During the five days spent waiting for the next trial date (also cancelled), I became despondent. It was impossible to escape the conclusion that I’d been better off before the police had arrived. So far I had gained nothing, lost hugely, and knew I had worse to come.
Fortunately, the next trial date held. Donna collected me and my friends Christine and Garry and drove us to court through the Friday traffic. I was shown my statements and Donna and my friends were led into court.
Then Strachan was led out and I was led in. I noticed we had a new male judge, and while standing to take the oath, saw two women I took to be members of Strachan’s family in the public gallery. Not the cashmere type.
Our barrister began and told the court I was a playwright. I corrected her, I used to be a playwright, but hadn’t worked for eight years after the attack and now wrote Thomas the Tank Engine (one of the few occasions it has ever worked as a name drop). I again described my attacker: white; medium build (about the same height and weight as an ex-boyfriend); rough, angular face and thin lips. A few more questions and our side was done.
Strachan had a new barrister. There in Muttley’s place stood an old white man with droopy eyes and deceptively sympathetic face. He said, of course the defence wasn’t questioning that I’d been attacked, and being reflexively polite,
I again said thank you.
I’d been told about the new judge and Strachan’s new barrister. It never occurred to me he might have a completely new defence. We were returning to a familiar theme of yesteryear. Black guy, was it?
Droopy started with the sophistry. ‘I see that, according to your statement, you were stopped in the street by a black man?’.
The police were very excited about this at the time and I had to tell them repeatedly there was nothing sinister about it. Battered as I was, I made sure my statement read ‘Young black boy’, adding, ‘I got the impression the black boy did only want cigarettes and seemed genuinely pleased when I gave them to him’ so there could be no mistake.
But as drinking in pubs had a subtext in the first trial, so an implied danger was to be read into the presence of a black male on the street in the small hours. So the ‘boy’ became a man, and the friendly approach a threat.
I said he didn’t ‘stop me’, he asked for a fag and I liked him, which is why I gave him two. He reminded me of half the boys I was at school with. Nothing dodgy about him at all.
‘But from where he was standing, he could see the front door to your flat?’
I said he wasn’t looking at the door, he was looking at the cigarettes.
‘But looking over your shoulder, he could see your front door?’
For the second time in my life I found myself defending a young man I’d met only fleetingly. But he was the last contact with my old life, and to have him associated with another man’s violence seemed terribly wrong.
I insisted he wasn’t looking at the door, and was asked to pick up the board in my witness pack with the blown-up photos of my old street and point to where we were standing. I did so.
‘So… he could see your front door, then?’
I denied it, and Droopy continued. Maybe he doubled back? I pointed at the boards. No. He went that way. Eventually Droopy ended the black-man questions, but in a manner suggesting the matter was still open.
Then on to the attempted rape. In the first trial, Muttley had avoided grisly questions, but Droopy had no such qualms. How many times, he asked, did my attacker stick his tongue into my mouth? How deep? Did I bite him hard?
I said yes, and mimed biting, involuntarily saying ‘fucker’ (as in ‘Take that, fucker’). Christine snorted behind me, and the ticker type man committed it to court record.
He said if I bit him that hard there must’ve been blood, and asked me where it went. I said, bluntly: probably down my throat, which is why I needed an Aids test. He drew my attention to a line in my statement and asked me what I meant: ‘I had blood on the right side of my face. I do not think it was mine.’
I said it meant when the statement was taken I didn’t think it was my blood, but I’m not a forensic expert so I couldn’t say.
He wouldn’t let it go. How much blood was there? Was I sure it all went down my throat? Wasn’t it possible the blood on my face was his?
Even at the time I thought: it’s a good thing I’m not very sensitive. I repeated that I wasn’t a forensic expert, but thought it highly likely the blood on my face was my blood (I was tempted to add that I was fairly sure the blood on the walls was mine, too, but didn’t).
‘Then why did you say at the time you didn’t think it was yours?’
I said at the time I didn’t know my nose was broken in two places and would need extensive surgery years later. I irritatedly mimed wiping my nose to demonstrate how easy it would’ve been to spread my blood across my face unwittingly. For the first time I noticed the jury and they were wincing.
Droopy tried a new tack. A police officer had written into his notes that I’d said my attacker had a cockney accent and, pressured to admit I’d said this, I said I had no memory of either his accent or telling anyone he was a cockney.
Surely, he said, as a writer I must be ‘good at accents’?
I asked what ‘good at accents’ meant, and we went round and round until I pointed out he was saying: ‘Shut the fuck up, you bitch, or I’ll kill you’ while punching me in the face. It wasn’t a conversation. At no point did I go, Oh! Is that a hint of something?
He continued. ‘On the night of the accident…’ I waited for him to catch himself and glanced at the judge, but he was busy writing something. I leant into the mike and cut across: ‘It wasn’t an accident,’ I pointed out firmly.
