When the criminal courts let me down, I sought my own justice

By Miss M

Bella Takeover 10-12 April, with Guest Editor Caitlin Logan

Content note: Rape and victim-blaming

Miss M has been widely reported as the person who took a landmark civil case against her rapist and won. What readers don’t know is that behind this landmark case was me, an ordinary eighteen-year-old, desperate to erase the memories of being raped by Stephen Coxen.

I naively thought that wiping the blood-stained fingerprints left behind in my bedroom and showering would erase the fact I had been raped. That sleeping on the couch would take away the memories of what had happened just next door. That moving flats would somehow turn me back to the person I was before I’d been raped, the person I wanted to be. Months went by before I realised that there was nothing I could do to change what had happened, but perhaps I could stop him doing it to someone else.

I soon realised that the only way others would know what Stephen Coxen is capable of was by reporting him to the Police and my case being investigated. If I could prevent someone else experiencing this pain, then it was worth every tear, every deferred exam and all the sleepless nights. Most of the pain was due to frustration, being treated as a “witness” to my own crime by the procurator fiscal and being left without any information. There is some strange comfort in being involved in your own case; I think the rare time that I was involved allowed me to foster some hope that something was being done, that the way I was feeling was for a purpose. In hindsight, I shouldn’t have placed reliance on a system that rarely provides justice to rape survivors.

Initially, I was happy my case got to court. Apparently I was “one of the lucky ones”. But nothing, no counsellor, no matter how good, can prepare a rape victim to take the stand. No advice or court familiarisation can prepare you for what it is like to retell the graphic details of the night you were raped, the details you have tried so desperately to forget. To relive the trauma while the person responsible, the one who inflicted this pain, sits metres away, just across the room.

I thought it couldn’t get any worse, until I was cross-examined. As the cross-examination began, I started to feel ashamed and responsible for what had happened. The defense built up a picture, one where I had drunk too much and it was my fault I was raped. The hours I had spent with a counselor, trying so hard to rebuild my confidence and self-worth, were slowly being destroyed.

For the rest of the trial I was told to wait outside the courtroom – apparently the complainer sitting through her own rape trial gives the “wrong impression” to the jury. I sat each day outside the court, waiting. Beside me in my bag were the revision notes I hadn’t touched for months. I had an exam in a fortnight and I convinced myself that I wasn’t going to let this affect my future anymore. I asked my brother to go into court and hear the evidence. I regret asking this of my brother; it was harrowing when he began to tell me details of my rape that I was unaware of.

A few days passed before he came out of court to explain that my case was now closed, that the witnesses who were going to be cited had given evidence. This was the point when I felt my hope and belief in a process I relied on so heavily start to fade. My surgeon hadn’t given evidence and neither had my doctor. I suffered an injury to my tongue during the rape which required surgery, but my surgeon wasn’t cited to give evidence. If the important and relevant details of my surgery were missed, what else was? I had waited for two years to get to this point and there I was, completely powerless.

The verdict was “not proven”. I had spent the last two years convincing myself that this pain was for a reason, that I would see justice. The courts had failed me but I blamed myself, believing that I had failed society as I hadn’t been able to protect other women from his violence. The nights immediately after I was raped were lonely, but this was nothing in comparison to the isolation I felt when my case was over, the very point when everyone else expected me to be okay. They thought that I could press play again on my life, that I would continue where I left off. But I was no longer the same person whose life had been put on pause. As my friends said in court, I was a shadow of my former self.

The not proven verdict didn’t provide an end to this harrowing process and it certainly didn’t bring closure. It was an insult to the trauma I had been through and to the tenacity I had shown over the last two years. I returned to university and tried to pick myself up, my friends returned to classes, and my family travelled home. I went back to pretending I was okay, but this was far from the truth.

The night terrors of being raped were now being accompanied by the defense counsel calling me a liar in court. Before the trial I at least had hope; I hoped that this nightmare would end, but now it never was. The not proven verdict felt like I had been given a life sentence – a jury should have made a decision: guilty or not guilty. I couldn’t imagine a future and this began to scare me. It felt like I only had two options, to either give up on life or to show the world what happened to me was wrong and against the law.

I chose the latter and spent time working out what the not proven verdict – unique to Scotland – meant. It was explained to me that the not proven verdict meant the jury believed me but there wasn’t enough evidence to convict. This was wrong and it didn’t take long for me, a then 21-year-old, to work this out for myself. The not proven verdict is just a second form of acquittal and is used disproportionately in rape cases.

