Tuesday, March 31, 2009

A young life destroyed by a rape allegation: An absolute 'must-read' post

'At one point I thought I'd go to prison,' says Peter. 'When I first saw a lawyer, I said: "How bad could this get?" And he said: "You could be looking at 25 years." 'I just cried in the police cell, and that isn't me. I don't cry. But I pulled a blanket over my head, turned away from the security cameras to face the wall and just sobbed my eyes out.

Are there worse things for a man to be called than a rapist? If so, Peter Bacon - who still has the word ringing in his head and surely will for the rest of his life - struggles to think of them.

'Rapist. It's up there with paedophile, isn't it?' he says. 'Rape is one of those things for which there are no excuses. Socially, it's one of the worst crimes because no one can ever justify rape.

'I'd say it is worse even than murder, because there can be circumstances where you can attempt to justify murder. Personally, I'd have preferred to be in that dock accused of murder than rape.'

Of course, Peter isn't a rapist. This week a court said so. A jury declared he was nothing more than an ordinary young man who once had a drunken one-night stand - albeit one which went horribly, terrifyingly wrong.

And yet the 26-year-old found himself accused: first, by the woman he slept with - a respected lawyer no less - who opened her eyes the morning after and screamed. Then by the authorities, who agreed that charges should be pressed.

It took more than a year for the case to come to court, and that has meant 13 months of whispers, finger-pointing and the assumption that everyone you encounter is thinking just one word.

'I can't even begin to describe how horrible that is,' he says, in his first interview since walking free from court on Thursday.

'Everywhere you go, you feel there are eyes boring into you. It was there in court, obviously, with the jury, the judge and people in the public gallery. I was thinking: "These people think I am a rapist. My God, they think I am capable of that."

'Outside court, too. People in the street. I was even paranoid of the builders in the car park. My friend would say "They are not looking at you", but in my eyes they were. Everyone was.'

And still are? He nods. The worst thing about a rape accusation, he points out and rightly so, is that it isn't shaken off easily.

'I'm an innocent man, but those charges are out there, for ever, on the internet. And these things stick. Some people will remember that I was actually acquitted, proved innocent. But for others, I'll just be yet another man who got away with rape, and that is devastating.

'What makes it worse is that she was the person she was. Imagine being accused of rape by a lawyer, for goodness sake? She knew the courts system.

'I was just this nobody - the accused. I was the lowest of the low.'

Peter admits that he harboured his own preconceptions about rape charges before 'all this'. Only a certain type of man would even find himself on a rape charge in the first place, wouldn't he?

'Exactly. And that man wasn't me. I'm not aggressive. I don't treat women badly. In fact, 80 per cent of my friends are women. It had never occurred to me that I needed to be worried about a one-night stand. I just never thought in a million years that I would be anywhere near a rape case. And yet I was, right in the middle of it.'

And how. His account of his ordeal should be read by every unattached young man heading for a night out.

And every woman who might be tempted to mix alcohol and sex, then think of the consequences too late.

'At one point I thought I'd go to prison,' says Peter. 'When I first saw a lawyer, I said: "How bad could this get?" And he said: "You could be looking at 25 years."

'I just cried in the police cell, and that isn't me. I don't cry. But I pulled a blanket over my head, turned away from the security cameras to face the wall and just sobbed my eyes out.

'I cried again a year later, in the toilets of the courtroom, on the third day of the trial. My face had been all over the papers that morning. I couldn't get a grip. The security guard was just standing there as I cried myself stupid.'

In between those two sobbing fits, there were plenty more anguished moments. Peter was the first member of his social group to go to university, but he dropped out of his sociology course because he couldn't bear facing his fellow students after the charges were brought

'I was at university in Kent, but got on the bus back home to Coventry the day after I was charged. I wanted to run away because I was so ashamed. Not because I'd done anything wrong, but because I knew people wouldn't see it like that.'

He still wonders if his life, as he had planned it, might be over, even though it took a jury only 45 minutes to return with an emphatic 'not guilty' verdict.

He may be back at university, but his romantic life has pretty much ground to a halt since that February night of last year.

