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Canadians Are Watching This Sexual Assault Trial Like It's a Real-Life Episode of 'Law & Order'

In 2014, former broadcaster Jian Ghomeshi fell from grace as women come forward en masse with stories that he pulled their hair, punched them in the head and strangled them without warning.
February 12, 2016, 1:00am
Jian Ghomeshi and his lawyer, Marie Henein (photo by Chris Young/The Canadian Press)

"Police told you to tell the truth the whole truth and nothing but the truth," the lawyer grilled a witness in court.

The woman on the stand had accused a Canadian media celebrity of sexual assault, but failed to tell police that she given him a hand job later, on another occasion.

"You lied," the lawyer hammered. "I omitted," the witness conceded.

That scene, one of many dramatic moments in a high-profile sex assault case that has gripped Canadians, came up again Thursday, as the trial of disgraced broadcaster Jian Ghomeshi drew to a close.

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In her final statements to the judge Thursday, defense lawyer Marie Henein referred to the witness's admission on the stand. "Maybe that happens on TV," Henein said, but in these courts, "that is a rare event."

It may not be television, but for two weeks now, observers in the courtroom and two additional overflow rooms have hung on Henein's every word as she defended the former radio and TV personality.

In 2014, Ghomeshi fell from grace as women come forward en masse with stories that he pulled their hair, punched them in the head and strangled them without warning. Police pressed charges and things looked dire for the former star.

But Ghomeshi was vigorously defended by his composed and ruthless lawyer Henein who ripped holes in his accusers' stories, calling them liars.

One day last week, she left the courthouse audience, and the legions following the trial on Twitter, in suspense. And when the next day came, she delivered, revealing a letter from the second witness, Lucy DeCoutere, who accused Ghomeshi of pushing her up against a wall, choking her and slapping her three times.

"You kicked my ass last night and that makes me want to fuck your brains out tonight," she wrote to him.

Related: This Canadian Sex Assault Trial May Tackle the Question of Where BDSM Turns Into Assault

"I don't know what I was thinking," DeCoutere said on the stand when confronted with the letter. "This letter exists, I forgot about it. I guess I wanted to forget about it."

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She said she never consented to the violence, and they never had sex. "Women can be assaulted by someone and still have positive feelings for them afterwards," she told the court.

The trial comes at a time when Serial, and Making a Murderer have transfixed audiences in Canada and the United States — and the way the Ghomeshi trial has been viewed has been troubling for some.

As a live feed of the trial played on a screen in the overflow room, a man burst out in applause after one of Henein's jabs, and several murmurs of disbelief could be heard after the witness answered the defense lawyer on cross-examination.

Two men who attended the trial told VICE News they drove three hours, round trip, just to see Henein's famed cross-examination.

"It's better than Law & Order," one man said last week in the overflow room as the trial adjourned for the day.

Others condemned some of those reactions.

"It's completely inappropriate, it's not a TV show," a criminal lawyer, who also attended court specifically to see Henein in action, told VICE News.

Ghomeshi could be guilty, or he could be a victim of false allegations, or it could be a mix of the two, he explained. "Either one is tragic. In a criminal trial, there's almost never a time to be applauding or treating it as if it's not a solemn event."

Related: Court Hears How Canadian Broadcaster Jian Ghomeshi, a 'Perfect Gentleman,' Beat Women

A writer, director and producer on scripted Canadian TV show Sex & Violence had a different take.

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Thom Fitzgerald looks at news stories, case studies and first hand experiences as inspiration for his show. He's also close friends with DeCoutere, who he has known since the 1990s and who plays a grief counsellor on Sex & Violence.

"I pay attention [to the trial] because I support my friend, but there are also times I tune the news out because it's upsetting to hear," he wrote to VICE News in an email. "The trial isn't entertainment to friends and families of the witnesses or of the defendant."

Knowing DeCoutere, Fitzgerald explained why he thought she wrote, "You kicked my ass last night and that makes me want to fuck your brains out tonight." It's "so clearly a joke, that's her dark humor," he said.

"But the courtroom doesn't make room for sarcasm. The nightly news doesn't have time to build a three-dimensional character of each witness."

Society has grown up on "ripped-from-the-headlines" shows like Law & Order and Criminal Minds, not to mention the round the clock coverage of the OJ Simpson case, so "it's not surprising people view trials as entertainment," said Fitzgerald.

In her final words to the judge, Henein said, "It is our respectful submission that Mr. Ghomeshi is not guilty and that he's entitled to an acquittal on all counts."

The judge has promised a verdict on March 24.

Follow Hilary Beaumont on Twitter: @hilarybeaumont