After months of searching for someone who could help me, I found the Scottish Women’s Rights Centre. I spent over two years preparing my civil case and went through all of the evidence that was missed in my criminal trial. I took the stand for a second time and then sat and listened to every single word of the evidence. The civil case, which has a lower burden of proof than criminal cases, had an additional five expert witnesses who were absent in my criminal case. It doesn’t take a genius to work out my criminal trial wasn’t thoroughly investigated.

As the one who was raped, I was given the opportunity in the civil case to work alongside my legal team. I wasn’t just a witness. I was believed, I was supported, and I felt for the first time in five years that I had control. I had done nothing wrong, and, for the first time, I was not afraid to believe it. When I walked out of the Sheriff Court, I walked out with my family, my friends and the legal team who investigated my case properly. I left knowing that no matter the outcome, my case and all of the evidence had been presented properly.

The Sheriff ruled that I was successful, that Stephen Coxen had raped me, and for the first time, those tears were happy tears. The civil case meant I could have legal representation, it gave me back some control, and it made sure that all the aspects I knew were important were investigated. Stephen Coxen took my control when he raped me and the criminal courts compounded that loss of control. It was nearly five years after being raped that I finally received justice.

The civil process in June 2018 taught me that justice is possible, but you have to fight hard for it. I now look myself in the mirror, knowing that I did absolutely everything I could do to protect other women. I am “one of the lucky ones” who eventually received justice, but it shouldn’t have been this hard. I strongly believe that without legal reform, rape survivors in Scotland cannot rely on the criminal justice system to bring them justice. Now I campaign for the third verdict, not proven, to be abolished in Scotland.

At one point, I questioned what my future with a not proven verdict was, but now it is clear. I will spend the rest of my life fighting for other rape survivors to get justice, just like the Scottish Women’s Rights Centre did for me.

 

Image credit: @Fidjit on behalf of Miss M, to represent her giving evidence on the stand with the St Andrews skyline behind.

 

 

Comments (15)

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  1. CC MI5 says:

    You certainly have a great deal of courage.

    Surely “not proven” satisfies no-one. If a jury can’t decide whether a defendant is guilty or not then the correct course of action is to start all over again with a new trial and a different jury. This is a campaign that deserves support.

    1. Alex Barclay says:

      The not proven verdict stems from the requirement of the law to prove guilt. In my view, a not proven verdict should lead to an automatic appeal and retrial especially when not all witnesses have been called. I am at a loss to understand why the physical injury testimony was not heard. Even in simple assault cases, this is usually a premier item in the proof of any physical interaction.

      Well done to Miss M. I hope her attacker was justly punished for his action.

  2. Clare Galloway says:

    All power and healing to you, Miss M – your voice is so so pivotal in how we rewrite these stories about women, and how we work together to make our world safer for all women. I am so glad that there are women like you blazing trails.

  3. squigglypen says:

    Not one of ‘the lucky ones’..one of the brave ones.All women stand behind her… may she go forward to a great future.
    As for not proven…..archaic…needs to go.

  4. Jane Gladden Kelton says:

    Fair play to you and your courageous actions. Wishing you all the best. Love, healing and solidarity from a reader in nyc.

  5. scrandoonyeah says:

    I would just like to say thank-you

  6. Willie says:

    The Criminal Justice system in Scotland is rotten.

    It’s compromised. It decides who it will prosecute, who it will not, and in other circumstances it’s courts will deliver a result required of them rather than on the merits or otherwise.

    Very much like the democracy the CJS is a sham when it comes to it.

  7. MBC says:

    I am so sorry to hear this distressing story and how long it took you to get justice. But from what you write it is not the third verdict which is at fault but the criminal case which was not investigated properly. Particularly it was you being treated as a witness in the criminal case rather than the plaintiff. I cannot understand why the injury to your tongue was not presented in evidence or why other pieces of evidence were not presented and why as the plaintiff you were not allowed more control over the case against the panel. Not proven does not mean an acquittal, it means there was insufficient evidence to convict. The accused is still accused. They may walk free but they have not established their innocence. A shadow hangs over them. If there are only two verdicts it means that where uncertainty exists there will be two wrong outcomes. Are you happier with that? One will bewhen a guilty person is acquitted; but more often it will be when an innocent person ends up being convicted.

    I am glad that the civil case allowed you to be treated differently and allowed you to present evidence that was left out of the criminal case and that you found justice. But it was the flawed criminal case not the three verdicts which did not deliver justice.

