Op-Ed: The lessons of the Michael Le Vell case

Posted Sep 11, 2013 by Alexander Baron
The rape trial of the soap actor Michael Le Vell is the latest in a long line of child sexual abuse prosecutions that should never have happened.
Michael Le Vell (Michael Robert Turner) as Kevin Webster.
Michael Le Vell (Michael Robert Turner) as Kevin Webster.
Beacon Radio
In October 2011, the soap actor Michael Le Vell was arrested on suspicion of raping a young girl. Less than two months later, the case was dropped, and that should have been the end of the matter. In spite of the typically snide innuendo of the CPS that there was "insufficient evidence", it should have been clear to all involved that this was a case that should never have been brought.
Like all sex cases and especially child sex cases, this one was shrouded in anonymity, although the very dearth of particularity in its reporting provides the evidence the Sexual Offences (Amendment) Act 1992 seeks to withhold. In total, Michael Le Vell faced twelve charges for offences that were said to have taken place over a period of some nine years.
The ITV documentary The Other Side Of Jimmy Savile that was screened last year triggered a massive police investigation into allegations of the sexual abuse of underage girls by celebrities; not only did the Le Vell case predate this, it is in no way comparable.
In her closing speech, Eleanor Laws QC said the alleged victim in the Le Vell case had no reason to lie. This is a powerful argument; in some cases people can be honestly mistaken, a witness who misidentifies an assailant for example, but in this case there was no room for honest misidentification, which implies either the girl was lying, or Mr Le Vell was. There was and remains a third option though, the girl could have been telling the truth as she remembered it, even though no rape ever happened. How can this be?
Ask any time serving criminal solicitor or experienced detective about allegations of sexual impropriety that have no basis in fact, and you will be told of the fantasist or delusional person - not necessarily and only a female - who claims to have been raped or otherwise assaulted, but there is absolutely no evidence to support it, and bundles that indicate nothing happened.
It is likely though that the child witness in the Michael Le Vell case was not making it up or fantasising as he claimed in the witness box, but confabulating. What is most disturbing about this case is that neither the Crown with its vast army of overpaid lawyers nor the defence appears to have considered this very real possibility. Old Hag Syndrome is a recognised and now fairly long established and understood phenomenon. Some medications can also affect a person's perception and cause strange dreams, as of course can some recreational drugs, as countless millions of Westerners discovered in the 1960s, some, like the tragic Syd Barrett, to their cost. And let's not mention common or garden alcohol.
When the girl's mother testified that she believed her daughter, she was quite likely telling the truth, because these kind of false memories are so extremely convincing they can even fool professionals.
A classic depiction of Old Hag Syndrome. It may also manifest  in this modern age  as alien abductio...
A classic depiction of Old Hag Syndrome. It may also manifest, in this modern age, as alien abductions, or as terrifyingly real hallucinations of rape.
Hexendrücken or The Witch Riding your Back
It has to be said that in a way, Mr Le Vell was lucky; from the limited information revealed it is clear that he did himself no favours in the way he testified. He came across as bellicose, even arrogant, a bit like the knuckle dragging mechanic he has played in the soap opera Coronation Street since 1983. A street where life and art are mirror images. Only three months ago another of its (transient) characters stood trial for and was acquitted of sexual offences. And that after being wrongly acquitted of rape in the soap itself before being murdered by his own mother!
The prosecution tried also to make much out of Michael Le Vell's "dark secrets". This is the sort of expression that can hang a man, but most of us will say something that 5 years, 5 months or 5 days from now can be twisted out of context by a mendacious lawyer or police officer into meaning something totally sinister. It is worth digressing a bit here.
On November 30, 1989, boxing promoter Frank Warren was gunned down in East London. When former undefeated World Light Welterweight Champion Terry Marsh stood trial for attempted murder, he declined to take the stand. The reason is not hard to seek; there had been bad blood and harsh words between the two for some time; if Marsh had said something like "I'll shoot the bastard one day", what would an experienced QC have made of that? Even worse, what would a jury have made of it?
At his trial, Michael Le Vell went into the witness box and did the only thing he could: deny, deny, deny. A blank denial may sound bland when faced with a plethora of minutely detailed allegations, but what else can an innocent man do?
Fortunately, the jury appears not simply to have given him the benefit of the doubt, but to have believed him. If he had stood trial in the US, it might have been a different story, because it is customary much of the time for an accused not to take the stand, however weak or however strong the evidence against him may appear.
The problem of assessing the evidence in a case like this is far from easy; it may sound incredible, even unbelievable, but sometimes the unbelievable can be true, as in the case of the Cleveland captives and many others. Fortunately the jury was able to distinguish between evidence and allegations; at the very least it seems unlikely that the scale of abuse alleged against a child would have resulted in no physical damage. What physical evidence there was appeared to indicate not simply that the "victim" had not been raped but that she had never experienced consensual sex. This is compelling evidence that the non-victim was not lying but was in fact sincere but wrong. Think about it, if she had really wanted to frame Mr Le Vell for rape, wouldn't losing her virginity have been an obvious step to take? How difficult is that for any young woman in modern Britain? Normally all it takes is to approach the right individual and ask him a two word question.
There is another aspect of this and similar cases that needs to be considered, it is not necessary for witnesses to testify from behind a screen; the only purpose of that is to coerce the jury into thinking what a terrible person is the accused, so terrible that his victim is terrified of him, therefore he must be guilty.
So what lessons if any have been learned from this case? On the plus side, the police made a thorough investigation, as they did in the Hollie Greig case, which is still being peddled by the faithful as a massive conspiracy involving and covered up for and by the high and mighty in Scotland. In that case, so many wild allegations were made against so many people on no evidence that it couldn't run, but the same could be said after a fashion in the McMartin pre-school case.
At the very least, before a case of this nature is allowed to proceed, there should be an examination of the accuser by competent professionals. It remains to be seen if anyone in the CPS is au fait with the work of Elizabeth Loftus, or with the mischief caused by therapists with their gibberish about repressed memories, phased disclosure and other psychobabble lifted from garbage like The Courage To Heal and similar worthless tracts.
Don't be surprised if we see further cases like this in future, probably where the accused has a close relationship with the alleged victim and/or her mother, and unlike Mr Le Vell is not a minor celebrity. Such a combination is a tragic miscarriage of justice waiting to happen.