The Court of Public Opinion will need no rules of evidence before reaching its verdict on Mason Greenwood

Whilst we will not know for some time whether Mason Greenwood will resume his career with Manchester United, it is now clear that he will not be available for selection for HMP Strangeways next season.

Mr Greenwood – by all accounts an absurdly talented young footballer – had faced charges of attempted rape, ABH and controlling and coercive behaviour. The Crown Prosecution Service announced yesterday that they were discontinuing the prosecution:

“… a combination of the withdrawal of key witnesses and new material that came to light meant there was no longer a realistic prospect of conviction. In these circumstances, we are under a duty to stop the case.”

It is no criticism of the CPS to say that this hardly begins to explain its decision. They are constrained by both the law and by good sense in what they are able to reveal.

Any complainant in a sexual allegation is entitled in law to lifelong anonymity. In this case her identity is an open secret, but the law prevents the CPS – or anyone else – mentioning it. Barristerblogger is not about to break the law.

Pictures of a woman with numerous bruises and blood coming from her mouth, together with a disturbing recording of someone – said to have been Greenwood – demanding sex with an apparently unwilling woman have been widely available on social media for over a year. We have no way of knowing whether they are genuine, misleading or downright malicious.

Of course it is very unusual for people to fabricate evidence in this way, but it does happen. Only last month Eleanor Williams was convicted of making an elaborate series of false rape allegations against a number of innocent men, allegations that she backed up by posting online images of her injuries she had inflicted on herself with a claw hammer. Her claim to have been the victim of an “Asian grooming gang” was revealed to have been an elaborate hoax.

Far more common than malicious allegations are those where complainants change their mind about supporting a prosecution, and this seems to have been the case in Greenwood’s case, though the reasons for the complainant’s change of heart are not known.

The CPS statement refers to “the withdrawal of key witnesses.” There are any number of reasons why complainants no longer wish to give evidence, especially in cases with a domestic element. They may be threatened. Even if not actually threatened, they may be afraid of the consequences if they stand by their account. They may have been bribed. They may fear giving evidence because they have not told the truth, in whole or in part. They may simply wish to put the whole thing behind them and get on with their lives. They may have forgiven their attackers and not want them punished. It is very rare to see a witness statement admitting that a previous statement was false (and making such an admission would immediately invite prosecution for perverting the course of justice), but all criminal lawyers will be very familiar with the “withdrawal statement” which includes the words “everything I have said previously is true but I no longer wish to support the prosecution of Mr X because ….” Abused women, or men, may believe that their partner’s violence was a one-off and decide, often unwisely, to give them another chance

Such decisions are not necessarily irrational. Contrary to popular belief and CPS orthodoxy, academic studies have shown that:

“first offence cases are more likely than not to have zero repeat reports, and very low probability of any serious harm subsequent to the initial report.”

Nevertheless, and for good reasons, the CPS does not always see a complainant’s change of heart as fatal to a prosecution. Indeed, CPS legal guidance is clear:

“The prosecution strategy should, from the outset, consider the possibility of proceeding without the victim’s support.”

Sometimes there is other evidence to prove the case. Witnesses who change their mind once can can do so again. Ultimately they can be compelled to come to court: it is one thing to tell a police officer that they do not wish to support a prosecution, another to stand mute in a witness box or (far more likely these days) at the other end of a video link. Those deemed to be unwilling to tell the truth can be treated as “hostile” and forced to admit that they made the original allegations. But an unwilling witness is often an unpersuasive witness. There is also a real tension between the CPS exercising its public duty to prosecute a potential criminal without further traumatising someone who may have been that very criminal’s victim.

The courts are more ready than they once were to admit out of court statements – typically the original accounts given to the police – that would previously have been inadmissible as “hearsay” unless the witness was willing to face cross-examination. So it is sometimes, though not very often, possible for the statement of a frightened witness to be read to a jury without the witness herself facing questions from the defence. Especially in cases with plenty of supporting evidence that can sometimes enable the CPS to continue a prosecution even with an unwilling witness. But the persuasive value of a witness unwilling to give sworn evidence in court is much reduced.

And sometimes when the CPS decides to prosecute in the teeth of the complainant’s wishes the consequences can be catastrophic, as when TV presenter Caroline Flack took her own life after facing prosecution for assaulting her boyfriend Lewis Burton. Mr Burton had pleaded in vain with the CPS to drop the case. 

The CPS have not revealed whether the withdrawal of the “key witnesses” in Mr Greenwood’s case is something that happened recently or some time ago. There are some reasons to suspect that they continued to prosecute even after “key witnesses” withdrew their support. However, their statement does say that the witness problem was only one of a combination of reasons for dropping the case. The other was that “new material came to light which [together] meant that there was no longer a realistic prospect of conviction.” The statement gives no inkling of what that “new material” might be. Was it something supplied by Mr Greenwood’s defence team or something uncovered by the police? Did this new material fundamentally undermine the whole case, or was it merely a straw on the back of an already creaking camel?

In the language of the CPS the lack of a “realistic prospect of conviction” means that the CPS believes that a “reasonable jury properly directed and acting in accordance with the law” would now be unlikely to convict Mr Greenwood. The court of public opinion is not similarly constrained and it will it reach its own conclusion unencumbered by evidence, law or due process.


A slightly shorter version of this article was originally pubished in The Spectator on 3rd February 2023

Author: Matthew

I have been a barrister for over 25 years, specialising in crime. You may also have come across some of my articles I have written on legal issues for The Times, Standpoint, Daily Telegraph or Criminal Law & Justice Weekly

5 thoughts on “The Court of Public Opinion will need no rules of evidence before reaching its verdict on Mason Greenwood”

  1. It would have been better to make it clearer that the quote from the linked academic studies of first offence cases concerned domestic abuse (seemingly excluding sexual abuse?) and involving “intimate partners” specifically.

  2. The CPS notes:

    > It is a criminal offence to publish a complainant’s identity or any information that might lead to the complainant being identified.

    Isn’t actually naming the accused of rape making it possible to identify the complainant? It seems logical that iften oeople know the accuseds relationships. Has the CPS have potentially broken the law?

    Lots of European countries don’t name people accused or even convicted of this type of crime. Their criminal justice systems seem much more superior.

    I don’t think it it proportionate to name anyone. You can have open justice without naming people. The risks are too high by naming people. For bothe complainant andcthe accused.

    The only advantage is a fishing expedition to encourage others to come forward. Although, that seems a dangerous tactic that can encourafe the possibility of false allegations.

    1. There is something in that, but I don’t thonk the CPS have broken the law. They have just talked about “witnesses.” In this particular case it may be that the law serves very little purpose.

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