Jian Ghomeshi, Canadian radio star, acquitted in first sexual assault trial

Radio star acquitted of sexual assault
Radio star acquitted of sexual assault

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Story highlights

  • The CBC fired Ghomeshi in 2014 after sexual assault allegations surfaced
  • The Ontario judge says accusers' behavior undermined their allegations

(CNN)Former Canadian radio host Jian Ghomeshi was acquitted of all charges in the first of two sexual assault trials stemming from a barrage of allegations against the prominent media personality.

Ghomeshi, 48, was found not guilty on four counts of sexual assault and one count of choking based on alleged incidents involving three women between 2002 and 2003. In a country where public radio is highly valued and broadcasters enjoy celebrity status, Canadians followed closely as the fallen idol faced charges based on allegations from more than a decade ago.
Ontario Court Justice William Horkins appeared to give little consideration to the amount of time that had passed in evaluating the strength of the women's memories. In a scathing 26-page judgment focusing on inconsistencies in their accounts to the police, the media and the court, Horkins suggested that willful deception was to blame rather than faulty memory, as prosecutors argued.
    After deliberating for more than a month, Horkins announced the judgment Thursday in a Toronto courtroom with Ghomeshi, his family and his supporters present.
    "The harsh reality is that once a witness has been shown to be deceptive and manipulative in giving their evidence, that witness can no longer expect the Court to consider them to be a trusted source of the truth," he said Thursday. "I am forced to conclude that it is impossible for the Court to have sufficient faith in the reliability or sincerity of these complainants. Put simply, the volume of serious deficiencies in the evidence leaves the Court with a reasonable doubt."

    'What message does this send?'

    Protesters rallied outside the downtown Toronto courthouse, also the site of Ghomeshi's eight-day trial in February. Others took to social media to share their disappointment using the hashtag #IBelieveWomen, saying that parts of Horkins' ruling bore traces of victim-blaming.
    "My heart goes out to the women who were brave enough to speak their truth, yet were they heard?" Canadian singer Sarah McLachlan tweeted. "What message does this send to our society about the treatment of women and will women who feel victimized feel safe enough to come forward?"
     
    Ghomeshi was one of the Canadian Broadcasting Company's best-known personalities in 2014 when three women shared allegations of sexual violence in a Toronto Star article. A fourth woman, who worked at CBC, said Ghomeshi told her at work, "I want to hate-f*** you."
    The article detailed the allegations, reporting that the CBC fired him as a result, opening the curtain on what one columnist called "a Canadian sex scandal the likes of which we haven't seen in decades."
    More people came forward with similar claims of physical violence under the pretext of kinky sexual proclivities.
    The first trial focused on allegations from three women whose identities were concealed under Canada's publication ban plus a fourth person, Canadian actress and air force pilot Lucy DeCoutere. The "Trailer Park Boys" actress gave numerous media interviews using her name, waiving her right to Canada's publication ban on her identity, which prevents naming victims of sexual violence, becoming the public face of the trial. (CNN does not name alleged victims of sexual violence unless they come forward publicly.)
    Ghomeshi responded to the Star article in a lengthy Facebook post that has since been deleted. He said he was fired after sharing details of his "private sex life" with his former employers in an effort to head off a smear campaign by "jilted" exes accusing him of nonconsensual kinky activity.
    "Let me be the first to say that my tastes in the bedroom may not be palatable to some folks. They may be strange, enticing, weird, normal, or outright offensive to others," he said. "But that is my private life. That is my personal life. And no one, and certainly no employer, should have dominion over what people do consensually in their private life."
    He filed a $55 million wrongful breach lawsuit that was withdrawn in a binding arbitration agreement. 
    Ghomeshi's sister spoke on his behalf outside the courthouse Thursday.
    "Our hardest burden has been our feeling of helplessness as we have watched him endure a punishment that was delivered not only prior to a verdict, but prior to any semblance of due process for well over a year," she said, according to the CBC.

