It was a verdict that seemingly surprised no one, though it outraged many.
Former CBC host Jian Ghomeshi was acquitted Thursday of all four sexual assault charges against him, as well as one count of overcome resistance by choking.
Ontario Court Judge William Horkins read his bluntly worded judgment at the downtown Toronto courthouse, as dozens of protesters stood outside in freezing temperatures, chanting "We believe survivors."
One woman held a placard that read "A not guilty verdict ≠ violence didn't happen"—something Horkins more or less reiterated in his reasoning.
"Even if you believe the accused is probably guilty or likely guilty, that is not sufficient," he said, while explaining the legal threshold of "reasonable doubt."
The allegations—that Ghomeshi slapped, choked, punched, and violently pulled on the hair of the three complainants—all stemmed from incidents the women said took place between 2002 and 2003. They were reported to police after Ghomeshi, host of radio show Q at the time, was fired from CBC in October 2014 and was accused of assault by at least eight women in a subsequent Toronto Star investigation.
Video via Daily Vice
But under cross-examination, major inconsistencies and omissions made by all three witnesses were revealed. As such, 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 first witness, Horkins said, used an "evolving set of facts" while telling her story, failing to disclose that the alleged hair-pulling and "sensuous kissing" took place at the same time. He said her memory of Ghomeshi's yellow Volkswagen Bug was "simply, and demonstrably, wrong."
"The impossibility of this memory makes one seriously question, what else might be honestly remembered by her and yet actually be equally wrong?"
The email in which she sent Ghomeshi a photo of herself in a bikini, was "completely inconsistent with her assertion that the mere thought of Mr. Ghomeshi traumatized her," but worse, Horkins said, was that she claimed she'd forgotten about it—an explanation he found to be unbelievable—and did not tell police or the court about it until confronted by Ghomeshi's lawyer Marie Henein.
He criticized the "last-minute disclosure of information" made by Lucy DeCoutere, the only witness who waived a publication ban on her name. That information included the fact that DeCoutere and Ghomeshi kissed on his couch after he allegedly choked and slapped her in July 2003. He said DeCoutere's explanation for not mentioning that to the cops or during 19 media interviews because she didn't think it was relevant, while she did comment on things like the temperature of his home, "is difficult for me to believe."
Horkins then ripped into DeCoutere's differing accounts of the sequence of the assault in media interviews, police interviews, and in court. While he conceded that memories could be imperfect after such a long time, he said her story changed many times, each version put forward as "sincere." As for her failure to mention the love letter she wrote Ghomeshi, and correspondences in which she actively sought him out, the judge said it was clear "Ms. DeCoutere very deliberately chose not to be completely honest with the police."
"Let me emphasize strongly, it is the suppression of evidence and the deceptions maintained under oath that drive my concerns with the reliability of this witness," Horkins said, "not necessarily her undetermined motivations for doing so."
The third witness (known as S.D. due to a publication ban) alleged Ghomeshi put his hands and teeth on her neck while they made out in a Toronto park in July 2003.
Days before she was set to testify, she revealed she'd given Ghomeshi a consensual handjob after the alleged assault. Horkins said omitting this when speaking to police amounted to a lie. He then borrowed some words from Henein.
"S.D. was clearly 'playing chicken' with the justice system. She was prepared to tell half the truth for as long as she thought she might get away with it." As for the complainant's explanation that she didn't know how to navigate the legal system, Horkins responded, it's "really quite simple: tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth."
Horkins pointed out similarities between the three witnesses: that they were all "fans" of Ghomeshi to a certain extent, chose to speak to the media before police, and had brief relationships with him that "ended badly."
Without a "smoking gun," he said the Crown's case rested solely on their testimony, which was "less than full, frank, and forthcoming." He also said the 5,000 messages exchanged between DeCoutere and S.D. was a bit of a red flag for the court.
Neither Ghomeshi nor his legal team addressed reporters following the acquittal but they released a statement Thursday evening.
"This has been a very long, exhausting and devastating 16 months for Mr. Ghomeshi. He will take time with his family and close friends to reflect and move forward from what can only be described as a profoundly difficult period in his life," the statement read.
Outside the courthouse, Ghomeshi's sister Jila said the family was "relieved but not surprised" by the decision.
"It can only be surprising by those who rushed to judgment before the trial even started and before a single word of evidence had been heard."
Jacob Jesin, lawyer for the first complainant, read a statement from his client to reporters.
"I was never invested in the outcome of the verdict, for me this journey allowed me to face Mr. Ghomeshi and tell my story publicly for the first time."
The statement said the complainant believes the evidence of the "substantive issues" was truthful, something she was "disappointed" Horkins didn't note in his ruling.
Barb MacQuarrie, community director at Western University's Centre for Research and Education on Violence against Women and Children, told VICE she was "not surprised at all" by the verdict.
Research shows that for every 1,000 sexual assaults in Canada, only 33 are reported to police, and just three lead to convictions.
"Maybe the surprise is that the case got to court at all," said MacQuarrie. (The Crown previously withdrew two sex assault charges.)
She said revelations that came out in court demonstrated a need for better support of sexual assault victims. They should be informed, she said, "the importance of having every little detail out." But she said that in part, the case revealed a failure on the part of the police investigation, not the judge.
"We have an existing framework for deciding guilt, and it's not a good idea to go tearing that down. At the same time, I think we clearly can see how it's not working for sexual assault cases."
Speaking to VICE, legal experts said they did not find fault with the judge's ruling.
"Critics of the verdict have used the wrong case and the wrong complainants to suggest there is some kind of systemic issue or that the criminal justice system is broken," said Michael Lacy a partner at the Toronto-based Criminal Law Group.
"The reality is that, for whatever reason, these women were not truthful, they concealed evidence, and attempted to mislead the court which undermined the whole of their evidence and their credibility at large. If you approach the case on the basis of the presumption of innocence that every person is entitled to, a conviction here would have been the outrage."
Keetha Mercer, manager of violence prevention at the Canadian Women's Foundation, said high-profile cases like this one are "very hard on survivors."
She said it's tough to say whether or not the Ghomeshi trial will discourage victims of sexual assault to come forward, however, it has at the very least sparked discussions on consent and the high incidence of these crimes.
Ghomeshi will face a separate trial for an additional sexual assault charge involving a former CBC employee in June.
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