The rape case against Rhiannon Brooker’s ex-partner had fallen apart.
Rhiannon had accused him of assaulting her numerous times over a two-year period, but detectives had found discrepancies in her story shortly after they arrested him, so prosecutors dropped the charges.
Elsewhere around the world, that would have likely been the end of it. Not in Britain.
Instead, one afternoon in January 2012, police in Bristol, a city in southwest England, called the 28-year-old back to the station for another interview. Rhiannon thought the purpose of the meeting was to bolster the case against her ex. Police were indeed trying to make a case – against her.
What Rhiannon did not know as she answered the detectives’ questions was that she was now suspected of perverting the course of justice by fabricating her allegations. The crime carries a maximum sentence of life in prison.
British authorities are supposed to exercise extreme caution when deciding whether to prosecute someone for lying about rape, especially if the person is vulnerable or if it’s unclear whether the accusation was made maliciously.
Rhiannon ticked many of those boxes. She told police that she had an abusive childhood. Police later said in court that Rhiannon had been extremely reluctant to move forward with the case against her ex in the first place. In fact, detectives blindsided Rhiannon when they arrested him without her knowledge or consent.
As investigators considered charging Rhiannon, one voiced a concern that had nothing to do with the evidence against her, documents seen by BuzzFeed News show. There was a “reputational risk” to the police if her ex “made a complaint or went to the media”.
When the recording light went on in the interview room, detectives told Rhiannon that prosecutors just wanted to “clarify some material”. They told her it was all completely standard – hopefully, they said, she wouldn’t have to come back again.
Rhiannon told BuzzFeed News that the questions they asked were, by now, familiar:
Why didn’t she report her ex-partner earlier?
“I didn’t want him to be arrested,” Rhiannon told them.
Was she sure she had stated the dates and times of each allegation correctly?
No, Rhiannon told them, they were just “guesstimates”.
“It’s not like I sat there looking at my watch timing everything,” Rhiannon recalled saying.
Rhiannon left the police station completely unaware the authorities were hoping to arrest her as soon as possible. By 2014, Rhiannon was on trial. She pleaded not guilty to perverting the course of justice but was convicted and sentenced to three and a half years in prison, separating her from her 9-month-old baby. The judge declared that she had lied in a “completely wicked” way.
Rhiannon is now a convicted criminal, virtually unemployable and forever tarred as a liar.
“They listened, they noted, they took it all down, then they just cast it aside and turned it against me,” she said.
A BuzzFeed News investigation has found that UK authorities are exceptionally aggressive in pursuing women for lying about rape, prosecuting hundreds over the past decade.
The Crown Prosecution Service, the state prosecutor for England and Wales, has even written rules for whom to target and when – something other Western countries don't do, experts say.
The policy is meant to restrain law enforcement from going after people who did not make clear and malicious accusations, those who are young or mentally ill, or those who have experienced past abuse.
But BuzzFeed News today exposes how prosecutors routinely fail to follow these rules as they send vulnerable women to prison. Our investigation can reveal:
At least 200 women in the UK have been prosecuted for lying about being raped in the past decade, according to a BuzzFeed News analysis of press reports. Most of these women were sent to prison, dozens of them with sentences of two or more years.
Prosecutors went after teenagers, and women who reportedly had mental health issues, had experienced past physical and sexual assault, or were grappling with drug and alcohol addiction.
Women were prosecuted even when they reportedly went to police only under pressure, quickly recanted, or never named their attacker at all.
The CPS has prosecuted women who police were not sure had lied. In one instance detectives declined to charge the woman for making a false complaint. Prosecutors went ahead anyway.
Yvette Cooper, Labour MP and chair of the influential home affairs select committee, described BuzzFeed News’ investigation as “very troubling” and called on the CPS to make sure the guidance is followed so that “victims are not deterred from coming forward” and “vulnerable women are not inappropriately prosecuted”.
Britain’s approach stands in stark contrast to that of the US, Australia, Canada, and other European countries. Women in these countries do not typically face prosecution – let alone prison – for lying about rape, state prosecutors and experts said, because it’s not considered to be in the public interest. Norway’s public prosecutions authority, for example, said its priority is encouraging more victims to come forward and warned that “a low threshold for opening a false accusation case could counteract this goal”.
A spokesperson for the CPS told BuzzFeed News that it prosecutes “very few cases” of false rape complaints and this should not dissuade rape victims “from coming forward to report their assault”. Prosecutors treat these cases “extremely carefully” and consider the mental health and other vulnerabilities of the suspect before deciding whether to move forward.
False rape complaints can ruin lives. Even suspects who are quickly exonerated can face public scrutiny and lose their jobs and reputations. But such cases are rare: A 2012 Ministry of Justice study estimated that only 3% of rape reports were “perceived to be malicious”. In contrast, most victims don’t report a rape to the police and when they do, a successful prosecution is unlikely. Only one reported rape in 14 results in a conviction.
