Rehtaeh Parsons, cyberspace and "justice:" a cautionary tale

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On April 19, 1989, a 39-year-old woman named Trisha Meili went for a jog in New York’s Central Park. She was raped and violently assaulted.

Partly because of the attack’s brutality, partly because of news reports the perpetrators were a gang of “wilding” black youths and partly because of who the victim was—white, a Yale MBA, a Wall Street investment banker—“the Central Park Jogger” case stirred global pre-Internet passions and angry demands police arrest someone—now.

The police did charge five teenaged boys, four blacks and an Hispanic. Though some were juveniles, police and media publicly identified them anyway. Four confessed. They were all convicted and sentenced to lengthy prison terms.

“Justice” had been served.

Flash forward 13 years.

The boys, now men, had served their sentences and been released.

That’s when another man confessed to the crime. His DNA matched that found at the crime scene.

The original convictions were—too late—vacated.

What went wrong? In the rush for “justice,” certain inconvenient facts got overlooked. The confessions, which often contradicted one another about what had happened and were all later recanted, had been coerced by a police force under intense public pressure to nail the bastards. None of the crime scene DNA matched any of the suspects; the only DNA collected came from one, then-unknown-now-known person.

Why am I telling you all this?

Because, at a time of understandable, social-media-enflamed passion about the tragic suicide of Rehtaeh Parsons, we need to be cautious about what we think we know.

The no-name hactivists at Anonymous who, ironically, threaten to name Parsons’ alleged rapists if their hang-’em-high version of justice isn’t done—and done quickly—claim to know who did it. They also claim names of alleged perpetrators being circulated by others are wrong. How do they really know either?

And would what they imagine they know actually stand up in court, where the evidence bar rises above an email allegation, a Facebook post or a 140-character tweet?

By all means, let’s have an independent public review of how police, prosecutors, the school and others handled this case.

But let’s not assume its outcome.

Or presume mob vengeance is justice for Rehteah or anyone else.

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Copyright 2013 Stephen Kimber, Website
  1. First, Nancy Browman, thank you. Bang on.

    Second – The Rehtaeh Parsons case and Trisha Meili’s case have ZERO comparison to one another. Mr. Kimber – it’s white noise to an issue that doesn’t need any more of it.

    Yes, rapes happen; wrongful convictions happen. However, these are the absolute MINORITY of rape cases. Very few girls who have gone through the ultimate humiliation of rape WANTS to accuse the WRONG person.

    I was date raped 35 years ago. I’ll spare the details, but I was bullied and humiliated because of it. The rapist today works in law enforcement. Which is quite ironic.

    Every girl who gets raped is different. Trust me – no one “asks” for it. No one “wants” it.

    Is it any wonder why women do not go to the police or trust that they will find justice?

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  2. For the last few days the faceless mob who hide behind user names have been insulting Harper,Dexter and Parsons on comments boards. Children only repeat the behavior they see from so called adults

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  3. Thank you Nancy Browman. I wish that there were professional writers in Halifax with your insight and appreciation of the facts in this case.

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  4. Mr. Kimber, I am immediately struck by what I see as a central flaw here – a woman attacked by a stranger while jogging through a public park is similar to the Rehteah Parsons case only in that both are heinous crimes. Here we have young people who are known to each other, with the “alleged” perpetrators brazenly bragging about & posting evidence of their own crime on social media – not at all the case with the Central Park jogger example you’ve used. Apples & oranges, as it were. I’m sure the police would have got the right guy had he worked in the investment banking industry & told several of his workmates of his activities – maybe posted a photo on his office wall. But then again, maybe not.

    You may decry the activities of Anonymous as much as you like from your position of being a member of a favoured group of our society, but as a 50ish woman, mother of 2 daughters who was once a young girl dealing with the unwanted and at times aggressive actions of boys who were my peers, I do not see change arising out of the current system. In fact, about 10 years ago I had a discussion with a male coworker 20 years my senior, and he told me of being in a car as a young man while a friend of his forced sexual attentions on a girl in the back, and how to that day, some 40 years later, he wished he had said something. He was affected by that assault, too. And yet, we have Rehteah and Audrey and Steubenville coming to light, so clearly, boys are still forcing themselves on girls, and doing so with no sense of it being improper, let alone criminal. And no-one says anything, because it’s always been that way, and boys will be boys, and nice girls know better than to get in their way. Huh.

