Saturday, April 27, 2013

Rewriting Christie Blatchford on Rehtaeh Parsons

Much of my professional life has involved critiquing things, from creative projects to strategic proposals, as well as a fair amount of applied and academic research. I think it's easy to tear something apart, but what's hard is making something better. I recall reading somewhere that this is Will Ferrell's approach to collaborating.
What to do with a bad piece of journalism that was most likely written to create controversy? Well, I could badmouth the writer (or Postmedia), but plenty have done that already. I could take potshots undermining the work, which I suppose I did a bit of, along with many others on Twitter. I thought I'd try something new and take a wild stab at...a rewrite. What follows is what I would have changed if I was co-authoring or editing  Christie Blatchford's piece on Rehtaeh Parsons. My objective was to create something that really was what her piece purported to be—a level-headed analysis of why things went down the way they did.
I freely admit this does violence to Blatchford's scorched earth style and taking out her piss and vinegar makes this a fairly boring read, albeit far more r-e-s-p-o-n-s-i-b-l-e. Some may think I'm being too wishy washy and may be bordering on an apologist for the implicated. That's fair, but the objective was to create a much more even-keeled piece. Some of the below doesn't reflect my personal views or interpretations, but I'm open to discussing that. I retitled the piece. Christie didn't come up with the original title, Postmedia did. I tried to keep my rewrite factual and not go into conjecture by sticking to what is known and emphasizing what isn't known. That was hard, since if you deconstruct Blatchford's piece, she was mistaking witness accounts as indisputable facts. I also chose not to use any photos of Rehteah.
This post is meant to be a critique for the purpose of enhancing journalism and furthering public debate on various matters Blatchford's piece brings up. The source is cited immediately below.
Blatchford, Christie. "Christie Blatchford: Why There May Never Be a Case against the Alleged Rehtaeh Parsons rapists." National Post. Postmedia, 26 Apr. 2013. Web. 27 Apr. 2013. 

Why there may never be a case against the alleged Rehtaeh Parsons rapists

The Court of Public Opinion & the Accusation of Rape

Christie Blatchford (with edits by Kenneth M. Kambara)

