Yesterday, Jian Ghomeshi’s trial began in a courtroom in Toronto’s Old City Hall. The former CBC Radio host has pleaded not guilty to four counts of sexual assault and one count of overcoming resistance by choking. The three women accusing him allege that he was physically abusive to them on dates. (Ghomeshi stated in the past that he enjoyed bondage and dominance role-play and that any violence that happens during his sexual encounters is consensual.)
The courtroom only holds about 100 spectators, but any of us can witness the trial in real time. Several journalists and activists are live-tweeting the proceedings, including my colleague Sarah Boesveld, providing an ongoing account of the testimony of the first complainant and her cross-examination by Ghomeshi’s lawyer Marie Henein. Over the past two days, I’ve checked in several dozen times on Twitter, reading the threads with a mixture of sympathy for the women and shame over my own curiosity. But more than anything, I’ve been struck by how this trial has exposed — in real time — what sexual-assault complainants face on the stand.
The questions Henein has asked have been exacting and insistent, each detail of years-old memories weighed and poked for holes. The complainant, who alleges that Ghomeshi pulled her hair and slammed her head against a car, was asked about the specific location on the vehicle where her head made contact and about whether or not she had hair extensions at the time. Her second day on the stand, she was grilled about the tone of an email she sent to Ghomeshi after the alleged assault: whether it was flirtatious and if so, whether that later flirtatiousness implied consent to the earlier encounter. Inconsistencies have been interrogated and torn apart. Expressions of fear or trauma have been challenged for sincerity.
The questioning is brutal — designed, it seems, not only to raise doubt in the mind of the judge, but in the mind of the woman herself, to make her second guess her memories and experience. Watching this on Twitter enables us to see the courtroom dealings unfold without a filter and without distance. We are in the witness box with the woman as she is cross-examined.
There is no smoking gun in this trial. It’s a she-said-he-said case, where Justice William Horkins’ verdict will be determined based on whose interpretation of events he finds most credible. In fact, the burden is on the complainants to prove their charges. Until the judge rules, Ghomeshi is presumed to be innocent — a necessary underpinning of our legal system, but also, in cases like this one, a deeply troubling presumption. If the accused is presumed to be innocent, then the accusers must be presumed to be lying. And that means the women are on trial just as much the man they allege assaulted them.
No wonder so few women talk about their experiences of assault, or pursue criminal charges. As Farrah Khan, a sexual violence support and education coordinator at Toronto’s Ryerson, wrote on Twitter: “The live-tweeting of the #Ghomeshi is a clear reminder of why I, like so many other survivors, do not report sexual violence.”
The live-tweeting from inside the courtroom can feel relentless. But that relentlessness also serves a purpose, allowing us to see what it’s like to be questioned, combatively, and judged. Not all of us could withstand such pressure. But after her testimony finished, the first complainant remained resolute. In a statement made through her lawyer that’s now being transmitted via social media, she wrote, “I want to encourage other victims of abuse to come forward and not be afraid. I feel like a weight has been lifted off my shoulders now that I have had the chance to tell my story openly.”