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I’ve spent a lot of time getting to know human misery.
As of this month, I’ve been a reporter for 22 years, much of which has been spent covering court and crime. That means I’ve spent a good part of my adult life reporting on and thinking about the terrible things humans do and endure, the things we survive and those we don’t.
In that time, I’ve written about hundreds – and quite likely thousands – of criminal cases, and I’ve covered many long and intense trials.
But the Matthew McKnight case, which I began covering early last October and which finally went to sentencing last week, was something different.
At 63 days, it was the longest trial I’ve ever covered. With 13 rape allegations heard at one time, it was also one of the most intense and complex.
From those unyielding wooden benches in Courtroom 417, I filled 11 thick notebooks – nearly 4,000 pages of notes – and ultimately wrote this long feature about the case.
But one story can’t express what it’s like to be present for a trial like this.
There are the hallway altercations and awkward moments, as people run into each other in the elevator, the bathrooms, the cafeteria lines. There is the frustration and boredom of repeated delays. There is the stress and drama of unexpected developments – in this case, jury issues – that threaten to derail the case altogether, and cause a mistrial. There is the exhaustion of being in the room hour after hour, day after day.
And, most of all, there is the feeling inside the courtroom. The sheer intensity of grief, fear, trauma and anger, palpable no matter what side of the case you’re on.
While that is the case in most trials and especially serious ones, it’s extremely unusual to try so many separate allegations at once. Having the women testify one after the other meant weeks of very emotional testimony without reprieve.
The women’s stories were agonizing, the cross-examination relentless. On many occasions the women cried so hard court had to be adjourned so they would be able to continue testifying.
More than one person in the courtroom in those weeks told me they had nightmares, while others struggled to even remain in the room.
One day, after a very tough exchange in cross-examination, I heard a law student watching the proceedings breath, “Whew, that’s intense.”
On another day, a woman’s cross-examination was interrupted by a fire alarm, and I filed out of the courtroom alongside a class of college students, almost all of whom were men. I overheard some of the students talking incredulously about the woman’s testimony, and saw one of them passing around a notebook with a cartoon drawing of a woman on the page. There was a speech bubble coming out of her lips, but I wasn’t close enough to read what it said. In a way, I didn’t have to. What I saw instead was the look on the men’s faces as they passed it around, laughing.
As we evacuated the building, I asked one of the men what college class it was.
“Police studies,” he said.
I pitched a story about the Matthew McKnight trial because it was one of the first major trials of the #MeToo era in Canada, and I thought it could provide a valuable glimpse into how the justice system deals with sexual assault allegations, and how a powerful social movement would translate inside the criminal courts.
The trial reflected many conversations that have been happening more broadly outside the courtroom, and throughout the months of the case, stories not unlike the one I was covering were emerging all around me.
It has been a week since Mr. McKnight was sentenced to eight years in prison for five counts of sexual assault. I suspect appeals will be filed, and that my work on this case is not done yet.
Serious criminal allegations need to be tested in court, and sexual assault is no different. There are no easy answers around how to make the process of investigating and prosecuting sexual assault better or less traumatizing for victims.
But when I think about those laughing young men in the courthouse hallway – some of whom will become police officers investigating these very same crimes – it’s clear some fundamental things need to change in how we consider and react to this particularly devastating form of violence.
I hope bearing witness and telling these stories can at least help.
What else we’re thinking about:
Sexual assault is a very challenging subject to write about, and I thought a lot about other depictions of sexual violence in media during the months I spent reporting and writing about this trial.
Johanna Schneller wrote an interesting piece last weekend about two series I found very powerful, Netflix’s Unbelievable and HBO’s I May Destroy You, and the difference when shows about sexual assault and abuse are made by women. (And, in the case of creators like Michaela Coel, even based on their own assaults.)
I also recommend Ronan Farrow’s Catch and Kill book and podcast, She Said by Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey, Know My Name by Chanel Miller, and An Unbelievable Story of Rape, the original longread upon which the Unbelievable series is based.
I also recently re-watched The Accused, a seminal late-1980s film about a gang rape, based on a horrific real-life case. The film includes what is, to this day, one of the most unflinching and difficult rape scenes ever recorded, and the film had a significant impact on broader discussions around sexual violence at the time. After the film’s release in 1988, actor Kelly McGillis wrote in depth about her own violent sexual assault, and the profound effects it had on her life. “The only way to stop it is to talk about it,” she wrote then. “The thing I feel most passionate about is that victims talk and seek help.”
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