Sunday Times caption: Connor Fitzgerald served three months in prison on remand for alleged rape; Samuel Armstrong was accused of raping a woman at the Houses of Parliament
A piece in the magazine of the last edition of The Sunday Times:
These men were publicly vilified after being accused of rape — only to have their cases quashed. Whatever happened to innocent until proven guilty, asks Katie Glass
I noticed his hands shook as he spoke. He looked different to how I had expected. More boyish, less confident. But then what should somebody accused of rape look like? He’d suggested we meet for tea in the Delaunay, just off the Strand. He used to come here often, but now he feels self-conscious in the city, nervous about being recognised. The other day in Starbucks the woman making his coffee suddenly realised she knew his face from paparazzi pictures of him walking, head bowed, into court: the man accused of raping a woman at the Houses of Parliament.
For 14 months, during which time he turned 24, Samuel Armstrong stood accused of two counts of rape and two of sexual assault. Then, last December, at Southwark Crown Court, after last-minute evidence was presented that undermined his accuser’s story — evidence that had been withheld from his defence team — all charges were dropped.
His legal case is over, but it is not clear what he has won. “Victims of sexual assault talk about being violated,” he says, “the fact that their autonomy is taken away. One of the things that false allegations do is take autonomy away from accused individuals. Now there is an image of me scarred into the public psyche. I have been robbed of the chance to live a quiet behind-the-scenes life.”
Armstrong’s is one of several recent high-profile rape trials that have collapsed due to the emergence of last-minute evidence — often electronic, from phone and computer records — or evidence not being disclosed correctly by police and the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) to defence teams. The Oxford University student Oliver Mears lived branded as a rapist for two years after a woman accused him of attacking her at a party in July 2015. Days before his case came to trial, evidence from a diary — which had gone unexamined — revealed his innocence. Isaac Itiary, a 25-year-old father, spent four months in prison on remand after being charged with raping a child under 16 last July. He insisted the girl had claimed to be 19. Crucial texts confirming his story emerged only two days before his trial, causing all charges to be dropped. And the criminology student Liam Allen, 22, spent almost two years on bail and was charged with 12 counts of rape and sexual assault. In the opening days of his trial last December, text messages supporting his case came to light.
In January, after these and other trials collapsed, the CPS announced that every rape and serious sexual assault case in the country was under urgent review. Earlier this month, Alison Saunders, director of public prosecutions, announced she would step down in October, at the end of her five-year contract with the CPS.
In rape cases, police and prosecutors are expected to disclose evidence that could assist the defence or undermine the prosecution, but this evidence is not being shared enough or only at the 11th hour. Such failures of disclosure may be the result of insufficient investigations by police and prosecutors, but there are fears they signal a more worrying trend — an unconscious bias by the CPS in cases of sexual assault. Where once the police and criminal justice system were criticised for their treatment of alleged victims — often not believing their stories or subjecting women to heavy-handed cross-examinations about what they had been drinking, how they dressed and previous relationships — now the pendulum has swung the other way.
When Saunders became head of the CPS in 2013, she promoted a focus on female victims. In rape cases where the complainant is known to have been drunk, Saunders put the onus on men to prove explicit consent. She advised prosecutors to examine alleged rapists’ previous sexual behaviour and encouraged women to seek advice from a rape counsellor if they woke up in a man’s bed with no memory of the previous night.
Meanwhile, those accused of such crimes continue to be named, but their accusers remain anonymous.
On Saturday, October 15, 2016, an unnamed woman told police that Samuel Armstrong had raped her the previous night. Three officers handcuffed him on the pavement outside his shared Clapham flat that day, as people watched.
“I just felt a real sense of shame,” he tells me. At Brixton police station a “big group of police officers” watched him strip, took swabs and gave him a grey prison uniform. It was a “wholly dehumanising” experience that left him feeling profoundly alone. By the time he was allowed to call his parents he was “very, very upset. My dad’s in the construction business and we’re not really the sort of family to get emotional. That was probably the first time since I was a teenager we had an emotional conversation.”
