The crux of the Rehtaeh Parsons case in Nova Scotia is the age-old one of whether police and Crown attorneys are up to the task of investigating and prosecuting sexual assault. In that context, there is an urgent question of whether the police have the skills in using social media to do a prompt and thorough investigation. These questions go to the heart of public confidence in the police.
While not all the facts are known, it is fair to say that Rehtaeh’s suicide in April at age 17 and the police and Crown’s failure to lay any charges until after her death more than a year later – and those only in connection with the distribution of a cellphone photo of the alleged assault – have shaken that confidence.
The review by Murray Segal, a former deputy attorney-general and chief prosecutor in Ontario, is not the only one. A separate review has found that the school near her home, which she left after the incident, refused to take her back. And we already know that the mental-health system rejected her father’s request for a spot in a day treatment program. We need to know whether any of the systems that deal with vulnerable children worked properly.
Although Nova Scotia Attorney-General Ross Landry, who commissioned Mr. Segal’s review, said that “no stone goes unturned,” it is not clear from the terms of reference whether Mr. Segal will be able to give a direct answer to the question uppermost in the public’s mind: Should the police have laid sexual assault charges? The question encompasses both the evidence they were able to gather and the evidence left ungathered for reasons that may or may not have to do with being a step behind in the social-media world. Why, for instance, did police reportedly wait until this month to interview boys suspected of being participants in an assault on Rehtaeh?
The case is, at least on the surface, very similar to the Steubenville, Ohio case earlier this year, in which two high-school football players were convicted of raping a 16-year-old girl while she was drunk. A picture posted on Instagram showed two young men carrying a naked girl who may have been unconscious. The victim remembered nothing, and the community was split over what happened. The local police chief pleaded with witnesses to come forward. In the end, police built their case on text messages and cellphone photos.
In Rehtaeh’s case, her father she says was intoxicated and vomiting during sex. Under Canada’s Criminal Code, she could not have consented to sex while extremely drunk. We need to know whether police did everything they could, whether in diving deeply and quickly into social media or in more traditional investigative methods, to produce a just result.