    1. Caitlin Logan says:

      Hi – from my understanding the term plaintiff applies to civil cases but not to criminal cases. In a criminal case the prosecutor does not act on behalf of the “complainer” but rather on behalf of the public, or the state. The person who says the crime happened to them is, quite literally a witness, on equal footing with any other witness.

      Of course there are changes which could and should be made to ensure people in that position are not left feeling that their experience is unimportant and they are being ignored – as you say and as Miss M points out, this could even be vital to the case, as she felt that evidence wasn’t brought which turned out to be very important in the civil case, so it’s to the benefit of the public interest that the prosecution should get all the evidence they can from the victim too.

      That’s all very important and I wrote about this in two articles on CommonSpace where I spoke to other survivors and to organisations advocating for them:

      https://www.commonspace.scot/articles/13140/making-justice-worth-it-domestic-abuse-survivors-say-change-needed-if-victims-are

      https://www.commonspace.scot/articles/13167/court-process-can-cause-much-damage-victims-domestic-abuse-say-women-s-rights

      All that being said, it’s not unusual that the person making the accusation is legally regarded as a witness in the case. This is why organisations like the Scottish Women’s Rights Centre, which offers legal advice and representation to women who have experienced domestic abuse, rape and sexual assault, are so important because it allows people in that situation to have their own representation, which the prosecution does not provide in itself.

      Again I’m not actually a legal expert but this is my understanding of the situation.

    2. Wonder Wasp says:

      MBC. I agree that the case seems to have been heard unfairly, but Miss M’s campaign against “not proven” deserves to succeed because the verdict has resulted in the worst of all worlds for everyone. It tells the participants thus:

      The accused: We know you did it but we can’t prove it, so we are letting you go free. But there will be a stain on your character for ever and you will deserve to be shunned by society even though you have not been found guilty of any crime.

      The police: You can stop investigating now. We know the accused did it and you did your best but it’s all over. Bad luck.

      The victim: Your ordeal in court was futile. You know he did it; we know he did it; everyone knows he did it but justice is not going to be done. All that cross-examination and having to re-live the crime was a waste of your time.

      If this had been a murder case what would be the message to the police? Close the books? Don’t look for anyone else in connection with crime? The reality is that there are no degrees of guilt; either someone is guilty or he is not. “Not proven” is a cop-out, which is why it’s not an option for a jury in the rest of the UK (or anywhere else either to the best of my knowledge.)

      In this particular case Miss M was, understandably, left feeling even more traumatised than before as a consequence of seeing her rapist being allowed to go free. She knows that “not proven” was the wrong result and she is right to campaign for change.

      1. MBC says:

        I think the point made earlier about standards of evidence being harder was valid, and there needing to be a retrial. You may know more about the legal system than me. I take your point that possibly the Not Proven verdict results in lazy trials and that if there were only two verdicts they might try a bit harder with the evidence. There certainly seems to have been a large amount of slop in Miss M’s case. I am astonished that the medical evidence wasn’t called.

        But maybe if they had to try a bit harder with evidence it might result in the procurator fiscal refusing the case? I was held up at knife point once and the fiscal dismissed my case claiming there was not enough evidence for it to be heard.

        But how do you feel about an innocent person being convicted, because the jury had to decide one way or another, so they were pushed to convict somebody? And how about a guilty person about whom there is genuine doubt so they jury lets them off altogether?

        1. Wonder Wasp says:

          Both scenarios are bad, MBC, especially as putting right a miscarriage of justice tends to take years and years, but I do think that Not Proven is even worse, for the reasons given above. It’s actually Justice Being Seen Not To Be Done.

          Miss M’s story, and her campaign, will hopefully create a serious debate on the issue.

          Have a good weekend.

          WW

  8. Anon says:

    Fantastic to see this vital topic being discussed and covered in Bella Caledonia, in the words of a survivor. Really brave writing and necessary reading for all of us to learn the true injustice of our ‘justice’ system. Thank you Miss M for your truly essential efforts.

  9. SleepingDog says:

    It sounds like the adversarial court system contributes to personal attacks on the complainant (exemplified by the defence calling the complainant a liar). Are there alternate investigative judicial systems around the world (or planned) that don’t create this polarization and (presumably unnecessary, painful and non-productive) animosity?

  10. Moira Love says:

    So brave, you are an inspiration to all. Time to get rid of the ‘bastard verdict’ it is cumbersome and a cop out for the jury.

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