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The Law Adjourns And Rapist Win

A judge has guaranteed a miscarriage of natural law by postponing a slate of trials, putting them into the never-never of the 2005 legal calendar. Not all these trials may come to pass. Not all the victims may cope with being tormented for so long. There are limits to their endurance of callousness.
"My daughter has had enough," the mother of one of the victims told me last week. Her daughter was gang-raped more than two years ago. "She was ready to go to court and her case was put back to next year. Now she doesn't want to do it. She's started a job and she wants to get on with her life ... You wonder why you go through it all. What's the point? It's very slow and very insensitive. The girls can't heal. Our whole life has revolved around this. Her mental state is fragile and she's said she won't wait any more."
We can't talk about these cases because a suppression order has been ordered into effect, a misguided step which the victims and their families regard as another act of legal bastardry. The courts don't like public scrutiny of such things.
However, I can share one important fact: the victims in these cases are disgusted. They feel they have been left at the bottom of the barrel. Again. In rape cases, justice delayed is justice denied because it prolongs the trauma of those waiting to confront, and be confronted by, their tormenters.
But it gets worse. At least one of the victims will have to testify twice, in separate trials, for the same gang rape. Clearly, the judges don't know or don't care about what happened in the last high-profile gang-rape trial, when Justice Brian Sully insisted on two trials for the same crime, one of several grotesqueries in his handling of the case.
Allow me to acquaint Justice Sully and his cohorts with the human consequences of this decision: "Having two trials put a huge amount of stress on my daughter," the mother of one of the two victims in this earlier double trial told me last week. "She was traumatised. She was psychologically damaged.
"My daughter was always strong and willing to go to court, and she just managed to get through the first trial. But the second trial had a big impact on her. On the second or third day of the trial, she couldn't get out of bed. She was sick. You could see the stress on her body. She'd had enough. We tried to get her out of bed. She wouldn't. Then the detective came to get us. She was still in bed. Tony [Detective Tony Adams] had to go into the house and plead and coax her to get up and go to the trial. It took a while. We were late for court that day."
This is what happens in the real world, as distinct from the stylised, censored world of the courtroom.
"I don't think the judges think of the victims when they make these decisions to hold separate trials," this mother told me. "They don't think about the victims when they have retrials because of some technicality, or allow appeal after appeal. I was told last Friday that the rapists in our case were going to appeal against the appeal. It's sickening. It's damaging. When is my daughter going to be free of this? The legal system has a lot to answer for."And her daughter was one of the few winners in our system of rape roulette.
The statistics are horrific. There were 9223 "recorded criminal incidents" of various sexual offences in NSW in the year ending September 2004, according to the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research. That's just the tip. Another 3352 calls were made to the Rape Crisis Centre in a year. The scholarly consensus is that only between 15 and 20 per cent of sexual assaults are reported, which means the real rate is between 50,000 and 60,000 incidents a year.
Most crime categories have declined in recent years. Sex-related offences have not. Most formal complaints of sexual offences do not result in formal investigations. Most investigations do not lead to trials. Most trials do not lead to convictions. There were about 247 convictions in the latest year recorded, a rate of 2.6 per cent per formal complaints. Given the reported number of sexual crimes is a fraction of the real number, about 199 of every 200 incidents do not result in a conviction. And don't let the high-profile long sentences for gang rape, such as the 40-year sentence handed out on Friday, distract from the real numbers.
These statistics create anger among those who have to live with them, like Dr Maria Nittis, one of only four forensic physicians in NSW specialising in sexual crimes. "It is hard to know where to start, or how to even encapsulate, my frustration at the system of sexual assault care in NSW," Dr Nittis told me. "We remain in the dark ages. The figures show that crime rates have dropped across NSW in almost every crime category, except sexual assault. This remains one of NSW's few reliable growth areas. Less crime would be committed if there were greater chances of being caught. This has been borne out in the dramatic decrease in car rebirthing in NSW. But do we treat sexual assault as a crime? The answer would have to be no.
"There are doctors on the South Coast who attend to after-hours sexual assault victims for no cost. Why? Because there is no money to pay them."
In NSW there are only four doctors who work on a permanent basis in sexual assault, and two of them are part-time. Now the Department of Health wants to fund training for sexual assault nurse examiners."
Dr Nittis is unimpressed. Physicians are far more formidable expert witness under cross-examination than nurses. She is also deflated that the bureaucracy is blocking a forensic advance in the field of sexual assault, the photo-documentation of genital injuries. The department wants to ban even the voluntary option of such photography, despite the higher level of proof in a legal field dominated by forensics.
The statistics speak for themselves. So does the turmoil of families of rape victims who have come forward to testify. We will continue to live in the sunshine state for sexual predators unless and until there are significant reforms in the way evidence is admitted, victims are treated, juries are informed, and judges are appointed.

http://www.smh.com.au (29-11-2004)
Paul Sheehan

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