Former Canadian Radio Star Jian Ghomeshi Acquitted of All Charges in Sex Assault Trial

The former CBC host was charged with four counts of sexual assault and one count of overcoming resistance by choking after three women accused him of hitting them, pulling their hair, and strangling them until they couldn't breathe.
March 24, 2016, 3:25pm
Chris Young/The Canadian Press

A judge has found famed Canadian media personality Jian Ghomeshi not guilty of sexually assaulting three women, prompting dramatic protests outside the courthouse, and posts on social media using the hashtag #WeBelieveSurvivors.

In the high-profile case that gripped Canadians, the former CBC host was charged with four counts of sexual assault and one count of overcoming resistance by choking after three women accused him of hitting them, pulling their hair, and strangling them until they couldn't breathe. But on Thursday morning he was acquitted on all counts.

"This has been a very long, exhausting and devastating 16 months for Mr. Ghomeshi," read a statement released by his legal team, and quoted by the CBC. "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."

Justice William Horkins handed down the widely-expected decision in a packed downtown Toronto courtroom.

Taking more than an hour to run through his reasons, the judge picked apart the complainants' testimony, saying their faulty recollection, and their behavior following the alleged assaults, which included continuing to associate with Ghomeshi, undermined their credibility and was "tainted by outright deception." He said one of the women deliberately misled the court by withholding information, while another woman he accused of "playing chicken with the justice system."

"Navigating the system is quite simple: you tell the truth, whole truth, nothing but truth," he said. The judge stressed to the court that the presumption of innocence is a important tenant of Canada's judicial system. Thinking that someone is "probably" guilty is not enough, he added.

"I find Mr. Ghomeshi not guilty on all of these charges."

Reacting to Horkins' decision, the first witness to testify in the trial said the judge had no knowledge of how memory works or how women behave after sexual assault, according to Chatelaine.

"I am disappointed in how he presented his judgement. I was insulted. I never thought he would be convicted but this was an insult to women," she said.

After the courtroom emptied, a protester unfurled a banner in front of the courthouse doors that read, "A not guilty verdict [does not equal] violence didn't happen."

As Crown lawyer Michael Callaghan began speaking to media, a topless demonstrator from the activist group FEMEN launched herself into the media scrum, yelling, and was tackled by court security.

In the hours following the ruling, two websites launched, vaguely attributed to two of the witnesses in the high-profile trial, but with no names attached. Both witnesses names are protected by publication bans.

Horkins: Beyond a reasonable doubt is not an imaginary or frivilous doubt, must not be based on sympathy or prejudice

— Hilary Beaumont (@HilaryBeaumont)March 24, 2016

Horkins: Even is you believe the accused is probably guilty, that's not sufficient.

— Hilary Beaumont (@HilaryBeaumont)March 24, 2016

Horkins: They said they wanted to 'sink the prick' because 'he's a fucking piece of shit'

— Hilary Beaumont (@HilaryBeaumont)March 24, 2016

Protected from a crush of media by court security, Jian Ghomeshi's sister Jila read a statement from a piece of paper, saying they were "relieved but not surprised" by the court's decision.

"It can only be surprising to those who rushed to judgement before the trial even started and before a single word of evidence had been heard. While many people have analyzed this trial and the events leading up to it in symbolic terms, what we want to say today is deeply personal," she said.

"We are not speaking as, for or against women, but as members of a close family. Jian is not a symbol to us but a beloved brother and son," she said.

"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 asked for "privacy and dignity to slowly heal."

Horkins says he must consider the 'false' presumption that sexual assault complainants are in fact always truthful — Hilary Beaumont (@HilaryBeaumont)March 24, 2016

H: It is impossible for the court to have faith in the complainants, leaves him with a reasonable doubt

— Hilary Beaumont (@HilaryBeaumont)March 24, 2016

Ghomeshi faced upwards of a life sentence in prison for the choking charge, and 18 months in jail for a summary conviction of sexual assault.

As he had for much of the trial, Ghomeshi wore a dark blue suit and fiddled with his pen as he waited with his defense attorney Marie Henein for the judge to enter the courtroom. At times he leaned back in his chair, appearing relaxed.

The trial saw moments of high tension, as one by one Crown prosecutors led the women through their testimony, and one by one Ghomeshi's defense attorney questioned their credibility and called them liars.

The first witness, who couldn't be named due to a publication ban, testified that on one occasion in December 2002, Ghomeshi pulled her hair without her consent, and another time in January 2003, he hit her head with what she thought was a closed fist until her ears rang and she thought she would faint.

The second witness, Canadian actress Lucy DeCoutere, who waived her publication ban, testified that after they kissed at his home in July 2003, he grabbed her by the throat, cutting off her breathing and slapped her three times.

Protest outside the courthouse where the Ghomeshi verdict was rendered. (Photo by Hilary Beaumont/VICE News)

And the third witness, whose name is also protected by a ban, told the court that in July 2003, she and Ghomeshi were consensually kissing when he suddenly squeezed her neck and smothered her mouth with his hand until she couldn't breathe.

Ghomeshi's lawyer Marie Henein used emails, letters, texts, media reports and police interviews to poke holes in the witnesses' stories, and raised the question of whether two of the witnesses had colluded against her client.

In her closing arguments, Henein said the witnesses' statements were not reliable or credible, and questioned whether the Crown had proven the assaults happened beyond a reasonable doubt. "It is our respectful submission that Mr. Ghomeshi is not guilty and that he's entitled to an acquittal on all counts," Henein told the judge.

The sexual assault case took Canada's largest city by storm when accusations were first levied at Ghomeshi in 2014.

The CBC fired Ghomeshi in October 2014 after executives said they had viewed "graphic evidence" he had physically harmed a woman. Days after he was fired, the Toronto Star published explosive reports in which eight women told stories of how he beat, choked and harassed them.

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

The story and subsequent media attention provoked a national conversation about sexual assault and harassment. Following the intense scrutiny on Ghomeshi and the CBC, where some of the allegations took place, then-Toronto Police Chief Bill Blair asked victims to come forward to police. "We are quite prepared to conduct a criminal investigation should they come forward with complaints," he said.

In November 2014, Ghomeshi was charged with four counts of sexual assault and one count of overcoming resistance by choking. In January, three more charges of sexual assault followed, but last May the Crown dropped two sexual assault charges, admitting there was no prospect of conviction.

'Give someone $100 bucks, first person to kick him in the nuts,' observer says as he leaves the courthouse — Hilary Beaumont (@HilaryBeaumont)March 24, 2016

Jian's sister Jila makes statement that his family is not anti-women, and they ask for privacy at this time — Hilary Beaumont (@HilaryBeaumont)March 24, 2016

Chants of 'we believe survivors' heard from crowd outside courthouse. Outside doors: — Hilary Beaumont (@HilaryBeaumont)March 24, 2016

Ghomeshi chose a judge-only trial over being tried by a jury of his peers. He did not take the stand as the Canadian criminal justice system does not compel a defendant to do so.

So far, dozens of allegations of assault and harassment have been levied against Ghomeshi in the media, but only four of his accusers have made it to court.

Thursday was not the last time Ghomeshi is expected to see a courtroom. He is also charged with sexually assaulting a woman at CBC in 2008. That trial is scheduled for June.

Follow Hilary Beaumont on Twitter: @HilaryBeaumont

Ghomeshi verdict-March 24, 2016