Rape cases are, in general, notoriously complex: They rarely involve third-party witnesses, and research shows trauma victims often have fragmented and incomplete memories. CPS guidance on prosecuting false rape allegations warns prosecutors not to “resort to using myths and stereotypes once associated with victims of rape”, such as assuming they always have straightforward, consistent memories of events. It also makes clear that just because there is not enough evidence to bring charges, doesn’t mean there is proof the accuser is lying.
Even if the authorities strongly suspect an allegation is false, there are many reasons not to charge the accuser with a crime. The prosecutors in the 2006 Duke University lacrosse gang rape case – one of the most infamous false accusations in US history – seemed to understand this. They took no action against the accuser because they said she was not of sound mind and might have believed “the many different stories that she has been telling”.
The UK, however, seems to have a “unique appetite” for prosecuting false allegations, said Lisa Avalos, an American law professor who studies false rape reports. She has not found another Western country that “encourages” charges against suspected false rape reporters as a matter of policy, nor has she been able to find a case in which an American accused of falsely reporting rape has faced a jury trial.
“It is not in the public interest to aggressively prosecute disbelieved rape complainants,” Avalos said. “Rape victims commonly express the concern that police do not believe them and do not take them seriously, and these types of prosecutions only serve to reinforce victims’ fear of being treated poorly if they come forward.”
British tabloids cover false rape convictions with relish, running dozens of stories a year about “attention-seeking” women who “cry rape”. It’s not uncommon for sentencing judges to call these women “wicked”; one male judge went as far as to say a convict had “betrayed the sisterhood”.
At least twice in recent years, UK law enforcement have wrongfully arrested rape victims for lying. One woman, known as “Sarah”, was jailed after retracting a true rape allegation. The case drew public outrage and a rebuke from a High Court judge.
In response, the CPS apologised and published new guidance in an effort to curb overzealous prosecutions, along with a review documenting 132 charges and 38 prosecutions during the preceding 17 months. It found that many of those accused of making false allegations were “young, often vulnerable people”. In nearly 40% of the cases studied, police received the initial rape complaint from someone other than the suspect – who then watched as the case “spiralled out of control and he or she felt unable to stop the investigation”.
The guidance instructs authorities that before going forward they must have enough evidence to prove that an allegation is false. But Avalos says her research shows there are not enough safeguards in place to protect women from wrongful prosecution.
“How can women feel safe reporting rape to police under these circumstances?” she said.
The CPS told BuzzFeed News it does not keep consistent data on how often it prosecutes women for lying about rape, although a spokesperson said that many of the 200 cases uncovered in BuzzFeed News’ analysis “appear to feature” prosecutions before the legal guidance was published. However, the press clippings show that the CPS has continued to go after reportedly vulnerable women. In May 2018, judges rejected an appeal by a woman whose lawyers argued her five-year jail term was “excessive” and didn’t account for her “significant mental health difficulties”. The same month, another woman with mental health problems was sentenced to four years in prison on appeal – her original sentence of community service and rehab was deemed “too lenient”.
The guidance was meant to ensure that prosecutions of women who falsely report rape “are the exception, not the rule”, especially if those women are “unwell”, said David Malone, the prominent human rights and criminal barrister who represented Sarah’s case.
BuzzFeed News’ findings, “if correct, make it apparent that the guidance has failed,” Malone said. “It’s not just concerning, but shocking,” he said. “Serious questions have to be asked of the CPS.”
The new guidance was published before prosecutors took Rhiannon to court in 2014. The same year, the CPS charged Eleanor de Freitas, a 23-year-old who had bipolar disorder. Psychiatric reports warned that the case could drive her to harm herself. Her own report to the police acknowledged she was unsure whether she consented to sex. And the detectives who worked on her case did not support the prosecution against her.
A CPS review found that actions taken in Eleanor’s case “were correct, and in accordance with our policies and guidance”, a spokesperson said. The decision to charge Rhiannon was likewise “made in accordance with the Code for Crown Prosecutors and was based on the strength of the evidence presented”.
The men in Eleanor and Rhiannon’s cases said the false claims destroyed their lives – and that the women deserved to be prosecuted. Alexander Economou told BuzzFeed News that Eleanor lied about him “as an act of revenge, because I rejected her”. Paul Fensome, Rhiannon’s ex-partner, told BuzzFeed News that it is Rhiannon’s own fault she landed in prison. “It started with a white lie, and it just snowballed,” he said. “She could have stopped it at any time, but she let it roll, and let it roll, and let it roll until it was too late.”
