A 2013 Government report suggested that only around 15% of women who are sexually attacked in England and Wales report the incident to the police. Other studies have concluded that conviction rates for rape have at times been as low as 5%. These figures are not surprising. A rape trial can be a harrowing experience for the alleged victim and, where there is no physical evidence of force having been used and where both parties accept that sex took place, consent or the lack thereof is impossible to prove conclusively. How do you demonstrate beyond a reasonable doubt that consent was not forthcoming when there were no witnesses and only the words of the alleged perpetrator and victim to go on? In many cases one or both parties will have been under the influence of alcohol, making memories even more hazy and raising the question of whether the alleged victim was too drunk to give consent at all. Even if consent was not established, did the defendant reasonably believe that it had been given? All of these issues were relevant to the Ched Evans case, making it a fascinating process to follow for me, with a background and ongoing interest in the law, but the fact that the defendant is a high-profile sportsman gave the trials a huge public profile and brought out the worst in many observers, so many of whom had little interest in the facts.
Opinions were polarised from the very early stages of the case. What has most disturbing is that there appeared to be a rampant desire to convict Evans or vilify the alleged victim with little regard for the truth of what happened that night. On social media extreme standpoints appeared to be taken based purely on pre-conceived prejudices and positions. This was clear from the moment some Sheffield United fans immediately jumped to their player’s aid, denouncing the alleged victim in the most horrific ways simply because Evans was good at football and played for their club. Many of those without club loyalties seemed to split into two camps, where their positions became entrenched. In their minds there was a clarity about the events of that fateful night that was not present in the court room itself.
For one group Evans’ movements and actions demonstrated everything that was wrong with young, wealthy footballers, who supposedly view women as pieces of meat, to be used, abused and discarded. This, therefore, immediately became a test case for such attitudes and if he were to be found guilty it would provide conclusive damnation of the whole rotten state of affairs. His original conviction was treated as such in many quarters. There is no doubt that Evans’ behaviour that night was morally dubious and was indeed damning of the way that some men treat the opposite sex. In a cab after a night out he received a text from friend and fellow footballer Clayton McDonald to say that he ‘had a girl’. Evans had a long term girlfriend and, regardless, most men in that situation would respond with a triumphant emoji and continue on their way. Not here. Evans redirected the cab to McDonald’s hotel, lied to get a key to the room, entered, had sex with the heavily inebriated girl without uttering a word to her, exiting via a fire escape. Evans himself has admitted that his actions that night were unequivocally morally wrong. He did indeed treat the girl as a ‘piece of meat’, to be used and discarded, all while his girlfriend sat at home. The problem in this case is that none of this automatically passed the threshold for rape, as much as many felt certain it should. Only a deep understanding of what happened immediately after Evans entered that hotel room could provide clarity in the greyest of grey areas.
Evans was not a rapist just because those with a noble cause wanted and needed him to be to prove their hypothesis about young footballers and misogynistic culture. A girl can be drunk and be used by one or more men for sex but give legal consent to what took place. Whether this was the case here was never clear cut and, as two trials demonstrated, this was such a grey area that the outcome could be decided by fine margins. Perhaps the most unsatisfactory thing about the footballer’s retrial is that we still have no idea on what grounds the jury acquitted. They could have believed that he was entirely innocent or, alternatively, that in all likelihood he was guilty of rape but that they did not believe this had been demonstrated beyond a reasonable doubt. This fact will keep the polarised parties at war for some time yet.
At the opposite end of the spectrum of views on the case is an altogether more malevolent force. Since the first trial began the alleged victim has been subjected to vilification, successful attempts to identify her and persecution. Those not overwhelmed by club tribalism but convinced that this was another girl attempting to ruin the life of a privileged, famous young man, made their voices heard online from very early on. After the verdict of Evans’ retrial was read on Friday the scale of the hatred for the alleged victim on social media was shocking. She was a ‘slut’, a ‘whore’, a young women who made malicious accusations for the ‘limelight’ or to financially profit. Scores of people on my Twitter timeline, men and women, called for her to be prosecuted for making ‘false accusations’. The extent of the ignorance for the facts of the case was staggering.
Most appeared unaware that the girl did not at any point make a claim of rape against Ched Evans or anyone else. Having woken up in a strange hotel room without a clue how she got there, she went home and told her friends that the night was a mystery. Concerned that she may have been drugged, her mates convinced her to go to the police. She had no clue that she had had sex with any man, let alone two and did not know the identities of those involved. It was the police who investigated her whereabouts that night that discovered, from the players themselves and a member of the hotel staff, who had been in that room and what had taken place. It was the CPS who drove the case and the alleged victim’s standpoint never changed. She could not accuse Evans and McDonald of rape because she had no recollection of anything that took place. It was the contention of the prosecution that she had been too drunk to consent. In addition, by law she had to remain anonymous and could gain neither from fame or fortune and has shown no inclination to attempt to do so. Perhaps the most ignorant attitude is that the fact that Evans was found not guilty immediately meant that she had lied and should face prosecution herself for perjury. That a rape case is not proven beyond a reasonable doubt does not make the accuser a liar. Such suggestions are particularly preposterous in this case because the girl’s testimony was that she could not remember anything that happened that night. She made no accusations that could be false. All that she could come away from the whole affair with was to have experienced two traumatic trials and the ruination of her life. She was vilified from very early on, and ongoing attempts were made to destroy her character and reputation, most notably by the backers of a website set up to aid Evans’ defence. She has received threats and abuse, all for having the bravery to go to court and tell what she considered to be the truth. At its worst, the case can only have served as a deterrent to young women who feel they have been the victim of sexual assault to come forward and report the alleged crime. This will have been exaggerated by the fact that during the retrial the girl’s sexual history was analysed in depth, something which is usually prohibited in rape trials, but which was correctly allowed here where the issue of consent was was key. It is no wonder that so few women report that they have been raped.
The Evans case was fascinating from a legal perspective but deeply troubling from a social standpoint. It demonstrated how desperate to damn and shame high profile individuals many people are if it furthers their cause, and also how desperate others are to protect them regardless of the seriousness of the alleged offences. The whole affair was treated by some as a football match, with outcomes to be celebrated without thought to the real life consequences of the events of that night or the ongoing trauma it creates for both parties. There seemed to be a rabid desire to declare a ‘winner’, to justify preconceived standpoints and to prove broad attitudes towards footballers, young women who have sex with them and general beliefs about the way many men treat women.
What has been most disturbing is that most of these attitudes were divorced from the facts of the case, and it has been clear that many of those who passed the harshest judgements had not been following proceedings at all. There were no winners here. Both Evans and the alleged victim have suffered greatly for the events of that night. Most frustratingly we will never know exactly what transpired in that hotel room. The prosecutions resulting from it will not end with Evans’ acquittal. Those who shared the identity of the girl online now face court action themselves, but that will not make up for the damage this whole affair has done. It can only have served to further dissuade sexual assault victims from reporting the crime and has further exposed the malevolence and ignorance lurking within so many members of the public. Perhaps some good may come from it however, if it persuades some men to have more cautious attitudes towards drunken sex with inebriated strangers, when issues of consent are blurred, the woman potentially open to exploitation, conscious or otherwise, and the man to accusations that consent was not given. This was a compelling case which raised some important legal and moral issues, but both Ched Evans and the girl the law now says he did not rape have suffered greatly as a result. Sadly far too many casual observers emerge with little credit either. Every criminal prosecution is unique and should be assessed in isolation. Sadly, outside the court room, this case was dominated by lazy generalisations and malice, all because the accused was a footballer. Had he been an accountant most would not have cared a jot, for the defendant or his alleged victim.