'I'd like to have a girlfriend, but it's been impossible. You get chatting to a girl in a bar and you have to tell them sooner rather than later, don't you? How the hell do you start that conversation?'

The career he had planned is pretty much in tatters, too. 'I'd been thinking of teaching, but that's out the window.

'My DNA is on a database. There are records. I don't know if this case would be brought up on an initial search, but if they go digging it will be there. And who would let me work with children?

'If it was a choice between someone with a rape charge lingering in the past or someone without, which one would you choose? I'd do exactly the same.'

So how on earth did an obviously bright young man, with impeccable manners, find himself in this situation? The first thing he seems desperate - perhaps understandably so - to stress is that he is no womaniser.

Before the romantic encounter in question, he'd had three serious relationships, each lasting between a yearand two-and-a-half years.

'I do get female attention, yes, but I'd say I am the sort of bloke who is happier in a relationship, but I'd split up with a long-term girlfriend just before that night, and, yes, I was single.

'People have assumed I was out there looking for sex. I wasn't; I was just having a good night out. But when things happen, well, I wasn't going to say no.'

His accuser was not a stranger. They had met twice before that night, having been introduced by a mutual friend. In her 40s, she was several years his senior, and from the off he had been intrigued by her.

One night, having a few drinks after work, he received a text from his friend, inviting him to the woman's house. He, of course, was only too happy to go along.

'I was fascinated by her, yes, of course. She was a lawyer. Successful. Attractive. She had great taste, liked good music.

'But I didn't go there thinking it was going to end in sex with her. It was a social thing, really. I thought I'd like to try moving in those circles, meeting important people. I wanted to get on.'

That the attention he received from this woman had a sexual edge was flattering, though.

'Of course. She's an attractive woman. What young man wouldn't be flattered by that?'

When he arrived at the house, he'd already had three beers. He can't remember how much wine he went on to consume, but the woman told the court that she had something approaching four bottles of wine.

In a sober courtroom, these sorts of events can sound like hedonistic orgies, but Peter says it was nothing of the sort.

'It was just your typical get-together. Music. Dancing. Everyone a bit merry. That's how I would describe her. She was on great form, chatty. She'd obviously been drinking, but was she paralytic? Absolutely not.'

There was flirting, and lots of it, he says. When the other friend left, leaving Peter and the woman alone, things got physical. They went upstairs. She performed a sex act on him. Then there was full sex.

He is embarrassed about going into the nitty gritty. For good reason, too. However nice a guy he seems, there is something repellent about the idea of a man pursuing sex with a woman who has consumed four bottles of wine. It isn't gentlemanly, is it?

'But she didn't seem drunk to me. Merry, yes. Off her face, no. If she'd been all over the place, falling, not making any sense, I wouldn't even have thought about sleeping with her, of course I wouldn't. It would have been disrespectful to her, and to me.'

Instead, he says she was 'fully cooperative' and the liaison was ' reciprocal'. 'Yes, she enjoyed it as much as I did, or she seemed to.'

Did she do the seducing? 'I'd say it was a mutual thing. We were adults. It was two adults doing what two adults do.'

Was it always going to be a regrettable sort of one-night stand, though? He says, not necessarily.

'I'd say I regarded it as a one-night stand with potential. I don't know if it would have led anywhere, but the possibility was there.'

He certainly wasn't planning to bolt out of the house at the crack of dawn, though. 'Absolutely not. There was the expectation that I'd have a coffee, chat a bit, help her tidy up the house, which was in a mess after the night before. Instead, it just became . . . madness.'

What he means is that the woman opened her eyes, took one look at him and became hysterical.

'She was just screaming at me, saying that because she didn't remember anything I must have raped her. She was going on about how the law had been changed to protect women from people like me. I was completely thrown, just bewildered.

'She was screaming at me to get out, and I was running round trying to find my clothes. I got my trousers and shoes, but I couldn't find my socks. They tried to make something about that in court, but my God, what did socks matter in all of that?

'I remember her going on about how she needed her phone, so I went to the kitchen and got it for her. I knew I was going to leave, but I thought she would be safe if she had her phone and could call for help.

'I just wanted a minute to think.' On the doorstep, he says he needed only ten seconds to realise how serious things were.