A spokesperson for the Avon and Somerset police pointed to “a number of factors in this case, including the fact the allegations resulted in an innocent man being wrongly detained and remanded in custody”. It would be a “travesty” if this case “were to undermine the confidence and experiences of victims in any way”, the spokesperson said.
But CPS guidance outlines many reasons why prosecutors could have chosen not to prosecute Eleanor and Rhiannon. They both fit the description of “vulnerable”. They were upfront with detectives about flaws in their stories. Some police officers did not seem convinced their cases would make for straightforward prosecutions. But alongside the consideration of “reputational risks” in Rhiannon’s case, and after a private case brought by a wealthy financier in Eleanor’s, the authorities went after them anyway – and shattered both of their lives.
Something was clearly wrong with Rhiannon. She had shown up to law classes with black eyes, deep purple bruising across the top of her forehead, aching ribs, and a swollen finger in a splint. Persuading her to talk about it was like “getting blood from a stone”, a close friend would later say; Rhiannon would just make up excuses.
But slowly, Rhiannon started telling people – friends, a university lecturer, and a domestic violence counsellor – that her partner sometimes beat her up and, increasingly, forced her to have sex.
From January to May 2011, they pressed Rhiannon to go to hospital, seek legal advice, and start counselling. But much to their frustration and concern, Rhiannon still wouldn’t report Paul, a railway signal operator who was 43 years old to her 24 when they met.
In April 2011 she emailed her lecturer a document with a list of times she claimed Paul had abused her. “It is literally thrown together and makes no sense in places,” Rhiannon wrote to the lecturer, adding that she’d elaborate when she could “find the courage to put down the more difficult things that I am still struggling with the details of”.
Finally, in late May, Rhiannon spoke with police. Detectives noted her reluctance; the first officer she met with spent four hours persuading Rhiannon to give him Paul’s name. Among her many concerns, he noted, was “fear of losing control of the situation, i.e. police taking over and going ahead with prosecution without her”.
Over the next two months, detectives spent hours with Rhiannon in the hopes she would give a formal statement accusing Paul of sexual assault. Still, she held back. Prosecutors would later argue in court that Rhiannon was reluctant because she knew her accusations were fake – and that if police got involved, they’d out her as a liar.
Although Rhiannon hadn’t given a formal statement, police did exactly what she feared. On 1 August, they arrested Paul without her consent, based on their interviews with Rhiannon’s friends, and photographs and medical reports about injuries she’d claimed to have suffered at her partner’s hands.
When detectives told Rhiannon that unless she gave them concrete evidence, they’d have to let Paul go, she handed over the document she had sent her lecturer, and she sat for hours of videotaped interviews, answering officers’ questions about when and where each alleged incident had occurred. She wasn’t great at recalling dates and other details from the past two years, she told police, because she never thought she would actually move forward with a case. Detectives saw her as a victim and tried to reassure her.
“I wouldn’t use the term ‘have sex with you’,” one detective said when Rhiannon described an unwanted encounter. “I’d say it’s rape.”
At the end of the interviews, detectives praised Rhiannon’s cooperation and promised she would always have their support.
“We ain’t gonna go anywhere,” one told her.
Dr Christopher Bench was away for Christmas in 2012 when his psychiatry practice received an urgent phone call that “something traumatic” had just happened.
The call came from Eleanor, a patient who traced her mental illness back to her first year in university. Once a sociable straight-A student, she had withdrawn from both class and social activities, even turning off her phone for three months. She lost weight, refused to leave her bed, and contemplated suicide.
She was diagnosed with depression and, later, bipolar disorder, and she began seeing Bench, who prescribed antidepressants. After two years of ups and downs, in the spring of 2012 Eleanor had a full breakdown and began “harbouring grandiose delusional beliefs”, Bench wrote in a psychiatric report seen by BuzzFeed News. She went on manic shopping sprees she couldn’t afford, accused her parents of trying to poison her, and claimed her landlord had sexually assaulted her. She was sectioned and admitted to a psychiatric hospital for a month while doctors adjusted her medication.
For a while after she was released, she seemed “very much improved”, Bench wrote. She took up Pilates and dance, and started socialising again.
But at the appointment following her emergency call, Eleanor appeared “tense and quite guarded with a degree of grandiosity”, Bench later wrote. She “acknowledged she was not well”. Eventually, Eleanor told Bench that she had been “sexually assaulted by someone she knew”. A few days later, she went to the police and started talking.
Eleanor was at a party a few months earlier where some of Chelsea’s young and wealthy had gathered to celebrate a birthday. Wearing an elegant, long-sleeved dress with her honey-blonde hair pulled back to show shimmering gold earrings, the 22-year-old had hit it off with a man named Alexander – a tanned, dark-haired 33-year-old financier and son of a shipping tycoon with whom she shared some mutual friends.