‘I didn’t say “accident”, I said “incident”,’ he replied sharply.
A murmur of ‘Oh no you didn’t’ crept around the court, and the judge looked up.
Droopy made a weak joke and apologised to the judge and then to me. Of course he didn’t mean ‘accident’, of course of course. I just smiled. Yeah, now you’re being sensitive.
Finally, after having testified for more than 90 minutes I’d been attacked by a white man, Droopy closed with the defence’s final question. ‘Are you sure it wasn’t a black man?’
An old Paul Merton joke flashed into my mind. ‘I dunno, I only saw his face’, but I said no, absolutely not, 100 per cent certain. He was white, definitely not a black man, no.
I was released from court.
I spent the evening phoning friends, then had one of those weekends when everybody thinks someone else is looking after you and leaves you alone. It was lovely. Feeling the need for a distraction, I reached for an old friend from childhood, The Code of the Woosters (the one where Gussie hands out the school prizes), and as with all my favourite books I sat down and read it as slowly as possible.
Bertie did the business, and on Monday my friend Reg came over with a documentary about Jackie Robinson. As we were watching, Donna phoned. The prosecution had finished and I could now be told what the jury knew and what the police had known from the start.
Strachan was a convicted rapist. He’d broken in and raped a woman in her corridor. The jury could be told of his conviction because of new ‘bad character’ legislation (this was the cause of all the legal arguments). As for ‘made him look good’, it was nothing to do with sick kiddies or acts of charity. No, in the world of the crimi nal scumbag, claiming you’re ‘just a burglar’ qualifies as looking good. Muttley had made a police officer reveal on the stand that Strachan had been convicted of three burglaries in Scotland, but this had already been ruled inadmissible because he’d also indecently assaulted the women living there. Why he wasn’t prosecuted for this is a mystery and I’ve been told everything from ‘It’s a different legal system’ to, more worryingly, ‘We’ve lost the files.’ Suggesting he was ‘just a burglar’ was misleading so the jury had to be dismissed.
I never thought I’d be pleased to hear someone was a rapist, but I was overjoyed – he was going down. Donna counselled caution. All the defence had to do was convince three jury members of reasonable doubt and he’d walk. You never can tell.
I got off the phone feeling brave for the first time. I’d always hated it when people called me brave because I felt it implied women who didn’t fight back were somehow cowards, which completely misses the point. I also knew my survival had more to do with dumb luck than character: those few seconds where I played dead wasn’t strategy – I simply did the next thing that occurred to me. Plus, I’d always been privately ashamed at losing my voice. Now I felt I’d got it back. I wish I’d thought more about the first victim, but I was happy and relieved. Reg gave me a bear hug and we went back to Jackie Robinson’s hell-life.
On Tuesday I sat at home while the defence set out their stall. Strachan’s legal-aid solicitor said he’d advised him to give a ‘no comment’ interview, then Strachan took the stand.
So how did his fingerprint get into my bedroom? He claimed he was the burglar who’d stolen the toolbox. When asked what type of tools were taken (they were specialised), he said he ‘couldn’t remember’. If he’d been in my bedroom, why didn’t he take the money in plain view? He said he ‘must have missed it’. Lastly he was asked to give a date when he’d burgled my flat. He gave a date, and it was pointed out to him he was in prison at the time.
And that was the defence’s case. After summing up (‘The black guy done it’), the jury was sent out to deliberate.
On Wednesday I waited. Court starts at 10am, and by 12.30 I’d heard nothing, one o’clock nothing. I was getting concerned, when my buzzer went. It was Donna. ‘Guilty,’ she said, beaming. ‘Twelve nil.’
Thirteen years after the attack, 14 months after the police arrived at my door, it had taken a jury of 12 men and women less than 20 minutes to unanimously find him guilty. I bounced around the flat delirious that it was over, over.
Sentencing was set for July, in two months’ time. After the high of the verdict I returned to earth with a crash after discovering that, having had a coach and horses driven through my life, I was entitled to £88.50 expenses in total – you get nothing for loss of earnings – and that to claim it I had to fill in a four-page double-sided form (it didn’t have a box for ‘Kiss my arse’ so I didn’t bother). Following a dismal meeting with my accountant, I thought it best to put the trial out of mind and get back to work.
The World Cup came and went and so did the first sentencing date (cancelled two days before). A week later, the next date was cancelled too, again at 48 hours’ notice. With the judge going on holiday, a new date would be set in four weeks’ time. August passed and a new date was set, 11 September. When that was cancelled, too, I noticed even the police were starting to sound embarrassed. Whether it was because the probation service failed to complete a report, or the prison service failed to release him to see a doctor, or the defence made a last-minute request for more time ceased to matter. It was the institutional equivalent of ‘the dog ate my homework’.
I was tired of being upset and bored of hearing myself complain. Misery doesn’t love company – it sucks the life out of it. When an Arsenal fan drove into the back of me on Hornsey Lane (he was admiring the new stadium), it genuinely made a refreshing change.