    'Playing chicken' with the system

    Horkins said the lack of physical evidence made the women's credibility central to the prosecution's case. Ghomeshi's lawyer, Marie Henein, drew out the women's failure to disclose the full extent of their relationship with Ghomeshi before and after the alleged incidents and focused on inconsistencies big and small.
    That the women maintained contact with Ghomeshi after the alleged assaults seemed "out of harmony with the assaultive behavior ascribed to him," Horkins wrote, making it hard for him to accept their evidence "at full value."
    Two sexual assault counts stemmed from allegations by a waitress who said she met Ghomeshi at a 2002 CBC holiday party. She accused him of pulling her hair forcefully while they were kissing in his car a few days later, after a taping of his show. A few weeks later in his home, she said, he pulled her hair and punched her in the head several times while they were kissing.
    In media interviews and statements to police, the woman said she broke off contact with him following the encounters. During the trial, Ghomeshi's lawyer produced flirtatious emails the woman sent him more than a year after the incident, including one with a photograph of her in a red bikini. The woman testified in court that the email and photo were "bait" to draw him in so she could ask why he assaulted her.
    Horkins noted that expectations of how a victim "will or should be expected to behave" should not be based on stereotypes. Yet, he was troubled by her failure to recall with certainty whether she was wearing hair extensions that day in the car, if the kissing and hair pulling were "intertwined." She could also not say for sure whether Ghomeshi smashed her head against the car window.
    All told, he had "no hesitation in saying that the behavior of this complainant is, at the very least, odd," he wrote. "The factual inconsistencies in her evidence cause me to approach her evidence with great skepticism."
    Horkins also heard from DeCoutere, who came forward in October 2014 with allegations from 2003.
    She accused Ghomeshi of choking and slapping her in his home without her consent, leading to the third charge of sexual assault and the charge of overcoming resistance by choking. She told the court that she had no romantic interest in Ghomeshi after the alleged assault, but Ghomeshi's lawyer introduced into evidence an email and handwritten letter indicating romantic interest, Horkins said in his opinion.
    It was also revealed during cross-examination that the two kissed after the alleged assault.
    "It is difficult for me to believe that someone who was choked as part of a sexual assault, would consider kissing sessions with the assailant both before and after the assault not worth mentioning when reporting the matter to the police. I can understand being reluctant to mention it, but I do not understand her thinking that it was not relevant," Horkins said.
    The fourth sexual assault charge was based on allegations from a third woman. She said Ghomeshi squeezed her neck and covered her mouth while they were kissing on a park bench. After the incident, she told police, she went out in public with him a few times but downplayed the relationship. At trial, she testified under cross-examination that she had a consensual sexual encounter with him after the fact and sent him an email months later inviting him for a drink. 
    Horkins borrowed defense attorney Henein's characterization of the behavior as "playing chicken" with the justice system by telling "half the truth for as long as she thought she might get away with it."

    Failure to prove the allegations 'beyond a reasonable doubt'

    Jacob Jesin, a lawyer for the first complainant, read a statement outside the courthouse, according to the Toronto Star. 
    "While my story may not have passed the high legal test for proof, it remains my position that the evidence on the substantive issues is truthful," the woman said.
    "I encourage anyone who is a victim of abuse to come forward, seek assistance and not be afraid of what may happen. While the process is undoubtedly difficult, it is nevertheless worthwhile and empowering. A weight has been lifted off of my shoulders, and I can now move on."
    After her testimony in February, DeCoutere lawyer Gillian Hnatiw said she "maintains her allegations, and remains resolute in her decision to come forward.
    "Lucy wants survivors of violence to know that what they do in the aftermath when they are harmed in no way changes the truth."
    The not-guilty decision does not mean the incidents never happened, Horkins said.
    "I have no hesitation in concluding that the quality of the evidence in this case is incapable of displacing the presumption of innocence. The evidence fails to prove the allegations beyond a reasonable doubt."
    Ghomeshi's next trial, on one assault charge related to another accuser, is scheduled to start in June.