'I did the only thing I could think of doing, which was to call 999. Afterwards, I did think: "Was it an emergency?" Well, yes, at that moment I thought it was. I just wanted the police to come and, I don't know, sort it out. I remember saying: "You have to get here."'

Did he call the police for the woman's sake, or his? 'I don't know. A bit of both, I guess. She was in a terrible state and I didn't know what else to do.'

The 999 operator told him it was not an emergency and he needed to contact his local police station. He walked straight there - only to find it closed.

'It was all a bit farcical, looking back. I couldn't even find the door, then realised it was a glass thing that was locked.

'There was an emergency buzzer, which I called, and a voice came on. I said I'd been accused of rape and needed to report it. The guy took some details, but told me he couldn't really do anything until a formal allegation was made. He told me to go home.

'I was in a daze. I tried to call my friend, but he wasn't answering his mobile, so I went home and got straight on the internet. I was looking for some advice line or something.

'What do you do when you are accused of rape? There were all these rape helplines, but they were for women. Victims.

'What struck me as odd was that they were all 9am to 5pm, Monday to Friday numbers. Aren't rapes more likely to happen at the weekend? Eventually, I called the Samaritans. I didn't know where else to turn.'

That afternoon, the police did turn up and arrested Peter. He was allowed to make his one call from the police cell before he was questioned.

'I called my dad and said: "Dad, I've been arrested for rape." I tried to explain more, but they said: "No, that's it." My poor dad. For four hours that was all he knew. He was going out of his mind.'

And so began what he can only describe as 'this unimaginable nightmare, from which there was no waking up'.

'At every step, I thought: "Someone will realise how mad this all is and stop it." But that never happened, until, thank God, the jury came back.'

Peter was persuaded to go back to his studies last September and will sit his Finals in a few months' time.

Ironically, his experiences have given him new insight into some of his subject matter.

'All the stuff that has been thrown up because of this - rape, crime, male/female dynamics - is in my subject area,' he says with a wry smile. 'When I was back home, running away from all this, I actually started my dissertation and picked rape as my topic.

'I couldn't complete it, though. I spent so long researching and got completely depressed by what I found, which was that men who are falsely accused never really escape.'

Clearly, the events of the past year have turned vague academic issues into something much more urgent.

'The thing I've come to feel angry about is how powerless men like me are. Traditionally, there have been very strong feminist voices lobbying about rape issues, but there is no male equivalent, and maybe that is needed.'

He is passionate about the anonymity issue, although, interestingly, doesn't believe his accuser should be named and shamed.

'I think there needs to be anonymity for both parties. It's a very dangerous road to go down, forcing women who make accusations to be identified. But, equally, it's not fair to have men like me face ruin because of the slurs made against them.

'I don't agree that I should have faced a trial in the first place, but the real damage was done by the surrounding publicity.'

For someone who has been through the wringer, he is remarkably devoid of malice. Indeed, what is extraordinary about our interview are his repeated attempts to protect his accuser. At one point he says: 'If she genuinely didn't remember what happened, then she was very brave to report it in the first place.'

He nods when I say he sounds almost sorry for her.

'I only found out yesterday that she had suffered from depression. To be honest, I don't know what to think.

Part of me is angry with her for putting me through this, but another part of me feels sorry for her because of all the aggro she is getting now.

'There was a moment in court where I was incredibly angry with her. My world had been torn apart and she was standing there - on her turf, remember - accusing me of not even being able to look at her. So I did. I looked her in the eye.'

What did he see? 'I don't know. That's the awful part. I still don't understand why she did this.'

There may be many more awkward encounters. Peter works part-time as a chef and his workplace is in the same town as his accuser's home.

He confesses that he was in Tesco before our interview and thought he saw her. Perversely, he says he is afraid of her now.

'I'm scared of her, to be honest. I have seen her at a distance in the street and I was just desperate to get past her without confrontation. Was she going to make a scene? Start screaming again? If she did want to talk, what on earth would I say?'

It wouldn't be sorry, presumably? 'No, I did nothing wrong. If anything, she's the one who should be saying sorry - but I don't even need to hear that. Now I need to move on.'