There were two disturbing pieces of news last week.
The Independent Police Complaints Commission produced a report on the handling by South Wales Police of complaints against the Lost Prophets singer Ian Watkins. In a nutshell, the IPCC found that over the course of several years the police failed to take complaints and intelligence about Mr Watkins’s seriously. As a result this most unpleasant and dangerous of paedophiles was able to continue his practice of filming, drugging and raping very young children when he could and should have been stopped.
The other news was about a woman called Jemma Beale who was sentenced to 10 years imprisonment for perjury and perverting the course of justice. Ms Beale had falsely claimed to have been raped by a man called Mahad Cassim. He was duly prosecuted, convicted and sentenced to 7 years imprisonment, while Ms Beale collected £11,000 from the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority. She then went on to make false accusations about 14 other men, one of whom fled the country after being charged with participation in a gang rape that never happened.
On the face of it these two cases have very little in common: they appear to demonstrate diametrically opposite faults in policing. In the Watkins case the police were unduly sceptical, and in the Beale case they were unduly credulous.
In fact, in their own ways each case demonstrates an aspect of the same serious problem in the criminal justice system, one which it is often more convenient to ignore. That is the flawed assumption that there is some infallible, or even reliable, means of telling when someone is lying. Academic studies have shown time and time again that the reliable detection of lies based on the demeanour of a witness or suspect is impossible; yet our current criminal justice system depends on maintaining the fiction that juries are able to do just that. Meanwhile, too many police officers seem to be infected with the notion either that all complainants must be believed, or conversely that a copper’s hunch is good enough to weed out the liars; both of which beliefs are likely to produce injustice if they are allowed to influence the conduct of investigations.
Watkins, it is now known, was a man addicted to the most appalling sexual offences against children. He eventually pleaded guilty to attempting to rape and conspiring with others to rape, along with a catalogue of other child sex offences. He received a richly deserved 29 year prison sentence.
After he was sentenced it emerged that the South Wales Police – and other forces too – had information that could have led to Watkins’s discovery and prosecution as early as 2008 (he was not in fact arrested until late 2012). Much of the evidence eventually used against him came from his computers which, astonishingly, contained more data storage capacity than the entire South Wales Police computer network. But it was evidence of a much simpler type that was first presented to the police, and it would not have required them to analyse a single byte of his 27 terabytes to realise that Watkins merited a closer look. It came from his “on/off girlfriend” Joanne Mjadzelics who repeatedly reported to the police that he had drugged and raped young children. In 2009 she even had a message from him on her phone reading:
‘WISHLIST RAPE A 12 YR OLD FUCK TWO UNDERAGE TWINS’.
As the IPCC report drily observes:
“The message corroborated Ms Mjadzelics’ allegations that Watkins had expressed desires to abuse children.”
Other witnesses and anonymous “tip-offs” followed, and they too were ignored.
Why was this information not followed up and investigated?
The answer is not entirely straightforward. The IPCC rejected the idea that Watkins’s “celebrity” status protected him in some way, although a “pre-emptive” phone call from his solicitor, warning the police that Mjadzelics was harassing him may have deterred them to some extent. Nevertheless, the fundamental reason was an assessment made by a single detective in 2008 that Mjadzelics was an untrustworthy witness. She was a sex-worker and a drug user who continued her relationship with Watkins despite knowing of his sexual interest in children. In addition, a member of her family had told the police that she had a history of “fabricating” evidence. As the report put it:
“… [she was] ultimately, not believed because of early assessments about her credibility, based to a significant degree on some early evidence from one of her relatives around her vulnerabilities.”
When more, apparently independent, intelligence reported similar concerns about Watkins, up on the computer screen popped Mjadzelics’s “malicious” complaint. Even when she returned with yet more specific, damning complaints about Watkins, she was ignored again. An email she sent to the police in 2011 could not have been any clearer:
“[Watkins is] raping at least one 5yr old girl on a regular basis and sometimes he doesn’t do it alone, he has at least one female accomplice, and has texted me pictures of him raping her.”
