As a former legal advocate for the Seattle City Attorney’s Battered Women’s Project (BWP), I spent countless hours in courtrooms. The ongoing debate about the sexual assault trial of Jian Ghomeshi, his attorney, the complainants, the judge, the Peter Mansbridge interview, etc., has prompted me to reflect on the role I once played in helping prosecutors ( or the Crown, in Canadian terminology) put perpetrators of domestic violence behind bars.
The first known battered women’s shelter in the US opened in 1973, in St. Paul, Minnesota. Canada’s first centre for abused women and children — Interval House — also opened that year, in Toronto.
In response to the rising battered women’s shelter movement, Seattle officials launched, in 1978, an investigative unit specifically for the prosecution of domestic violence cases. I was among a group of four paid (non-lawyer) staffers who helped survivors prepare for the trial of their assailants — a process that took, on average, four to six weeks.
My duties included: reviewing domestic violence-related police reports (all of which were delivered to the BWP office), conducting interviews with survivors, photographing their injuries, securing medical records, preparing sentencing recommendations for prosecutors, and accompanying survivors to court.
Most of the BWP cases were adjudicated by bench (or judge) trial. The conviction rate was about 83% and resulted in sentences that usually included a mix of jail time, counselling, financial restitution and a “No Contact Order” — the breach of which immediately subjected the convicted assailant to arrest.
The passage of nearly four decades has not dimmed my memory of some of the files that I handled. Purportedly distraught by the Falkland Islands war (!), a Seattle assailant shoved his girlfriend down a steep flight of stairs. Another defendant, enraged by his wife’s refusal to rise, at 2 a.m., and help him clean out the aquarium, broke her nose. Yet another, upset by his partner’s decision to end their relationship, methodically sliced off her clothes with a butcher’s knife. The woman managed to escape and ran out of the house naked. Alarmed neighbours phoned the police.
After three years on the job, I’d reached my limit of bearing witness to such profound distortions of “love.” I quit and moved to New York City to begin journalism school. While there, I wrote a book — Chain Chain Change: For Black Women in Abusive Relationships — which details the complex dynamics of domestic violence, especially as it is experienced by survivors of African descent.
As for complexities, media reports revealed that the Crown was cold-cocked by evidence that the defence unveiled at the Ghomeshi trial. It seems to me that the complainants would have benefited from the array of free support services that bolstered the morale of the abused women that I acccompanied to court.
That said, I’m mindful that sexual assaults are reported and prosecuted at far lower rates than are incidents of domestic violence. I’m encouraged by the impassioned debate that the Ghomeshi trial has generated and hope that the national inquiry on missing and murdered aboriginal women will help eradicate the gender biases that still rage throughout Canadian society.
On that note, here’s a message to the multitudes of men who refuse to confront their demons: Take a singed page from Wab Kinew and make an effort to walk worthy.
This brings me to the Peter Mansbridge “interview” with Marie Henein. Along with the many already reported problems with the exchange, I was surprised that the purported “dean” of Canadian journalism failed to question Ghomeshi’s attorney about the relative merits/risks of trials by judge or jury, in sexual assault cases. Given the controversy surrounding the ruling of Justice William Horkins, I would have found it helpful to learn a bit about the factors involved in the judge/jury selection process.
Instead, I was left dumbstruck by Mansbridge’s absurd “Facebook Post-A-Rama.” And so, I posed the question to University of Ottawa Law Professor Constance Backhouse, the author of (among other works) Carnal Crimes: Sexual Assault Law in Canada, 1900-1975 and a woman rightly hailed as one of the top legal minds in North America.
Indeed, Backhouse led the external review of the Dalhousie University Dental School scandal. The well-wrought final report on misogyny, sexism and homophobia at the school bears her surname.
Here’s her response (abbreviated) on the judge/jury matter: “The right to a jury depends on a number of things that relate to criminal procedure rules — a complex morass. … How does one decide which is better? Different lawyers will offer different strategies. Some think judges are best for complex technical evidence. Others want a jury because they think the jurors will get confused, toss their hands in the air, and just vote guilty or not guilty.
She continued: “… Obviously, defence and Crown try to get judges/juries based on who they think will offer them the best chance of the result they seek. All of this is hunch-based, and no one really knows. … So … it’s all over the place. … In the past years, there has been a definite reduction in the number of criminal jury trials. They take time and cost money, and the thrust has been to make the criminal justice system more efficient.”
As for Henein? Her deft handling of Mansbridge ranks high on what I’ve come to call the “Oops Upside Your Head” Barry White (no relation) genre of interviews. In a masterful 1999 display on National Public Radio, the “Maestro of Love” schooled vaunted US interviewer Terry Gross, making plain what many have long decried as her obvious flaws behind the microphone.
I’ve now watched the CBC “exclusive” several times and my verdict remains the same. In less than 20 minutes, Marie Henein showed viewers exactly why Peter Mansbridge should make his way to the exit door.
Or as the Maestro might have put it, she stepped hard: “First, Last, Everything.”
The author of Alice Walker: A Life, Evelyn C. White is a freelance journalist in Halifax.