes of the world are watching now. Let’s do the right thing, Nova Scotia. Let’s find the truth and let’s have justice.