On 23rd March 2020, former First Minister of Scotland, Alex Salmond, was acquitted of thirteen sexual offences made against him. These included two counts of rape and nine counts of sexual assault. Salmond had always refuted the claims. His defence solicitor said that his client could have been “a better man on occasions”, but that he had not broken the law.
The jury concluded that Salmond is not guilty of any crime. Yet, lying squarely between the parameters of guilty and innocent is proof of guilt. If the prosecution cannot prove, beyond reasonable doubt, that someone is guilty, then they must be presumed not guilty. We cannot infer from this verdict that there is a certainty that Salmond is morally innocent of the allegations made against him, either.
That has not stopped people concluding that the nine women who made allegations against Salmond were lying. Yet, it is possible to accept the verdict without discounting the statements of the nine women, for the not guilty verdict merely tells us there was insufficient evidence to convict.
This is often an issue in prosecuting sexual offences. Home office statistics state that more than 98% of people alleged of rape are allowed to go free, with only 1.7% of cases going to prosecution. Why is this?
Trials revolve around evidence. With murder: a body, a weapon, perhaps a witness. With burglary: lost goods and a smashed window. But with sexual offences, evidence that proves beyond reasonable doubt is hard to attain. It is often a case of one word against another. Consent is not a physical object, yet a lack of consent is as damaging as any weapon. Often these trials revolve around text messages and character profiles, which may not be directly linked to the crime itself. There is, perhaps, an element of faith that juries will fill in the gap between the evidence and the allegations with common sense, though this doesn’t hold up as a defensible principle.
It is tragic that sexual offences don’t receive proportionate prosecutions, for the crimes are as egregious, as blameworthy and as damaging as any other crime. Yet it is equally problematic to contemplate a legal system that doesn’t have a high requirement of proof in order to convict.
If women are considered liars should the jury find the suspect not guilty, that is a real problem. It will discourage people from coming forward, allowing even more assaults to go unreported. Society must realise that a justice system without the means to find guilt can’t be used as a measure of moral innocence either, and certainly not as a means of labelling victims liars.
Image: Wikimedia Commons.