When Lucy DeCoutere first went to police on October 31, 2014, with allegations that Jian Ghomeshi had sexually assaulted and choked her more than a decade earlier, she didn’t anticipate that her complaint would result in criminal charges, let alone a trial. But in February of this year, the Halifax-based Air Force captain and Trailer Park Boys actress found herself — along with two other unnamed witnesses — at the centre of dramatic court proceedings in Regina v. Ghomeshi, in which the accused was tried on four counts of sexual assault and one of overcome resistance by choking. On Thursday, Ghomeshi was found not guilty of all the charges.
Weeks after the trial wrapped, before the verdict came down, DeCoutere was still processing her two days of testimony — being “shamed” by defence attorney Marie Henein and the revelation of damning emails and an intimate letter DeCoutere sent to Ghomeshi after the alleged assault. She sat down with senior writer Sarah Boesveld, who covered the trial from inside the courtroom for Chatelaine.
I’m just going to put my tape recorder down here between us. I don’t want it to freak you out.
Oh, it doesn’t freak me out. You know what freaks me out? Having your personal life live-tweeted so that everyone can make fun of you forever.
I’m guilty of that.
Oh no, [reporters] have to do that. I understand.
Let’s go through your experience of the trial. You were called to testify on Thursday, February 4, 2016. Going into the courtroom for the first time, were you scared?
I’ve never been more scared of anything in my life. Before I walked in, I was like, “Can somebody please find me a wobbly stool and a piece of rope and I’ll be good.” But that waned as soon as I got in and looked at everybody and thought, “It doesn’t matter how I feel.”
And how did you feel right before Marie Henein began her cross-examination? [Henein, Ghomeshi’s high-profile Toronto defence attorney, is known for her pointed style of questioning.]
I thought beforehand, if Henein is going to be a shark, I’m going to be a jellyfish, because you can’t catch a jellyfish. Not that I didn’t want to be caught, I just wanted to present solid. I don’t know if you noticed, but there were a lot of press there. The reactions were being tracked. When people weren’t talking, all you could hear was typing.
Oh, I know.
It was nuts. I hadn’t understood how thoroughly you and a couple of other people were offering very detailed transcriptions in real time. It allowed people to see how things were going and watch things spectacularly fall apart.
You feel they spectacularly fell apart?
There is no “feel.” You were there.
You’re in it and I’m on the bench in the public gallery. It’s different.
I’m clearly not objective about it. But I don’t know if I blew my testimony, I honestly don’t know. I’d like to think I didn’t.
The Crown called you to Toronto from Halifax to testify three days earlier than planned. How did that impact your readiness?
The schedule change was problematic. I landed in Toronto around 9 p.m. on Wednesday night. Gillian [Hnatiw, DeCoutere’s lawyer] picked me up and we went to an Italian restaurant. On our table was a wax pencil and a piece of craft paper. Gillian drew out the courtroom. She let me know where Jian would be sitting and that mattered because, in my imagination, he was sitting right in front of me. And I was glad to know that he was slightly off to the left, so if I looked directly at him, that was my choice. But because I was brought in early, the Crown never sat with me and said, “This is how you answer the freaking questions.”
Gillian didn’t prep you on Henein’s strategies?
No, because I don’t think she’d seen them. I was told that [Henein] would pace around.
You could hear her shoes in court, amidst all the typing.
I couldn’t hear them — I could feel them. On my heart. I was surprised she was huffy.
Like she was annoyed?
I don’t think she was legit annoyed. But she feigned incredulity. The whole looking over her glasses thing. I feel like a lot of that was performance.
[On day one of her testimony, DeCoutere told the Crown that during a weekend visit to Toronto in 2003, she had gone out for dinner with Ghomeshi and then back to his home where he pushed her against a wall, choked her and hit her three times with an open hand. Henein, in her cross-examination produced photos of DeCoutere and Ghomeshi “cuddling,” after brunch in Riverdale Park the weekend of the assault. She suggested DeCoutere conspired to take down Ghomeshi with another witness, insinuated an unrequited infatuation on DeCoutere’s part and hinted at questionable correspondence that would be produced the next day.]
Henein ended that first day in court with a cliffhanger, alluding to a conversation you’d kept secret. Did you worry all night?
Oh my god, no. I went and had a huge Chinese meal with friends, took a Zopiclone smoothie and went to sleep.
You weren’t worried that she was going to make you look like a liar in court?
It didn’t actually cross my mind because I wasn’t lying. I knew she had something and she was going to come at me swinging in the morning.
What she had were emails from after the reported assault — your “post incident conduct.” [DeCoutere continued emailing Ghomeshi after the alleged assault — including a note the next day that said, “I want to fuck your brains out. Tonight.” She also sent him flowers and a hand-written letter in the weeks after the incident, which she signed off, “I love your hands.”]
Post-incident conduct — that term has come to haunt me. When I was concerned about emails with Jian, they were emails from before [the assault]. I wasn’t even thinking about after because I didn’t think it mattered — because it shouldn’t matter. Now I understand that it matters because it measures your memory. I didn’t know my memory was on trial.
Speaking of memory, you really didn’t remember sending the “I want to fuck your brains out” email?
You were there, what do you think? Like when I was going through it, did you think I remembered it?
I didn’t, personally, but others did…
I thought my biggest problem was sending flowers to Jian after the assault, because I remembered the flowers. That “I want to fuck your brains out” thing is really out of character. That email was aggressive and pointed. All I can guess is [that I was thinking] “OK, he upped the ante the night before by choking me, and before that he mocked me for not being very cosmopolitan.” So maybe I was like, “Alright — let’s dance.” I don’t know. I’m doing pop psychology on myself, because I have to defend myself.