It too was ignored, except to put a note on the computer:
“Mjadzelics has made a number of allegations against IAN WATKINS (30/7/77) a member of the band ‘Lost Prophets’. None of which have been substantiated. They are ex-partners and separated some time ago. Allegations are continuing and officer to be cautious if they are contacted by Mjadezilcs [sic]. Officers to be cautious if contact is received from Mjadezlics [sic].”
Of course the reason that none of the complaints had been substantiated was that none of them had been investigated, and the reason none had been investigated was that at an early stage Mjadzelics had been assumed to be an untrustworthy troublemaker.
One of the officers concerned observed that in his experience “a large percentage of [child abuse] reports are false and at times malicious.” He feared that launching a high-profile investigation on the basis of faulty evidence might damage the reputation of the force. Indeed this might seem an even more understandable concern today, given the Metropolitan Police’s recent embarrassment over Operation Midland and the Wiltshire Police’s still unfinished high profile, high risk investigation of Ted Heath. Nevertheless, for an officer to take it upon himself to declare that a witness is a malicious troublemaker without carrying out the most basic checks on her allegations is just as much a dereliction of duty as to make a public (or for that matter private) declaration that a witness is “credible and true.” To refuse to act on the reports of a witness reporting child abuse because there are many false reports is just as nonsensical as to uncritically accept an allegation of rape because (as is often asserted) “women hardly ever lie about rape.”
And therein lies the link between the two cases because lying about rape is exactly what Jemma Beale did.
Her first and principal victim was Mr Cassim. In November 2010 she accused him of raping her while giving her a lift home. The poor man was first kept in what must have been an agony of anguish until his trial at Isleworth Crown Court in December 2011. Some of the jurors – more than two is all we can say – had their doubts about Beale, so the jury as a whole was “hung,” unable to agree. As is normal in such cases the CPS elected to have another go, and Cassim was convicted at the retrial in January 2012. His seven year sentence equated to the Sentencing Guidelines Council’s “starting point” for a rape with at least one feature indicating “higher culpability.”
One of Beale’s supporting witnesses was her partner, Anuska Pritchard. I haven’t been able to track down exactly what evidence she gave. She was obviously not an eye-witness to the rape – which of course never happened – so it seems most likely that she gave what until a few years ago was known as “recent complaint” evidence. (Under an exception to the general rule against “hearsay” evidence witnesses are sometimes allowed to give evidence of what a complainant said to them about an attack. Originally this was restricted to complaints of a sexual assault made in the immediate aftermath of the incident – hence “recent complaint” – but since the Criminal Justice Act 2003 this requirement has been relaxed). What it means is that the prosecution can, and very often does, call evidence to show that the complainant has told a friend that she has been raped. Sometimes – we don’t know if this happened here – it may be combined with evidence that a “victim” seemed in distress. It is not “independent” evidence because it ultimately comes from the complainant herself, but it is the sort of thing that can help to persuade juries that a complainant is telling the truth.
“I had nursed Jemma through her ‘ordeal’ supported her, cradled her in my arms while she wept … I remembered sitting in the court at the rape trial with Jemma and her family, all huddled together waiting for the verdict to come through. Jemma had been giving Cassim the ‘evils’ while he sat in the dock. She was delighted when he got found guilty.”
Beale put a slightly different spin on her “delight” in a grotesque “victim impact statement,” which was put before the sentencing judge:
“I feel that any sentence he receives will never reflect the life sentence that he gave me.”
All this was an act. About a month after the trial Beale admitted to a disgusted Pritchard that she had made the whole thing up for £11,000 compensation. £11,000 is indeed the figure available from the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority for “non-consensual penile penetration of one or more of vagina, anus or mouth by one attacker.” Bureaucratic language outlining pitiful compensation for a genuine victim, but a useful windfall for a fraudster. We don’t know what she spent it on.
Ms Pritchard says that at this point she told her mother, Sam, who texted Beale the message: “How do you sleep at night knowing that an innocent man is behind bars?” An acrimonious exchange of text messages followed.