It was a dog’s breakfast cock-up of a file – with the singular feature, almost unheard of in a sexual assault complaint, of an independent witness of unknown credibility – that led police and prosecutors to conclude they couldn’t charge anyone in the Rehtaeh Parsons case.
With information from sources close to the investigation, Postmedia has learned that much of the accepted gospel about the case – teenager is gang-raped, humiliated by the circulation of a cruel picture of the assault, then abandoned by the justice system and driven to suicide — is may be incomplete. We can only hope the reopened investigation sheds light on this tragic story and that due process is adhered to.
This woeful tale in the Maritimes was punctuated with the 17-year-old attempted to hang herself in the bathroom of her mother Leah Parsons’ home in the Halifax suburb of Cole Harbour on April 4.
Rehtaeh suffered lethal brain damage and three days later was removed from life support.
The story didn't end there. Her mother turned to Facebook on April 8, the day after her daughter’s death.
“Rehtaeh is gone today because of the four boys that thought that raping a 15-year-old girl was OK and to distribute a photo to ruin her spirit and reputation would be fun,” Ms. Parsons wrote in part.
She also decried the “bullying and messaging that never let up” and declared flatly that “the justice system failed her.”
Proving the modern maxim that she who gets to social media first may set the script in stone, The post ignited a firestorm by being in the centre of a perfect storm. Specifically, a frustration with what appeared to be yet another example of rape culture gone wild, the tragic outcome of a young person being dead, and a perception of injustice in that the alleged perpetrator(s) may well get away with it. This has shades of the Trayvon Martin incident, in which there was alleged racist motives of an implicated aggressor, a dead young man, and a possible vigilante on the verge of avoiding prosecution. 
The Facebook page about Rehtaeh went viral; the hacker group Anonymous soon was threatening to out the alleged rapists by name, bullying causing the Nova Scotia Justice Minister Ross Landry “to take immediate legal action" reversing his previous position and condemning police and prosecutors as incompetent, and the Justice for Rehtaeh online petition was well on its way to acquiring the more than 450,000 signatures it now has.
Just Thursday — completing an about-face that saw him first defend, then throw question investigators and Crown attorneys under the bus by ordering a review of their decisions as public pressure mounted – Mr. Landry announced the formation of a new “cyber-investigative unit” and promised legislative changes under a new provincial Cyber-Safety Act. Shades of Trayvon Martin, indeed, but can we conclude that that instance of public outcry or this one involving Rehtaeh Parsons is categorically good or bad?
The announcement came one day after Rehtaeh’s mother and father Glen Canning travelled to Ottawa for a special meeting with Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
The parents, and Nova Scotia Premier Darrell Dexter, who also met with Mr. Harper, are pushing for Criminal Code changes that would outlaw so-called “revenge porn.”
But Postmedia sources may bring up potential problems point to huge problems with the case, that, if true, could made make it virtually impossible to take to court, chiefly the an allegation of shifting accounts from Rehtaeh herself and possible independent evidence, including retrieved online messages, that supported the suggestion the sex that took place was consensual. It is too early to tell with an ongoing investigation whether these issues undermine a rape case or exonerate the "accused," none of whom have been arrested or face any charges at this time, I should add. They are accused only in the sense of being tried in the court of public opinion.
Even The notorious cell phone picture, first sent by one of the alleged assailants and re-circulated thereafter, shows virtually nothing that would stand up in court. on its own. While this may have influenced the prosecution, in light of political heat from the Justice Minister and public outrage, we are faced with the possibilities of justice for a crime that was going unpunished, overzealous prosecution using Crown resources in their determined quest for a conviction, or something in between.
The photo is of a male naked from the waist down, giving a thumbs-up sign, pressing into the bare behind of another person who is leaning out a window.
What the picture doesn’t reveal, however, is a recognizable face, if there even was a sexual assault going on, or if the second person was a female. While this may explain why the Crown elected not to prosecute, with the added heat and pressure of the notoriety of the case, one of the partygoers who saw what happened may come forward and testify regarding who did what and the court would have to decide their credibility.
Rehtaeh was just 15 when, on the night of Nov. 12, 2011, she went to a party with a girlfriend and was allegedly sexually assaulted by three or four boys (the reported number varies).
It was only a week later, after the picture surfaced and made the rounds at her high school, that police were first called by Ms. Parsons.
In her original statement to police, Rehtaeh identified the boy in the picture and herself as the second person, said she had had a lot to drink very quickly, and that she had sex with two of the four boys present at the house.