Finally, we had a date, 18 September, that held. Punch drunk on anticlimax, I began to prepare myself (again) for seeing Strachan. I had no idea how I’d react or what it would mean to me.
Andy asked me to write a letter to the judge, describing how Strachan pleading not guilty and forcing a trial had affected me.
On the 18th, the police collected us and drove to court. Andy took my letter to the judge while ‘our’ barrister made the customary flying visit, and I became aware of how desperately I wanted this over with.
We went in and sat with Reg to my left. I noticed Droopy was there and then suddenly, with no fanfare, the door to the dock swung open and Strachan shuffled in and sat down.The judge came in, sat down and we were off.
From the moment Droopy opened his mouth I knew it wasn’t going to happen. A report had been delivered late or something. My body felt heavy, as I listened to Droopy’s legal righteous indignation, his client couldn’t possibly be sentenced like this… Andy shook his head with disbelief, and the judge capped it all by granting the delay, saying that as I’d waited 13 years for justice, he was sure I ‘wouldn’t mind waiting another 28 days or so’.
In my letter I’d said the last 18 months had seen my income halved, I was back on anti-depressants, started smoking and hadn’t had a holiday in two years. What in the above would lead anyone to think I ‘wouldn’t mind’? I was staggered, and a part of me gave up.
When the call went out, ‘All Rise!’ I found myself just sitting there. The court didn’t respect me, so why should I respect the court?
Outside, Andy explained the causes for the delay, but I walked off and stood in a patch of September sunlight. Blanketed by my friends’ sympathy I asked to be driven home.
I went a bit mad that night, and was shocked the next morning to find I’d woken up crying. I was starting to crave oblivion and realised it was caring that was killing me. So I did my best to stop. It took another couple of days of raging and whining, but eventually I reached a comforting state of near disinterest.
When a new sentencing date was set for six weeks’ time, I wasn’t sure I was going to go. But to my surprise the judge asked the police to pass on an apology to me, and let it be known he was determined it should happen on the 30th. It was moved to the 31st, Halloween. Donna picked up Amanda and me and we drove past shops displaying Scream masks and pumpkins, arriving at court with minutes to spare.
I was introduced to our latest barrister, then we were led in. The door to the dock swung open and Strachan walked in.
I was shocked. He’d put on weight, a good stone since I’d last seen him, and my body physically recoiled. It recognised the man that attacked me in a way it hadn’t before. It was in his shoulders, neck and jawline. I didn’t stare, and he didn’t look at me once.
The judge was up to speed with the paperwork, so our barrister had little to do. Which left Droopy to make Strachan’s case for mitigation – drugs and alcohol made him do it, and now he was a Catholic he was all better. Letters were produced from priests, imams and prison wardens saying what a perfect prisoner he was. He claimed Strachan, ‘saddened’ about how his life was going, had ‘completely reformed himself’.
I was very good and said nothing (I’d promised Andy). It was only when Droopy claimed Strachan had made ‘reparation as best he can’ that I went ‘Ha!’ And, as Bertie would say, I meant it to sting.
Droopy argued that, as Strachan had received only six years for his previous rape and two years for a sexual assault on an 11-year-old girl (which ran concurrently), the judge couldn’t possibly give him more here – especially as his attack on me was ‘not as ghastly as it might be’. He also said Strachan had had ‘an agony’ over the trials and waiting for sentence.
There was a break while the judge thought things over, during which time our barrister showed me Strachan’s letter to the judge. Without admitting guilt, he extended me ‘his deepest sympathies’ for the ‘horrific incident’ and said working at the ambulance call centre (which is where he was arrested) was the best job he’d ever had. I was unmoved.
The judge returned. He said my impact statement made for ‘grim reading’. Despite conceding that it had not been proved that Strachan was still a danger to women, he said the ‘dreadful crime’ warranted a ‘determined’ sentence of 11 years.
There was no banging of gavels, no ‘Do you have anything to say to the court?’ – he just kept on talking. Strachan looked pale and I was delighted if confused. Was that it? Was that the sentence? The court was asked to rise. Strachan exchanged glances with his brother before being led away.
Outside it became clear that 11 years was a terrific result. I felt tired but vindicated. Happy would be pushing it. But I was especially thrilled for Andy, who’d worked on the case for more than two years. ‘Of course he’ll appeal,’ he said. ‘They always do.’
Having come to the end of this tortuous journey, I’m happy to report that the police were perfect, the forensics team flawless, and even the judge did his job. But as business seems to be the lingua franca of the government, I’d point out to the home secretary that if the English legal system was a company, it wouldn’t just go bankrupt, its customer base would burn it to the ground. Now, when I look at that one-in-20 statistic I’m not appalled, I’m amazed. Wow, that high?
Now if you’ll forgive me, I really do have work to do.