Beale’s response was to go back to the police, complaining that she was being harassed. The police took her side, and warned Sam to stop contacting her, threatening her with arrest if she continued. As Sam asked: “I don’t know why the police didn’t even bother to ring me to ask me why I’d sent the texts, they just took Jemma’s word for why I’d done it – just like they took her word about the rapes.”
(As an aside, the complaint of harassment successfully deployed as a means of deterring a legitimate police inquiry carries a faint echo of Ian Watkins’s solicitor’s complaint of harassment against Joanne Mjadzelics when she first went to the police).
Doubtless encouraged by a system in which her lies had brought her money as well as attention and sympathy, Beale waited only six months before repeating her crime. She accused another stranger called Noam Shahzad whom she had met in a Hounslow Pub. She claimed that he had groped her in the pub and had then been part of a gang that raped her in a nearby medical centre car park. Mr Shahzad was charged, indicating that the CPS believed that despite the lack of corroborative DNA or CCTV evidence there was a “reasonable prospect” of securing his conviction. No doubt they were influenced by the apparent corroboration provided by scratches that Beale said she sustained during the assault, which later turned out to have been most likely self-inflicted with wire taken from a hanging basket.
Mr Shahzad took what, with the benefit of hindsight, may have been the sensible precaution of jumping bail; he left the country before facing trial. Had he been convicted she would no doubt have claimed the appropriate compensation, probably the slightly larger sum of £13,500 based on having been raped by multiple attackers, while he would almost certainly have been given a significantly longer sentence than Mr Cassim. All other things being equal, gang rapes attract longer sentences than single person rapes.
Mr Shahzad’s flight did not bring Beale’s offending to an end. Fifteen months later in September 2013 she claimed to have been sexually assaulted by two men near her home. No-one was arrested this time but two months later on 17 November she made her final allegation, again of a gang rape by four men, two of whom she named. They were arrested, but at long last the police started to have serious doubts about Beale’s honesty. The men were not charged, and instead the police turned their attention to Beale. According to the CPS it took the police 6,400 hours of work and cost at least £250,000. At the trial Beale maintained her innocence but was convicted. CCTV evidence, her admissions to Pritchard and medical evidence that she had self-inflicted injuries all corroborated the sworn evidence of the men whom she had accused.
Within the space of four years Beale had claimed to have been seriously sexually assaulted by six men and raped by nine. Every one of those claims was a fabrication.
The full sentencing remarks of HHJ Loraine-Smith have not been published, but much of the comment on the case has focused on his observation that:
“cases such as this bring a real risk that a woman who has been raped or sexually assaulted may not complain to the police for fear of not being believed.”
That may be a risk, although anyone reading the details of the case would probably be more struck by how many times Beale was believed when she was lying. It took two trials and fifteen allegations before the police as a whole seem to have had any real doubts about her reliability. Had she contented herself with a single victim and a mere £11,000, or even 2 victims and a mere £24,500, there seems very little doubt that she would have got away with it.
The CPS statement on the case made a similar point to the judge’s:
“False allegations of sexual assault and rape are rare but, when made, they are serious as they undermine the credibility of genuine victims and the efforts of the CPS and police to see perpetrators brought to justice.”
Leaving on one side the question of whether false allegations are in fact all that rare, it is rather odd to perceive Beale’s behaviour as serious primarily because of the potential effect it might have on notional complainants. The main reason that false allegations are serious is surely a more obvious one: they cause immeasurable damage to real and identifiable people. Mr Cassim was gaoled and Mr Shahzad effectively exiled. Two other men must have been horrified and terrified to be arrested on suspicion of a gang rape. False allegations, just as much as rape or sexual assault, destroy lives.
Something seems very badly wrong here. It would not necessarily be right to blame the police for being too credulous, or for failing to investigate properly. I am well aware that a little knowledge of a case is dangerous, and that making assumptions based partly upon a story in the Sun is very foolish. Nevertheless, this is a terrible case and one hopes that the many questions which spring to mind will be addressed by a proper internal or preferably external inquiry. For example:
Did the police actively look for evidence which might undermine Beale’s initial allegation against Mr Cassim or assist his defence? Did they have in mind their duty set out in paragraph 3.5 of the Code of Practice under the Criminal Procedure and Investigations Act 1996 to “pursue all reasonable lines of inquiry, whether these point towards or away from the suspect”?