When she leaned out the window to be sick, she told police, one of them assaulted her.
She remembered almost nothing else.
The girlfriend of Rehtaeh’s who was at the party told police Rehtaeh was being flirtatious, even egging the boys on.
The friend said she was in and out of the bedroom where Rehtaeh had disappeared, and that at one point saw Rehtaeh on the bed with the two boys, naked and laughing.
The friend tried to get her to leave with her, but Rehtaeh wouldn’t.
The friend was furious  – she had a crush on one of the two boys and had asked Rehtaeh to stay away from him. So, while a witness to the party casts aspersions on Rehtaeh's actions, these statements in and of themselves are mute on the issue of consent. The girlfriend's crush calls into question her credibility as a witness, as the lens through which she saw Rehtaeh's actions may be skewed.
But she was still a good girlfriend: She later returned to the house with her mother, and again tried to persuade Rehtaeh to leave, to no avail. 
Only in a second statement to police about two weeks later did Rehtaeh say for the first time that she had told the two boys “No” and tried to get them off her.
About everything else, her memory remained virtually non-existent. This shouldn't be surprising given the alcohol consumption and the fact that she blacked out.
Add to all this conversations police know were told Rehtaeh had with friends the day after the party, which revealed a young woman filled with regret for what she portrayed as consensual sex with two boys and who was now afraid her friends would think her “a slut.” With the case reopened, it will be interesting to see if these supposed conversations paint a picture of a young woman's regret or a hostile posse preying on a victim.
Not until the picture surfaced and Rehtaeh told her mother about it did she start talking about pressing charges.
“How many people was it?” one friend asked.
“Three I think,” Rehtaeh told her.
The case was handled by a joint Halifax Regional Police/RCMP sex assault team, the lead investigator a woman.
It took almost a year for the police to bring the case to a senior Crown attorney within the province’s Public Prosecution Service (PPS). Also a woman, she is an experienced sex assault prosecutor.
While in a few provinces, Crown attorneys have to approve charges, Nova Scotia isn’t one of them, though police often ask for legal advice.
(These two arms of the province’s justice system have different legal standards to meet. For police, it’s what’s called RPG, or reasonable and probable grounds, to lay a charge. For prosecutors, it’s “a realistic prospect of conviction” in court.)
Essentially, what police ask is, “Do I have a case here?”
The prosecutor “looked at it really thoroughly,” PPS spokesperson Chris Hansen told Postmedia in a telephone interview Thursday. “She concluded there was no realistic prospect of conviction.”
The officer then turned her mind to a possible child-pornography charge, so the prosecutor referred her to a colleague, one of two PPS specialists in cyber crime, particularly as it relates to child pornography.
“He looked at it carefully as well,” Ms. Hansen said, and also concluded the case had no realistic chance of conviction.
Given the public outcry, the justice system itself is on trial for better or worse, with politicians second guessing the previous decisions about prosecuting and calling for a review of the case. Perhaps before we weigh in on whether the case was mishandled, we should wait for the results of the review and gauge them accordingly.
On April 12, Halifax RCMP announced that “in light of new and credible information,” they were re-opening the investigation. Spokesman Corporal Scott MacRae said at the time the information didn’t come “from an online source” and that the person is willing to “work with police.’’
But the original police and prosecutors didn’t have that.
Nevertheless, the outcome of the social media furore and Anonymous' involvement is that the policies and procedures in Nova Scotia are being investigated. While it looked like there was no case, was this due to a flaw in the system?
What they had was a One view is the case consisted of a complainant whose evidence was all over the map, independent evidence that supported the notion that any sex was consensual, and no evidence that Rehtaeh was so drunk that she couldn’t consent: The case was a mess. Nevertheless, it will be interesting to see if alternative views of case hold water. Was the case botched, was it properly handled with an adequate system in place, or was it representative of a circumstance where the system may be allowing criminal cases to fall through the cracks?
But the names of four boys are online anyway – one a boy who wasn’t even at the party and who went public to defend himself last week. What can and should we do to prevent more collateral damage to innocent bystanders as well as the rights of those implicated? Shouldn't we be concerned about the implications of pushing young people over the edge in the social media court of public opinion, regardless of their guilt or innocence?
And when family and friends of the alleged rapists put up posters reminding Haligonians “There are two sides to every story” and begging them to “Listen before you judge,” the posters were quickly ripped down, the families excoriatedWhile those being implicated in the rape are being scrutinized in the community, again, nobody has been arrested or even charged with a crime. Realistically speaking, there's a lot of incentive for the supporters of the Parsons family to get Rehtaeh's side of the story out there and a lot of incentive for the implicated to have the story to go away. After all, who really wants to trumpet to a community a tale of "consensual group sex" at an unsupervised alcohol fueled party?
But there are two sides, even to this wrenching tale. There may be more. Perhaps before we start shaming the victim or fingerpointing at the accused, we need to wait to see what the reopened rape investigation yields and the findings of the review of how the case was handled.
The changes underway in Nova Scotia and on the horizon in Ottawa might be necessary; they might be good. They might even help prevent the sort of harm that was done to Rehtaeh: God knows, social media is so vicious it might be better called anti-social media. Yet, like fire, social media can be used for good, as well as harm.
But it isn’t so simple, what happened to her. It isn’t so clear that Whether she was abused, let alone by two boys or three or four, let alone or by the justice system is now in the hands of the authorities, as it should, which, interestingly is what Anonymous wanted all along.

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