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August 25, 2001

Raped by the system

National Post

Jamie Nelson spent three years in prison for a crime he did not commit. Following his arrest in April, 1996, the life of the now 34-year-old man was reduced to tatters. His youngest son was put up for adoption, he lost his business and, in despair, attempted suicide inside his jail cell. This week, the Ontario Court of Appeal acquitted Mr. Nelson of rape, assault, forcible confinement and uttering death threats. Amazingly, he was convicted based on nothing more than the word of Cathie Fordham, his accuser. No physical evidence supported her story. Nor did any witnesses confirm it. Rather, as National Post columnist Christie Blatchford has reported: "This was a classic he said-she said case. The tie went to the woman, as so often it does."

In this instance, the woman appears to have contacted police on more than 50 occasions and has apparently alleged sexual assault no less than seven times. Last July, Ms. Fordham was convicted of public mischief for wrongly accusing another man of common assault. During her trial, she suddenly claimed the man had also sexually assaulted her. When sentencing Ms. Fordham to six months of house arrest, the judge declared the matter "a particularly nasty case where a totally innocent person was accused of a serious crime." She is currently bound by a peace bond in connection with another mischief charge and on Monday is scheduled to appear in court for allegedly threatening her ex-boyfriend with death.

Although life would be simpler if women never lied about such matters, some do. Earlier this month, a California woman was placed on three years probation and ordered to serve 150 days in jail after taking photos of a bruise she'd received in a fall from a ladder and using them to accuse her husband falsely of kicking her. On the strength of her story, a restraining order locked the man out of his home, denied him access to his possessions and forced him to live in his car for five months before she admitted she had lied. In 1998, two Seattle men were convicted of first-degree rape, sentenced to up to 15 years in prison and had already served nine months before it was discovered the female complainant had actually been in jail for traffic violations on the day she claimed the attack occurred. That same year, an Edmonton teacher was sentenced to two years in jail after being found guilty of "poisoning ... the well of justice" by falsely claiming a police officer had sexually assaulted her in a holding cell. In the words of the officer, "I had graduated at the top of my recruit class two weeks before. I thought my life was over. I thought I had lost the only career I had ever dreamed of."

While feminists insist less than 5% of sexual assault allegations are bogus, some studies put the figure at closer to 60%. The reasons women lie are varied. In recent years, a 12-year-old British Columbia girl admitted making up a story about being abducted and raped by three men in a van because she needed an excuse for missing her curfew. An Alberta woman has falsely claimed two men dragged her into a park and raped her because she didn't want her husband to find out she had spent the night with another man. A Nova Scotia woman has given police a wrong description of her rapist (leading to the arrest of an innocent man) because, for reasons unknown, she wished to protect the identity of her real attacker. And a 15-year-old Quebec girl has made up a story about being stalked by a would-be kidnapper in order to impress friends. In the case of Mr. Nelson, it appears Ms. Fordham levelled false allegations against him to assist the cause of her friend, with whom Mr. Nelson was involved in a bitter child custody battle.

Rape can be a life-destroying experience. But the same is true of being falsely convicted of rape. As Mr. Nelson said in the wake of his acquittal, "This feels good, but it doesn't give me back one of those days I spent in prison." Convicting someone of such a horrendous crime solely on the basis of a complainant's say-so is dangerous. It is also, very blatantly, a conviction despite obvious grounds for reasonable doubt, and so should not happen. Let us hope the outcome of this case serves as a sharp reminder to courts that women sometimes lie, and their testimony should be subjected to as much scrutiny as that of the men whose lives they may be wantonly ruining.

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