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‘Start by believing’ backfired on rape victims in the U.K. Some senators want to impose it here.

Beware the upcoming VAWA reauthorization

There’s a general rule I’ve learned in journalism: The more pure the cause is perceived, the less scrutiny the media apply.

It particularly holds with any group that fights sexual victimization, whether against children, college students or women in general. Back when online child exploitation was the latest fear, I was politely arguing with the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children about some dodgy statistics it was sharing. I don’t think these folks – welcomed in every Capitol Hill office with no questions – were used to being questioned.

And when the media do not show informed skepticism of these groups, you get results like the United Kingdom’s recent scandal around botched rape prosecutions.

The main problem with our cross-Atlantic siblings, as always, is that Americans want to copy everything they do, for better or worse.

‘Unconscious bias’ against defendants

You may associate the “Start by Believing” movement with campus Title IX offices, but it was actually the underlying assumption in criminal prosecutions by the Crown Prosecution Service in England and Wales until recently.

Four rape cases collapsed in two months because police failed to disclose evidence, and they sound an awful lot like the botched Title IX proceedings we come across regularly in U.S. litigation.

It started late last year when judges threw out cases against two men because police had excluded thousands of messages taken from the accusers’ phones from either prosecution or defense, claiming they were “irrelevant,” according to the Independent.

In one of those cases, the purported 14-year-old accuser had told the accused she was 19, and in another, the “alleged victim had told friends she wanted and enjoyed sex she later reported as rape.”

Guess what a defense lawyer identifies as the main problem here:

Police are legally obliged to examine evidence from all participants in a case, whether it supports or hinders prosecution, and pass it on to lawyers on both sides.

Angela Rafferty QC, chair of the Criminal Bar Association, previously suggested that unconscious bias was among the factors driving a “crisis in the system”.

“We fear unconscious bias stops the police and the CPS impartially and thoroughly investigating and scrutinising complaints in sexual offence cases,” she said.

The fake investigations continued with a case against an Oxford University student who halted his education for two years waiting for a trial that was canceled days before it started. Why?

Appearing at Guildford Crown Court to explain prosecutors’ actions, barrister Sarah Lindop said they had been awaiting information from the complainant’s diary, sensitive information relating to her and evidence from seized electronic devices.

“In light of the new information the prosecution no longer had a realistic prospect of success,” she added.

Days before that one, another dropped case on the verge of trial involving a man who could be deported: Police had withheld photos of his accuser “cuddling and smiling” with him in bed, the man who supposedly was holding her against her will.

Sorry we weren’t being real investigators

These very public botches have led to a wholesale review of rape cases by the Crown Prosecution Service and warnings by its head of prosecutions, Alison Saunders, that more cases may be scrapped.

It won’t surprise you to learn that Saunders is leaving her post when her contract expires later this year. Here’s how Spectator columnist Rod Liddle summarized her tenure:

Not merely incompetent, but possessed of an evangelistic liberal zeal that sought to turn justice on its head. Under Saunders there was little room for that tired old shibboleth, innocent until proven guilty. In rape cases the defendant was required to prove that he had obtained consent from the supposed victim, and furthermore obtained it being entirely confident that the supposed victim was not drunk, or out of her box on narcotics, or perhaps merely distracted by worrying about whether or not she’d left the oven on at home. …

She subscribed to the view that the conviction rate for rape was too low, an opinion shared by the liberal media, and especially the BBC. But then, the conviction rates will be low if half of the cases brought by the Crown Prosecution Service — of which Saunders is the head — are patently flawed, the police enjoined to believe what they are told by the ‘victim’ almost without query, and sometimes ignoring evidence that clearly disproves the claim.

Metropolitan Police Commissioner Cressida Dick has now taken the humiliating step of promising that its investigators will act like investigators when they evaluate sexual assault claims:

Ms Dick said that in the past the police have been criticised for “not being open minded enough and sympathetic enough” to victims of sexual offences.

She said it was “very important” to encourage people to tell their story and she wants to go on “raising the confidence” of victims.

However, she added: “But actually our job is not all about victims. Our job in investigations is to be fair, to be impartial and when appropriate to bring things to justice.

“And, of course, to support victims. But it isn’t ALL about victims.”

It’s actually not your job to “support” anyone, but I’ll take this as baby steps.

‘If misuse of funds cannot be raised,’ there’s no chance for due process 

This matters in the U.S. because our government is already moving in this direction with the upcoming reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act, with scrutiny of the law’s more questionable assumptions and results being largely ignored on a bipartisan basis.

Contrarian feminist Wendy McElroy called a recent Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on reauthorization a “lovefest” for the law, dominated by its powerful boosters.

She wrote in The Hill that the Independent Women’s Forum has found “little credible evidence” the law is “reducing the effects and occurrence” of violence against women, but has found evidence it’s “backfiring” in the form of increasing “intimate partner homicides” in states that have implemented “mandatory arrest policies.” The government’s own watchdog has also found that “nearly all” issued VAWA grant money was violating grant requirements.

One of the law’s biggest critics, the Coalition to End Domestic Violence, was blocked from testifying by Republican Chairman Chuck Grassley, according to McElroy:

Objections and questions about the act are met with a backlash that demonizes the source as anti-victim or rape apologists. The accusations silence some critics and marginalize those who continue to speak out. They do not speak at official procedures, however.

No wonder more substantial issues were not raised at the Senate hearing. A CEDV observer lamented, “[T]here was no mention, even in passing, of the fundamental concepts of due process, constitutional protections, or the presumption of innocence, on campus or beyond.” If misuse of funds cannot be raised, truly controversial issue, like due process for those accused, do not stand a chance.

Fittingly, some senators are now moving beyond bothering to respond to questionable effectiveness and grant accountability, and deciding the law’s real problem is it’s not tilted enough against those accused of violence.

Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a former prosecutor in the accused-equals-guilt mold of Alison Saunders, touted her Abby Honold Act for inclusion in the reauthorized VAWA at the March 20 hearing.

The bill was introduced right before Christmas with cosponsor Republican Sen. John Cornyn, and it essentially funds the “junk science” that Atlantic writer Emily Yoffe exposed late last year.

Klobuchar brands her bill as a “demonstration program for trauma-informed training for law enforcement” that covers both interview and investigation techniques – the same skewed assumptions that doomed U.K. police.

She said it’s necessary “to avoid victim re-traumatization” by law enforcement: “It’s a pretty simple concept.”

So is endangering scores of rape prosecutions because you ordered police to “start by believing” rather than “start by investigating.”

IMAGE: Christopher Halloran/Shutterstock

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About the Author
Associate Editor
Greg Piper served as associate editor of The College Fix from 2014 to 2021.