“I didn’t go to the police (in 2003),” said the first complainant testifying in Jian Ghomeshi’s sexual assault trial, “because I didn’t want to deal with this.”
This, she said with a heaving sigh, meaning the meticulous cross-examination before a full courtroom — the part of the trial often cited as what deters sexual assault victims from reporting.
Yet in a statement made after she finished testifying Tuesday afternoon, she said she does not regret her choice to go to the police in 2014.
“I always understood that this process would be difficult, and I remain satisfied that I chose to come forward despite how difficult this process has been,” her lawyer told reporters on her behalf.
“I want to encourage other victims of abuse to come forward and not be afraid. I feel like a weight has been lifted off my shoulders, now that I have had the chance to tell my story openly.”
The statement came after her testimony and the challenge to her credibility and reliability during a closely watched trial that could have the potential to affect the choices of sexual assault victims on whether to engage in the criminal justice system.
It is a burden the complainant seemed keenly aware of on the stand, testifying about her own fear that if she reported the alleged assault to police that she would not be believed, and mentioned the stigma around sexual assault reporting.
“After what she has gone through on the witness stand, it is inspiring that she is still standing and trying to encourage other women to report,” said University of Ottawa law professor Elizabeth Sheehy.
Nicole Pietsch, co-ordinator of the Ontario Coalition of Rape Crisis Centres, said she was impressed by the witness’s message.
“For even someone who gets all those technicalities correct (cross-examination) can be a very jarring process,” she said.
Sexual assault cases are notably challenging because they can rest heavily on the memory of a complainant, who may be, as in this case, testifying about incidents that may have happened more than a decade before.
“It is publicly palatable for the defence to say, ‘If it was important or it really happened you’d remember all the details,’ but that’s not true,” Pietsch said.
She said counsellors often advise sexual assault victims that, even if they are scared or nervous about making mistakes during a police interview, it is OK to say ‘I don’t remember’ if they don’t remember something.
“It is far worse to speculate or say ‘I think it happened…’ — maybe I was wearing extensions — and then you are held to it,” she said. Saying “I don’t know” isn’t necessarily “an indication that what happened wasn’t truthful or it wasn’t important.”
Online, Twitter users were praising the complainant for being willing to go to court. “Spend 5 mins reading live tweets of #Ghomeshi’s lawyer interrogating his victims & then honestly tell me why anyone would lie about rape,” tweeted @JulieS.Lalonde.
“I get why Heinen is doing what she’s doing, but it only shows why so many women never go to the police. You get ripped apart,” wrote @karenkho.
“I can’t imagine the courage of these women testifying against #ghomeshi, having their words instantly live tweeted, blogged, what have you,” @katmurphyxo tweeted.
And, wrote another: “The live tweeting of the #Ghomeshi trial is a clear reminder of why I, like so many other survivors, do not report sexual violence.”