Sunday, April 09, 2006

Deborah Coddington: The worst provincial attitudes

There were no winners in the three-week trial in the High Court at Auckland where Clint Rickards, Bob Schollum and Brad Shipton were acquitted of raping and sexually violating Louise Nicholas. And contrary to Justice Tony Randerson's caution to the jury, this was a trial of morals.

Like most interested observers, I couldn't sit through the trial but relied on media coverage for accurate reports. We were reasonably well served, save the lapse by TV3's breathless reporter when the jury returned their not guilty verdicts. This, the reporter announced, was "good news". Good news for whom? Certainly not for Louise Nicholas and her supporters.

Justice Randerson's summing up included some vitally important advice to the jury. They had to be completely certain not only that Nicholas did not want sex to occur, they also had to have absolutely no doubt the accused knew Nicholas did not want sex to occur.

On that basis, and so far as this case is concerned, I believe the jury made the right decision. The line drawn by Justice Randerson is, I hope, one which New Zealand rape trials do not cross, lest we become like the United States, where pre-date signed affidavits are requested by men seeking to protect themselves from post-coital remorse in the form of a rape accusation.

There are other cases where there are no doubts over the lack of consent - the Ambury Park rapes, where a girl was abducted off the street, repeatedly raped in the back of a van, urinated on and defiled most horribly.

Or the brutal rape some years back on One Tree Hill, where another young girl was dragged from a car and gang-raped.

Women I spoke with said it was the white muslin dress that left them too unsure to call these men guilty. How could you keep a dress, let alone continue to wear it, when men you considered rapists had stripped it away before violating you?

But without doubt the behaviour and morals of Nicholas, Rickards, Shipton and Schollum were on trial. It was 20 years ago. New Zealand was a different place back then, apparently, in those months between late 1985 and early 1986. We were told it was a time of sexual freedom, experimentation; someone even managed to blame Rogernomics for these people's behaviour.

Hardly. In the late 1960s, when Sir Roger's alternative budget wasn't even on the horizon, some of my college teachers in Waipukurau belonged to "wife-swapping clubs". A box containing members' keys was passed around and whoever's keys were taken was that person's bedmate for the night.

I believe Louise Nicholas; she's got guts. And I believe Rickards, Shipton and Schollum who thought sex with her and her flatmate was consensual. Based on the trial evidence that wasn't suppressed, these people are not evil, or criminal. These two former, and one current, police officers didn't deserve jail, but I don't think they're innocent. At home were wives and partners, raising children, but that didn't stop them slobbering over a silly mixed-up teenager with warped judgment. To their credit, they've admitted they're ashamed of that.

Louise Nicholas said she was sexually abused when she was 12. I have no doubt that in one part of her brain she didn't want sex with three policemen, but another part of her brain was unable to say no and slam the door in their faces.

Psycho-babblers probably call it "learned submissiveness", but abused people have great difficulty summoning the wherewithal to take control.

This was a snapshot of provincial New Zealand behaviour at its worst - seedy, tacky, sordid. For all that we think we're cosmopolitan and sophisticated, with our 21st-century technology, our Oscar-winning film people, and our self-righteous nuclear-free attitude, we haven't shaken off the small-town view that men are mighty and might is right.

This attitude - women are really just gagging for it with any man - is not solely confined to Sticksville. In letters printed in this very publication, I've read tragic words from men blaming Auckland city rapes on women's declining moral standards. What do we expect, these writers opine, when we allow prostitutes on the streets and legalise unions between the same gender?

Yes, there were holes in Louise Nicholas' evidence, such as the dress, flashing her stocking top, the men mysteriously knowing when she was off work. She could have hidden from them, shut the door, moved towns.

But equally they could have left her alone. They were cops who were trained to know right from wrong; people of my generation grew up believing the policeman was our friend.

There are still questions to be answered: did these men ever seek out Louise Nicholas, to say they were deeply sorry for what happened; to say they now realised that though no laws were broken, it was callous to treat a vulnerable woman so badly? And would she have forgiven them if they did? Could they all have moved on?

It's too late for those answers.

Instead, their lives may forever be bound by shame, wrath, vengeance, failure and bitterness. Who knows what wretchedness awaits them now.


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