Why Weren’t Sexual Assault Charges Laid in the Case of Rehtaeh Parsons?

The case of the 15-year-old Nova Scotian girl who committed suicide after being allegedly gang-raped, then bullied and taunted with a picture taken during the alleged assault, is coming to its conclusion. And many of the parties involved are walking...

by Sarah Ratchford
Nov 19 2014, 6:49pm

Protesters outside last week's trial. Photo by Hilary Beaumont.

The case surrounding the alleged rape, bullying, and suicide of Nova Scotia teen Rehtaeh Parsons is slowly coming to a convoluted conclusion.

Back in November 2011, Parsons, then 15, was allegedly gang-raped. A picture was taken, in which a boy grins while penetrating her from behind. He is giving the thumbs up. Her head is hanging out of a window, and she's vomiting. The photo circulated around her school. She was bullied so badly that she attempted suicide in April 2013, and died shortly after. She was just 17.

A 20-year-old man pleaded guilty to child pornography charges last week, as he was the one who took the infamous photo. That man was able to walk free and given a conditional discharge, provided that he write an apology letter to the girl's family, and that he takes a sexual harassment course. But that verdict didn't mark the end of the legal proceedings surrounding this tragedy—a teenager is due to appear in a Halifax youth court Monday for a four-day trial.

This new defendant is the boy in the photograph. He also faces child pornography charges: two counts, to be specific, for distributing child pornography.

Neither of the defendants can be named. In a farcical attempt at anonymity, the court decided to "protect" Parsons after she died by enforcing a publication ban even though her story had been widely publicized in a variety of Canadian media outlets (including this one). The ban on using Parsons' name was lifted after significant lobbying from her parents and after the Halifax Chronicle Herald broke the ban. Her attackers are still protected under the Youth Criminal Justice Act.

The question just begging to be asked here is: Why isn't anyone facing sexual assault charges?

I got in touch with Parsons' father to hopefully clear some of this up. Since his daughter's death, he's become a passionate activist working to educate people on sexual assault and violence against women.

"It was rape," he says. "There's no other way to describe what's going on in the picture. [She is] throwing up out a window... she's throwing up, how is she capable of giving consent?"

He speculated that the lenient charges were due to the two being tried in youth court. But it's next to impossible to get answers. The investigation has since been handed to Murray Segal, the former chief prosecutor of Ontario, who is currently conducting a thorough review of the Nova Scotian investigation. Both the police and the province's public prosecution service will be examined. Segal will look at the length of time taken to investigate the case, as well as parameters for investigating child porn, sexual assault allegations, along with cyber sexual assault and bullying. The only hope for more serious charges pertaining to the alleged sexual assault is riding on that review.

Segal told me he can't comment, as the case is before the courts. But in the review, the father sees a glimmer of hope. He says Lena Diab, Nova Scotia's minister of justice, has indicated that once the review is complete, the case could be reopened if Segal believes sexual assault charges should have been laid. "That's kind of what we're waiting for—his review. It's a review of the first police investigation to see how they could have all of this evidence and still fuck this up. It's our last hope to get answers to a lot of questions that we have," he told me.

I spent two days trying to find someone who could tell me whether the father's hopes might come to fruition, or provide context as to why no one was charged with sexual assault in the first place. But those who I reached wouldn't comment, or couldn't as the matter was still before the courts

I eventually was able to speak with Chris Hansen, the director of communications for the Nova Scotia Public Prosecution Service. She told me police were looking at possible child porn charges along with the potential for sexual assault charges during the first investigation, and they came to the service for advice.

"They came and said, 'What do you think?' We said there's no realistic prospect of conviction... There has to be sufficient evidence for realistic prospect of conviction. And there was not.

"Our test for prosecution is two questions. One, is there a realistic prospect based on the evidence? And if yes—is it in the public interest to proceed? In this case, there was no realistic prospect."

So, according to Hansen, there are zero grounds for sexual assault charges. This, presumably, has a lot to do with the photo in question. If Parsons' head is hanging out of the window as all accounts suggest, it would presumably be difficult to verifiably identify her. And, even worse, it's hard to prove that the encounter was not consensual simply based on that photograph.

But Parsons' family alleges that the person who took the picture, who just walked free on child porn charges, also sexually assaulted their daughter. Despite that, he is being directed to take a course on sexual harassment.

To Parsons' father, his punishment doesn't line up: "That sexual harassment course? He didn't sexually harass her. He raped her. It's not like he made rude comments. He actually sexually assaulted her."

The prospect of an apology is not especially appealing, either: "He's just going to apologize for taking a picture, right? We know he did a hell of a lot more than that."

The father hopes the police will change their approach to these cases in the future. His family was told, when Parsons was still alive, the photo was not a police matter, but rather a "community matter." The school board, also, was unable to act. He insists that kind of blasé attitude is dangerous.

"How could you conclude this and say it's not a [police] matter when it was child porn? I don't think that person should be able to make that [kind of decision anymore]," the father told me. "They investigated for a year and a half, and they didn't talk to any of the four of them. What the fuck is that, right? The only person who was investigated in this case was Rehtaeh."

Many are hoping that the current outcry surrounding the father's daughter, Jian Ghomeshi's alleged assaults, and other vicious crimes against women will halt the practice of discrediting survivors. And while the justice system is not, by any means, solely responsible for our culture that passively condones sexual assault, it would be a good place to start when it comes to correcting it.


A previous version of this article had redacted the name of Rehtaeh Parsons due to a publication ban. The article has since been edited to include her name.