    I became aware of an even more frightening aspect of this when my younger daughter was in high school about 8 years ago. She came home & told me of a “club” of boys who were from respected & prominent families in our town, and how they sexually humiliated the girls they dated as part of this club, and the girls complied because to all outward appearances, these boys would make good mates. I expect this may be the case in Steubenville, where the victim came across the river to a party at the invitation of one of the members of the team, and was then quite likely drugged before she was dragged from party to party and used as a living sex toy. There, no-one said anything because the boys were protected by their positions on the team. Protected by the very adults who should have been teaching them. Huh.

    So here we are, with the men & women of Anonymous using their anonymity to expose those who are derelict in their duties to both protect & educate young people – to embarass them into stepping up to actually do their jobs & break these cycles of abuse. If you’ve got a better idea, bring it on. As someone who has personally witnessed & dealt with the fallout from this sort of “boyhood hijink” and victim bashing for almost 40 years, I am ready for change. Aren’t you? What we’ve got clearly isn’t working. Don’t believe me? Ask women & girls how often they’ve had to deal with this crap & keep quiet for fear of being blamed or making it worse. A cautionary tale, indeed.

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  5. The concepts of “innocent until proven guilty” and of due legal process are so solid and widely accepted they should not even be touched. By focusing on these, Mr Kimber, you relegate to the back seat the much more sinister issues that have been brought to the public front: is consent for sex simply the absence of physical resistance? What responsibility do our academic position holders have towards students suffering abuse of any kind? Why did the RCMP and the government come to let incompetence and negligence slip to a near-criminal level in this affair? God forbid we should ever have a public discussion about the fact that some forms of sexual abuse are socially acceptable in Canada.

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  6. @marke,

    I approve of what Anonymous has done with this case. I think they’ve been tremendously helpful, and they’ve shown restraint and a real sense of the issues. That said, watching them shout “Do Your Job!” in front of police headquarters the other day I did think at the time it’s too bad they weren’t in front of the Halifax school board.

    As for people being able to make anonymous comments, people like me who have experience with sexual assault or who, like me, are restricted in what we can say in public by confidentiality agreements we’ve had to sign, can only comment under assumed names. Sexual abuse victims get attacked more than anyone else online but you don’t see us asking anonymity be removed – if it was, we would be silenced.

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  7. Good to hear this rational approach, Stephen. Thank you. As much as my heart breaks for Rehtaeh Parsons and her family (having to go through this ongoing torture), the frenzy around the mob mentality that’s “demanding justice” is troubling.

    I’m not referring to the gathering on Sunday for Rehtaeh’s memory nor of other efforts to re-open the case and review the evidence. Although ‘Anonymous’ has come out with a few directives I might agree with, I don’t care for the method used … mainly because I believe that – more than ever – people have to stand up for their beliefs, not hide behind some mask of anonymity. Plus, anyone can wear a Vendetta mask and claim to be ‘Anonymous’, pushing any kind of agenda.

    In fact, ‘Anonymous’ is symptomatic of another societal problem these days, that of vitriolic, mean-spirited opinions being voiced on blogs, web sites, newspaper articles (and newspaper editorials) in an anonymous voice — no real responsibility being taken for the words offered, hiding behind pseudonyms or just not using their name. Isn’t it just another form of bullying?

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  8. Mr Kimber, you don’t address the rest of it, the huge rest of it. How is it Rehteah had to leave her school while the perpetrators stayed (and I mean perpetrators of the assault and of the harassment)? How is it the head of the school board can use the excuse of a “serious police investigation” for their failure to help the victim of a crime? How is it they think she or any other child is disposable?

    To quote Barry Lopez in his recent essay “Sliver of Sky” – “Believing you entails too much disruption.”

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  9. The problem in our society is that we have denigrated woman to the “second class” – lack of respect, sexual objects,targets of rape and abuse, and more… Our images and thoughts about women need to start at the top – the government likes to cut programs that have a big impact on women – lack of affordable child care, programs for youth, education, arts, mental health, sports, and so on. For sure, all society is affected by cuts, but when young guys have nowhere to go for support – they turn to drugs and sex. Women suffer from this frustration and coupled with a misogynist mentality women suffer most. This is a societal problem and we have to think about how WE can fix it as a community and a society.

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  10. Good points. We need to be clear that there have been at several crimes perpetrated here: a rape, circulation of child pornography, and emotional abuse. Prosecuting on the rape is a start, but we all need to think hard about how we as a society can put a stop to the others. We need to send a strong clear message that social media are not to be used for these purposes, only for positive change.

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