By Cara Cullivan
“You’re going to what, exactly?”
In the beginning, it was a bit of a novelty. I had asked several people who’d been called about the process – what’s it like, what do you do, who else is there, how long does it go on for? Free food? Most of those subjected to questioning hadn’t been picked and had pottered off home with the rest of the day off to ponder when they would next be called. I was assured I definitely wouldn’t get picked, it was highly unlikely, citizens are called in excess just in case, there generally aren’t that many trials on in one day etc. Alas, the day I showed up – slightly nervous, slightly fascinated – they’d had a backlog.
The room was full of people of every age shape and form. People reading, people chatting, people tapping their feet and checking their watch periodically and impatiently. It’s like a weird raffle that no one really wants to win. I didn’t get called for the first case. Or the second. But the third, I expected to be rejected as a juror, solicitors can do that, you know?
I expected to be rejected because the case is a sexual assault case. The demographic of the already selected cohort were predominantly middle aged, it was balanced gender wise, they had a few other young people standing in line. I figured I’d be sent back to watch the television in the waiting room where we were kept in suspense by tidbits of each case summarised on screen like some weird CSI trailer. I was not.
We were told to leave any preconceived notions at the door. Any personal opinions, beliefs or ideas, anything that might otherwise impair our judgement and our ability to reach a fair verdict, conclusions drawn only from the evidence provided and the testimony heard. It was much easier said and done.
In the media coverage of the rape trial, in the arguments rolled out by the defence, in the comments section of each article, in pub conversation, overheard on the streets. In deliberation and discussions. Let me tell you, the rhetoric is the same.
The. Exact. Same. I cannot discuss the particulars of the case for obvious reasons. But I can tell you that in every trial, the burden of proof is on the plaintiff. What is also on the plaintiff, is the weight of the warped historic socio-cultural judgement that we are indoctrinated with from day one. We see the same tropes trotted out in films, in advertisements, in conversation.
What were they wearing, how much did they have to drink, who were they with, why were they alone, they like to party, they were sending mixed signals, what if they just regret it, what if they made it up, why don’t they remember, that doesn’t really count as assault, why didn’t they react differently, why didn’t they defend themselves, why didn’t they go to the police sooner, what if they’re lying? Or: “if that had happened to me, I would have reacted differently”.
These type of questions are not trying to unravel the facts of the case, they are not trying to weigh up the evidence presented, they are not helpful. What they are trying to do, is assign blame.
In asking these questions of a plaintiff, in our heads we are already making them responsible for their fate – we focus on their behaviour, we pick apart their appearance, their attitude, and their actions. We place upon them the burden of proof. We add to that our ill-educated and poorly preconceived notions about what sexual assault is, our own personal views, opinions about how and why it happens, and our hypothetical reactions. It doesn’t help that in the Republic of Ireland, the law that governs these cases, that legal definition of sexual assault, was drafted in 1977 and has never been reviewed. Defendants don’t even have to take the stand. Convicted or not convicted, we send the message to perpetrators that what they did wasn’t wrong, that although their actions were harmful, it wasn’t harmful or violent enough to warrant some kind of punishment. There are no consequences. There is no accountability. He said, she said.
The fact that a trial of this nature in Northern Ireland could have recently been made into a media circus, with details broadcast on every social media platform, and lives torn apart by frenzied journalists eager to make a quick buck, is vile. Although the verdict determined no crime had been committed, it cannot be denied that the plaintiff has suffered and will continue to suffer, and be made to suffer, by us.
The reaction to the case, the public outcry, the marches, the donations. We know this needs to change. We need to examine our attitudes, our approaches, our behaviour, and we need to start now. The scrutiny need not be placed on the plaintiff. It needs to be placed on what we are taught in our schools and homes, on how we speak to our friends, on the legal and judicial processes and systems in place and in the way that we consistently fail those seeking justice.
If you’re looking to read more about the state of womanhood in Ireland, why not read Cara’s op-ed on free contraception and Colette’s ode to an all-girl teen punk band from the nineties?