When, within weeks of Cassim’s conviction, information was given to the police which suggested that Beale had lied at her trial, what was done to investigate it?
Why, instead of warning Anuska Pritchard’s mother for harassing Beale, did the police not look at her phone which contained potentially relevant exchanges of text messages?
When Beale made the allegation against Shahzad, was it properly investigated? Were officers investigating the Shahzad claim made aware of the Cassim case, and if so were they also made aware of the allegations by Ms Pritchard’s mother that Beale had lied?
When was the CCTV from the medical centre – which the CPS says undermined Beale’s allegation against Shahzad – obtained? If (as one would assume) it was shortly after she made the complaint in 2012, why was she not investigated for perverting the course of justice at that time? Were the police or the CPS too ready to assume that – “because false allegations of rape are rare” – whatever the CCTV might say, she could not possibly have made the whole thing up.
Until questions like these are satisfactorily answered it is difficult to avoid the strong suspicion that even if the case was properly brought at the time, the police closed their minds to the possibility that Mr Cassim and Mr Shahzad might be innocent. It is a mirror-image of the problem demonstrated in the Watkins case: a failure to investigate arising from the assumption that a particular witness must be believed.
The case also raises two specific questions about the prosecution of sex cases. I realise that I’m departing a little from the central point here, but the great advantage of a blog is that I’m allowed to do that, especially when nobody else seems to have asked them.
The first is the issue of anonymity.
Two of the counts of perjury of which Ms Beale was convicted related to her evidence (at the trial and the retrial of the Cassim rape allegation). She had claimed that she would never willingly have had sex with a man because she was exclusively lesbian. In fact, as the CPS statement on the case made clear, after the trial it was discovered that in fact she had had a “sustained sexual relationship” with a boyfriend. Beale must have been emboldened to assert that she “would never willingly have sex with a man” because she knew that she would remain anonymous. Even if he heard about the case, her previous boyfriend would not know that she was involved in it and would therefore be unable to contradict her. Her anonymity thus made it much easier for her to lie, at least about that issue. The unfortunate Mr Cassim, a complete stranger to her, would have had no means of knowing that she had had sex with a man before. What is more, Beale’s subsequent victims would have been in the same state of ignorance if her allegations had ever reached trial.
There are powerful arguments for permitting complainants in sex cases to remain anonymous but, as this case demonstrates, the price paid for that anonymity can be high, and it is paid by the innocent.
Secondly, the case has implications for the woefully misguided campaign headed by Harriet Harman to prohibit the defence, in any circumstances, to cross-examine about a complainant’s “sexual history.”
Even under today’s highly restrictive rules, cross-examination about sexual history requires the permission of the judge. Without being too technical about it, there are numerous hoops through which the defence must jump before a judge can grant such permission. In R. v. B.  Crim.L.R. 910, for example, a case of homosexual rape where consent was in issue, the defendant was refused permission to adduce evidence that a complainant had had previous homosexual experience because the “questions were predicated on the principle that previous consent was evidence of current consent.” That case would probably not cover the situation in which the complainant is herself making a positive assertion that she would never have sex with a man, but even under existing law it is certainly not a foregone conclusion that cross-examination about a previous heterosexual experience would necessarily be allowed.
Now let’s imagine that Harman’s law had been in place at the time of Beale’s trial. Let’s also imagine that somehow the defence had obtained information that she was lying when she said she was exclusively lesbian. In this brave new world the defence would be forbidden by law from challenging this part of her evidence. Even with the ex-boyfriend willing and able to come to court, Harman’s law would have rendered Beale’s perjury unchallengeable. Any attempt to rebut it would be met with the response that the defence were trying to cross-examine about a complainant’s sexual history. There is no universe in which such a trial could possibly be considered fair.