Sunday Times caption: Named and shamed: Armstrong was front-page news days after his arrest
We meet again at his family home, in Danbury, Essex, where roads weave through woodland, past fields of sheep and red-brick cottages. Armstrong answers the door in beige jeans, white shirt and pink socks. He has pale-blue eyes, neat hair and awkward, fumblingly English mannerisms. As he says himself, he is geeky and shy. “I’m relatively boring, quiet, reserved.” He is so slight that when he sits on the sofa and crosses his legs, his body folds over itself.
It sounds romantic, the way he recalls that Friday night in 2016. He was working as chief of staff for the South Thanet MP Craig Mackinlay and had gone out in Westminster with friends. Eventually, he says, only he and the woman who would later accuse him of rape were left. They had been out drinking together before. It was “quite a flirtatious relationship”. She would send him late-night messages, “uninitiated, about her bikini wax or Brazilian — I don’t know the difference. It did seem that she was flirting.”
They were drinking a lot, he says. “She bought all the drinks.” He usually paid, but she insisted. In parliament’s Sports and Social Club bar, she suggested shots, buying a round of two tequilas, two amarettos and two double gin and tonics. “So, she was sort of starting off this big drinking session.” After, they stood on the roof terrace listening to Big Ben chime at 10pm. They drank wine with his friends in the Leader of the House of Lords’ suite and when they left he recalls she cheekily slipped a bottle of wine into her handbag, “which I thought was funny”, he smiles. “She was very confident, very outgoing, charismatic … which I was drawn to. I can be quite shy and she was the antithesis of that.”
They walked off arm-in-arm, flirting. Under the eaves of Westminster Hall, they danced. He says she suggested they took the wine to his office, put on some jazz and dance. He also says that, in the past, she had been “forward about talking to me about her sexual conquests”. They began kissing “and then one thing led to another …”
When they parted ways, “it was very friendly”, he says. “I thought maybe this was the beginning of something more permanent between us.” According to Armstrong, they left parliament at 2.05am. He says he stopped to chat to a police officer at the gate, then “ambled off and caught a cab home”. He was in the same clothes when he was arrested at 5.30am on Saturday.
By Tuesday his face was on the front page of The Sun. The headline read: “Rape in parliament.” The local paper followed. “That was really tough. My grandparents live in the village. I didn’t want to leave the house. I locked myself away and didn’t speak to anyone.”
As a condition of his bail he was banned from work. He moved back in with his parents and sat around “feeling sorry for myself”. “There were some people I genuinely thought were my friends and they just didn’t call. It was devastating to think people had my name in mind with people who do …” He trails off.
He used to be proud of the fact he’d gone to university, done well, become the youngest chief of staff in parliament “and all of a sudden what people thought of when they heard my name …” he trails off again. He does not want to say the word rape. “There were times, walking the dog through the woods, I looked at the big long lead and thought, ‘Why don’t you just finish this now?’ ” What kept him going was the need to clear his name.
A month before his trial, Armstrong received the CPS’s bundle of evidence. “It looked really bad.” It included CCTV showing the woman after she’d left Armstrong’s office, running through parliament, distressed. There was a statement from a cleaner, Vincent Ble, who had found her “shaking and crying”. And a police officer’s statement claiming he’d watched Armstrong on CCTV running from the building that night. “I almost did doubt my own memory,” Armstrong says.
There are more than 600 CCTV cameras across the parliamentary estate. The police had been responsible for collecting evidence, the CPS for disclosing it. Armstrong says his lawyer applied between five and 10 times for the CCTV footage, eventually submitting a formal request to the court, forcing the CPS to disclose any material relating to the case.
More than a year after his arrest, and three weeks before his trial, it arrived. The full CCTV footage showed the pair dancing and walking arm-in-arm, just as Armstrong had said. It also showed fuller details of what happened after the accuser left Armstrong’s office: she is captured walking calmly through the parliamentary estate before becoming distressed and starting to run. It was after 2am. Unlike Armstrong, she was not a pass-holder and trespassing in parliament is a criminal offence. Armstrong’s lawyers suggested in court this is what made her nervous. Armstrong believes that the CCTV footage “had been cherry-picked to show things in the strongest possible light for the CPS”.