Where was your head at that weekend you visited Jian Ghomeshi in 2003?
With that email? I don’t know. Which is interesting because I remembered all the other ones. And then, I came back to Halifax and wrote this [hand-written] letter.
You don’t remember writing that either?
You said in the letter it was really late — were you drunk?
I don’t drink.
You didn’t back then either?
No. There are a couple of photos of me at the party that weekend where I look like I’m [drunk]. I’m just not photogenic.
I was thinking that maybe you weren’t drunk, but you might’ve been high.
No. None of those things. I don’t know what my motivation was, except to be as openhearted as possible. And to have that used as a way of proving that I’m lying 13 years later, while the document is being live-tweeted and I’m trying to figure out what I was thinking… I’ll never know why I wrote that letter.
Have you read it over or do you feel like, “I’m never going to look at that again?”
I read it once or twice, maybe. It hurts me to read it, because now the context has totally changed and it paints me like a crazy person in some people’s eyes — because they don’t understand how this stuff goes.
You said on the stand that by writing “I love your hands,” you were trying to put a magnifying glass on the tools he used to hurt you. Can you elaborate?
I didn’t say that I loved his eyes. This is all a wild guess, right? Sort of. But it’s me guessing on my own psyche then. I think that was an acknowledgment of what had happened and [letting him know] “I’ll just overlook it.”
The letter, to me, spoke very much to the complex feelings women can have about men who mistreat them.
The way that it was waved around, casting doubt on my intentions, was so damning that I’m still pulling it together. I don’t think the letter in and of itself is a very big deal. But the way it was presented was designed to shame me. [Henein] was trying to break me down.*
That’s her job, right?
No it’s not. She could just present the evidence. On the stand, I didn’t fall apart. So she didn’t do her job, if that’s what she was hoping to do. That said, I haven’t slept. After the trial, I was afraid to go home. I was afraid to see anybody. I couldn’t face going to work with all of the dudes I work with [in the Air Force.] I don’t think you need to interrogate somebody in such a fashion that it takes them weeks to recover from a reasonably brief chat.
How did you feel when Henein had you read those damning lines from the email and the letter aloud?
After I read, “I want to fuck your brains out,” there was an audible gasp, and it was like “Okay, take it easy people. I’m aware of how [badly] this is going.” I’m not as random as I sometimes present. I wrote that for a reason. But I don’t remember [what it was].
Did she succeed in making you feel shame?
One hundred percent. I’ve never felt so bad about being myself than I do now.
As the face of this trial and an advocate for coming forward about sexual assault, did you feel added pressure?
Not pressure — responsibility. After I testified, I felt like I had to go up to every person in the world and apologize for ruining the case.
How do you feel about Ghomeshi now?
I don’t see Jian as an enemy. What [Henein] was saying about how I hate him — I’m like, that’s not accurate. I did have a couple of moments of weakness when I was hearing story after story after story of him really causing damage, allegedly, to women across North America: People are not allowed to cast that wide of a net of unkindness [and get away with it]. No.
What made you waive a publication ban on your name and become the public face of this trial?
I was hoping that by very publicly going to the police, other people would follow suit. Around this time was the whole Rehtaeh Parsons publication ban bullshit [Parsons was a 17-year-old Nova Scotia girl who killed herself after being sexually assaulted at a party and then bullied about it at her high school. Her name was posthumously covered by a publication ban when the two men pleaded guilty to distributing photos of her assault, as is customary in sexual assault cases and in cases involving a minor.] She was dead. She died because she couldn’t handle the stress of having been assaulted and ridiculed for having been raped. And I was like, “I’m not going to turn into Rehtaeh Parsons for this. I will remain public.”
You said you’ve had trouble sleeping since the trial wrapped. What’s bothering you?
Marie [Henein]’s adeptness at evisceration — I’m damp with it. She was able to instill in me a feeling of self-loathing. And, um, I guess I gave her that power. But I have to find a way to not feel this bad about something that, in the end, was a moment.
Would you do it all again?
I didn’t know what I was in for. If anyone really thinks that I’ve ruined [sexual assault] reporting for women, I’m terribly sorry. And if anybody really thinks I’m clamouring for fame on the back of women who were assaulted, that’s terrible. Would I do it again? I will never have to know that answer. Do I regret it? No. Was it too expensive? Yes.
Personally, emotionally, psychically. I’ve lost a lot of my sunshine, although my sense of humour is on fleek for sure. I’m definitely funnier now. And if anyone crosses me I correct them much more sharply and compassionately.
You have more confidence to do that?
I’m not confident, I’m totally cracked in half.
So what now?
I can’t live with this the way it is right now. There has to be something positive which comes from this. When I first went into this experience, it was like “Get Jian to stop hurting people.” Then my focus changed. Instead of dwelling — as I will do, on what happened personally — there’s got to be a better way to fix the system. Maybe we can use this awful opportunity to make a bit more of an even playing field.
* Ms. Henein did not directly respond to a request for comment, but a partner in her firm, Scott Hutchison, said the complainant’s characterizations of her courtroom behaviour “are false. It would be wrong for you to repeat them.”
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The bleak lessons of the Ghomeshi trial
Ghomeshi trial: Everything wrong with sexual assault law
In their words: Protestors on the Ghomeshi trial
Not guilty: Jian Ghomeshi acquitted of all charges
Lucy DeCoutere’s message for assault survivors