Ultimately, however, the questions of anonymity of complainants and the rules of cross-examination, important though they may be, are mere details. The bigger question is whether juries – or for that matter judges – can safely be entrusted with ruling on guilt in cases which turn largely or mainly on the credibility of complainants, and most particularly of a single complainant. The position in English law is now clear:1
“… it is open to a properly directed jury, unequivocally directed about the dangers and difficulties of doing so, to reach a safe conclusion on the basis of the evidence of a single competent witness, whatever his or her age, and whatever his or her disability.”
With respect to Lord Judge, this attitude is profoundly dangerous. Where a case depends solely on one person’s word against another juries are sometimes being asked to do something impossible: to decide for sure that one person is telling the truth when there is in fact no rational basis enabling them to reach such a conclusion. Supporters of the present system may argue that there are in fact few cases in which there is no evidence other than that of the complainant. To this there are two answers. First, if there are in fact very few such cases then little is lost by amending the law such that uncorroborated “he said / she said” cases can no longer be brought; or at least that they could only be left to juries with a stern warning, perhaps equivalent to that given to juries in identification cases. Secondly, in some of the cases in which one person’s word is pitched against another, apparently corroborative evidence turns out, on examination, to be no such thing. Beale herself, for example, scratched her skin with wire to bolster her own lies.
Until 1994 there was a rule that juries should always be warned in sexual cases that it was dangerous to convict on uncorroborated evidence. It was widely regarded as a pretty incoherent rule, partly because it was restricted to sexual cases, partly because it required the judge almost to invite the jury to see the complainant as a liar and partly because the rules about what evidence “counted” as corroboration eventually became so arcane as to be almost incomprehensible. Nevertheless, the rule encouraged the police to search hard for corroborative evidence (in other words to investigate) and in practice it undoubtedly prevented some weak cases from being put before juries. In Scotland, the requirement that all cases should be corroborated remains a “cornerstone” of the criminal law, despite attempts to abolish it. Supporters of the law sometimes point to English miscarriages of justice as a reason for retaining the rule, although Scottish courts do not have an unblemished record in that respect.
The Watkins and the Beale cases in their own ways should be deeply troubling to the criminal justice system as a whole. Unfortunately, complacency about the excellence of the English and Welsh criminal justice system has for centuries been one of the most characteristic flaws of those who practise in it, and all the indications seem to be that both are regarded as isolated special cases from which no general “lessons” can be learnt. Watkins is safely behind bars – where he should have been years ago. Individual officers may pay the price for not pursuing him earlier. One must hope that lessons really have been learned about why the investigation took so long to get going despite the police being fed with information that could have stopped an evil man in his tracks. At least there has been an inquiry by the IPCC.
As for the Beale case, it seems to have been written off by the CPS and the police as an exception with no general lessons for the way sex cases are prosecuted. It is true that CPS Rape and Serious Sexual Offences units (“RASSOs”) do now operate under legal guidance which stresses the importance of “case building” but this is very much with an emphasis on obtaining convictions as opposed to pursuing impartial investigations. The only lessons learned from the Beale case seem to be the dubious ones that false allegations are “rare” and that uncorroborated cases must still be pursued. I hope I am wrong, but there seems to be no suggestion that there will be any inquiry at all into how Beale – like Watkins – was allowed to continue her offending for so long. “Don’t worry,” seems to be the message, “our justice system may have been utterly useless in detecting Beale’s lies, our juries may have been bamboozled by a greedy, dishonest, amoral cheat, but that doesn’t really matter. Greedy, dishonest, amoral cheats are so rare that that we don’t need to worry that we aren’t much good at spotting them. Let’s carry on assuming that almost all complainants are genuine.” It’s certainly more comfortable to make that assumption.
Sadly, the inconvenient truth is that until the police and CPS recognise that false allegations are not just “rare events” but are real and dangerous problems in the justice system, the lives and liberties of innocent people like Mr Cassim and Mr Shahzad will continue to be sacrificed in pursuit of the guilty. That is not justice: it is institutionalised injustice.