His lawyers also found that the CPS had initially offered highly redacted versions of text conversations between the pair, which portrayed sexual comments made by Armstrong out of context, making them appear more offensive. Other phone records revealed that, hours after the “attack”, the accuser had tipped off the tabloid press. It emerged that she suffered from various mental-health conditions and had previously made an allegation of assault against someone else that had not been upheld.
Armstrong arrived at court to see a wall of paparazzi, which left him feeling hot and sick. “Everybody was taking photos of me. It was just the most profound sense of shame I’ve ever felt.”
We rarely talk about the sexual humiliation felt by men, but hearing details of his private life revealed in court was, he says, humiliating. One sexual quip revealed during the trial is still repeatedly said to him in Westminster.
It took 14 months for Armstrong to be acquitted. He says the case cost his family £200,000. Without the efforts of his legal team he believes he’d be in prison now. But although he is free, he does not have closure. He is only 24 years old, but worries about future relationships. He wouldn’t use dating apps or send flirtatious texts, which feel “an enormous risk”. He worries what people think of him. “Part of their knowledge of me is these allegations. I worry that in the context of my history things can take on a different meaning than they would do for anyone else.”
He is sympathetic to his accuser, who was “going through a very difficult stage in her life”. He believes she was pressured by the CPS. “She got caught in a system that claims to put victims first, but really puts statistics first. I think there was a culture of ‘We’ll do what it takes to get those statistics up’.” Last year, the highest number of sexual offences to date were reported to the police: 121,187, a rise of 14% on 2016. Convictions in rape cases also rose by 11.2%, a 48% increase since 2007.
Sunday Times caption: Fair hearing: the barrister Mary Aspinall-Miles worries about “unconscious bias”Fair hearing: the barrister Mary Aspinall-Miles worries about “unconscious bias”
Mary Aspinall-Miles, the barrister in Isaac Itiary’s case, is concerned there may now be an unconscious bias by prosecutors working under great pressure. “There’s a constant need to measure their performance by conviction rates. And a public demand for justice to be seen to be done,” she says. “Rape is a word that’s so charged. People don’t even like the feel of it in their mouths.”
She suggests pressure on prosecutors is exacerbated by the emotive nature of sexual assaults, impassioned commentary on social media and a repeated myth that conviction rates in reported rape cases is only 6%. In fact, once rape cases reach court, nearly 60% result in convictions.
Aspinall-Miles worries the police are put in an impossible position. “People have been rightly concerned that in the past they have not dealt adequately with sexual offences,” she notes, but in addressing that, “now they seem to take on board unchallenged a complainant’s account”.
In Itiary’s case, he “was under a tremendous pressure to plead guilty from the outset”. Refused bail, he was held in custody for four months. “As his barrister, I had to explain to his tearful sister that he would be in prison for her wedding,” she says. “The police need to be sensitive, but they have got to remain neutral.”
The UK’s most senior judge is a woman, as is the director-general of the National Crime Agency and the head of the Metropolitan Police. It was two female police officers who interviewed Connor Fitzgerald.
“Females and females — they’re on each other’s side,” he says.
“Even the judge was female,” his brother interjects.
“They get an allegation and you’re guilty straight away,” Fitzgerald continues. “They just assume all men are predators. I feel like the whole episode has been the worst example of toxic feminism.”
In Fitzgerald’s small family home in southeast London, his dad, Brian, his girlfriend, Andrea, his brothers (who do not want to be named), their wives and kids buzz around us. Among them, Fitzgerald is still uncomfortable with being the centre of attention. He is stocky, muscly, but shy and soft-faced. He is 19 years old and has just been released after spending three months in prison on remand after being charged with rape. The day his case came to court he was acquitted when previously undisclosed evidence came to light.
On November 1 last year, two police officers came to Fitzgerald’s house and arrested him. I notice as he tells the story he does not say the word “rape”. “The word itself is nasty, isn’t it?” he says, tensing. “It’s just a nasty thing to put on someone.”
