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Globe and Mail columnist Leah McLaren.
Globe and Mail columnist Leah McLaren.

LEAH McLAREN

Five important take-aways from the Ghomeshi trial after his acquittal Add to ...

Jian Ghomeshi has been found not guilty of four counts of sexual assault and one count of overcoming resistance by choking – and while in many ways this should be the crux of the whole miserable business, in other ways it hardly seems to matter at all.

How can a verdict not be the most important thing about a trial?

In a case as high-profile as this one, the noise around the event became so deafening that it almost succeeded in drowning out the evidence and legal arguments themselves.

But in the year and a half since the story first broke, the Ghomeshi case evolved into something much larger than the sum of its parts. This was not just our biggest homegrown celebrity scandal and criminal trial, complete with a dramatic “fall from grace” story arc – it also shed new light on an issue many Canadians (particularly those who include themselves in the “liberal urban elite”) had tacitly assumed we were somehow culturally immune from: misogyny.

I knew Jian as a friend for many years, just as I knew some of the alleged victims, both public and anonymous. When I heard the women’s accounts, I believed them. I still believe them today. But I can’t say I would have convicted him based on the evidence brought forward in court. (The outcome of a second trial, which will take place in June, remains to be seen.) In many ways, this trial was almost secondary to the broader narrative at play.

Ghomeshi – the man, the voice, the celebrity – became a cultural symbol of the hypocrisy and disingenuousness infesting so much of our institutional liberalism. His story exposed our smugness, our preening, self-declared feminism in the face of entrenched institutional sexism (Justin Trudeau and CBC executives, take heed).

Ghomeshi’s initial downfall was not just great gossip – it was a cultural catalyst for Canada as a whole. His story was and will remain, if not a watershed moment, then at least a great blasting open of the debate around sexual assault and harassment. It was, without question, the moment when many women across the country stood up and said, “You know what? I’m sick of this crap.” And that, in itself, is powerful.

In an attempt to take something positive from the dispiriting mess that is Ghomeshi, here is my attempt at a round-up of the most important things we have learned so far.

1) The burden of proof is extremely high in sexual-assault cases, and that is as it should be.

You or I might believe a person to be guilty, but that should not be enough to secure a conviction in a court of law. Courts must convict on hard evidence, and where there is little or none to go on, that’s a big problem – usually for the Crown.

2) Victim credibility is important – but it’s complicated.

Victims of sexual assault don’t always behave the way we think they ought to. They make their rapists breakfast and send flirty texts and accept dinner invitations from men who have previously hurt them. Many victims love or are infatuated with their attackers; others just want to pretend that the abuse never happened.

So while the court must assess the credibility of the person making a complaint – especially if it’s serious and the defendant denies it – it’s important to remember that there is no one right way for a victim to behave, before, during or after an assault.

3) Ghomeshi’s is one case in a system that sees thousands of similar cases a year.

As such, it is not particularly interesting or instructive except in the way it illustrates the vicious circle at work when it comes to sexual-assault trials in Canada. In Ghomeshi’s case, more than 20 women spoke to the news media, but only a small handful ended up pressing charges. To increase the fairly abysmal conviction rate in Canadian sexual-assault cases, the police and the Crown Prosecution Service need victims to come forward more often and sooner. But given the abysmal conviction rate – not to mention the ordeal of going through a trial – it’s no wonder that more don’t. How many of the women who did not press charges against Ghomeshi are now wishing they had been part of a trial? I’ll hazard a guess: nary a one.

4) The beleaguered old CBC is a strange and psychologically troubled beast.

The scandal gave us a window into the culture at our public broadcaster – especially how management handled internal complaints – and, frankly, what we saw wasn’t pretty.

5) Beware the peril of hubris.

It’s worth remembering that before his jaw-dropping Facebook post, the CBC had parted ways quietly with Ghomeshi after a leave of absence on the heels of his father’s death. Had he never taken to social media to pre-emptively defend himself against the emerging allegations, the Toronto Star probably wouldn’t have followed up with the story triggering a chain of events that led to the trial itself. If it weren’t for Ghomeshi’s own hubris, the whole thing probably would have been swept under the rug and been long forgotten by now. So in a way, the circus is a spectacle of his own making. There is, I think, something oddly fitting about that.

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Follow on Twitter: @leahmclaren

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Ghomeshi's sister gives statement following verdict (The Globe and Mail)

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