The previous day, an ex-girlfriend had given a statement to police claiming he had raped her. A mobile-phone video from last June showed her and Fitzgerald having sex. She alleged that he had filmed it after the pair had been drinking in a nightclub; she claimed she had been too drunk to consent.
Sunday Times caption: Vital evidence: text exchanges that helped acquit Connor FitzgeraldVital evidence: text exchanges that helped acquit Connor Fitzgerald
Fitzgerald says he was held in the police station for five days. He claims that during one interview a female officer said:“I know you did this. I’m going to get you done for this.”
“She was horrible from the start, she kept saying she was going to make sure I went to prison.” He was refused bail, put on remand and jailed for three months. “When they said I was going to prison, that’s when it hit me,” he says. It was his current girlfriend, Andrea, who accessed his iCloud, retrieving thousands of messages that proved he and his accuser had been in a sexual relationship for several months. The texts also included conversations between the pair after the incident last June. In one, he tells her: “It was soooo good being in bed with you again.” She replies, “Yeah, you f***** me to sleep,” with a string of heart-eyed emojis.
In other texts, she threatens to accuse him of rape and “ruin” his life. His brother repeatedly informed police of the texts. He claims a female officer told him words to the effect of “Don’t tell me how to do my job”.
Fitzgerald was held at High Down prison, in Surrey, from November 6 until January 22. “He was locked up with real criminals, real murderers, real rapists,” his brother says.
“It was very, very hard to deal with,” says his dad. “We knew he was trying to put on a brave face, but we were seeing the pain.” While in prison, Connor lost his job as a BT engineer. He worried about debts, his relationship, his family. “I thought I’d be in prison for 14 years and lose everything. I thought that’s my life gone. By the time I come out, what have I got?”
November passed. Then December. Fitzgerald spent his first Christmas away from his family, “crying all the time”. He grew so depressed, he considered hanging himself. Brian was devastated to learn that his son had been put on suicide watch.
The week before Fitzgerald’s court date, his family received the police’s bundle of evidence. There was no sign of the texts. “They cherry-picked,” says Andrea. “They chose what they wanted for their case.”
When we meet, Fitzgerald has been out of prison for a month. He is having nightmares and is nervous leaving the house. “People have all got their own opinions. Some people think I just got away with it. And some people see the truth.” He’s “paranoid” about the police. If I were falsely arrested, I’d like to believe justice would prevail, I suggest. “Yeah,” he says, “because you’re female, it would.”
“It’s always about the victim, the victim, the victim — but what about the men that are the victims of the lies?” Fitzgerald’s brother says. His wife agrees: “Apparently men can’t be victims any more.”
Connor’s brother is campaigning for the law to be changed so that anyone who falsely alleges sexual assault loses their anonymity. “Women know they have the power to make these allegations and walk away,” he says.
The Metropolitan Police maintains it was right to arrest and charge Fitzgerald based on the information it had at the time, and respects the decision of the CPS to discontinue the case at court. “Our rape investigators conduct some of the most challenging investigations, often dealing with extremely traumatised victims and dangerous, predatory offenders. Our officers are trained to follow the evidence in each case, wherever it may lead.”
Angela Rafferty QC, chairwoman of the Criminal Bar Association, has warned that the police and CPS may show unconscious bias in cases of sexual assault. I asked her why. She highlighted a combination of factors, including the police and CPS lacking resources, so being forced to cut corners, and as a result “the rigorous fairness required becomes compromised”. She worries about “sexual-offence cases where complainants are labelled victims before a trial has even started. But this is not a simple gender issue — women v men — it’s deeper than that. The CPS has taken its eye off the ball on disclosure … miscarriages of justice will occur if this isn’t fixed, and fixed quickly.”
Prior to her announcement that she was standing down, Alison Saunders sent me a statement insisting that “any suggestion that the CPS has unconscious bias in favour of complainants is unfounded … Suspects are innocent until proven guilty in a fair trial.” She said there “is little logic in suggesting we are charging finely balanced cases in order to increase our conviction rate … Our consideration is purely whether there is a realistic prospect of conviction.”
Such words may offer little consolation to men stuck in limbo, acquitted of crimes for which they have not been proved innocent.
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