After the party, Eleanor and Alexander became friends on Facebook and started sending each other lighthearted and flirtatious messages, records show. They chatted about sexual fantasies, and Eleanor offered to give him a massage. For a while their relationship went no further than the messages.
Eventually the two met up for a Sunday brunch date at Alexander’s apartment in Chelsea. They spent a few hours chatting, eating pizza, giving each other massages, and having sex, Alexander said. “She was supremely confident and taking the lead in almost everything we do,” Alexander later wrote on his blog.
He was horrified when he learned that Eleanor had told police a different story. She claimed he would not let her get her phone from her car unless she let him tie her up and that he’d poured water over her face in what Eleanor described as “waterboarding”. “I feel that I made it clear to him that I wasn’t into, to paraphrase him, ‘this kinky shit’,” she told police.
They had sex at least once that night, Eleanor told police, maybe twice. Her memory was hazy, she said. Her bipolar medication often made her drowsy, and she wasn’t supposed to drink with it. Asked by police if the sex was consensual, she replied: “I don’t think so, I was just laying there frozen with fear, I didn’t say yes, or no, I didn’t say anything. I wasn’t in control of my body, I was groggy....”
Alexander completely denied that account. He said that Eleanor consented to being tied up and that far from being waterboarded, she had asked him for a drink of water and it had spilled on her.
Alexander was arrested around two weeks later on suspicion of rape.
He spent a night in custody and six weeks on bail before the police released him without charge. He would later start a blog called “Falsely Accused” and discuss the case extensively in court and in the media.
He told BuzzFeed News that Eleanor was “100% guilty” of making up a “malicious” lie. “I’m not going to be bullied by people who suggest she is a victim,” he said. “Because she is not a victim, she is a nasty piece of work.”
When police didn’t charge Alexander, Eleanor thought the case was over, and so did the detectives who had worked on it. They had no plans to investigate her for lying. But someone else did.
“Load of rubbish,” Paul told police after they arrested him in August 2011. “I've never sexually assaulted or hit a woman in my life.”
He faced 19 charges of rape, attempted rape, false imprisonment, and assault.
Paul was able to provide evidence that he was working or out of town for some of the dates when the assaults were alleged to have happened, and mobile phone data and road camera footage cast doubt on others.
Police and prosecutors met to figure out what to do next, and came to a sobering conclusion: They no longer had a case against Paul. “They eventually saw through her lies and knew she was lying all along,” Paul told BuzzFeed News.
At this point they also started to worry about something else. Paul had spent more than 30 days in jail, which didn’t reflect well on police. “I felt the reputational risk to the constabulary was great if the original suspect made a complaint or went to the media,” detective inspector Janice Pearson wrote in a memo later discussed in court. An Avon and Somerset police spokesperson told BuzzFeed News that “reputational risk” is “never” a factor in charging decisions.
They decided not only to drop charges against Paul but also to go after Rhiannon.
“The arrest of the original victim was to be done in a very respectful manner,” Pearson wrote, “understanding there may be some truth to the account or that she had a previous history of abuse which was manifesting itself.” Officers gave an additional, baffling reason for investigating Rhiannon: She “would be very upset if the case was dropped and she would need an explanation which we would not provide sufficiently without arrest,” Pearson wrote.
Prosecutors then asked detectives to interview Rhiannon once more. They did not tell her she was now a suspect.
This was a controversial strategy. “I felt we would be treating the victim as a suspect but not affording her the rights as any other suspect who is arrested,” Pearson noted. She said they took care to prepare questions that were “open”, giving Rhiannon the opportunity to explain discrepancies in her story.
Prosecutors were not happy with the subsequent interviews.
Pearson claimed in her memo that she “received a very angry phone call” from a prosecutor, who upbraided her for not pushing Rhiannon “until she broke down and made an admission so she could be arrested”.
The CPS refutes this version of events “entirely”, a spokesperson for the agency said.
The case against Rhiannon was closed – for now.
For six months, Eleanor’s case was as good as closed.
But in the summer of 2013, Alexander brought a private prosecution – criminal proceedings carried out not by the state but by ordinary citizens or companies. “I intend to get your daughter sent to prison for a very long time for the crimes she has committed,” Alexander wrote to Eleanor’s father.
A private case has the same powers as a state prosecution. However, the CPS can stop a private prosecution if it believes it is not in the public interest. So in September 2013, Eleanor’s lawyer wrote to Keir Starmer, the director of public prosecutions at the time, asking him “as a matter of urgency” to stop Alexander’s case, saying it “falls short” of CPS charging standards.
Prosecutors did the opposite: They took up the case against Eleanor themselves.
And they overruled the Metropolitan Police to do so. Detectives did not want to charge Eleanor and refused to reopen their investigation, documents show. They believed that a prosecution against her would not succeed.
Alexander and the CPS say the police simply failed to investigate and were not in a position to form a view.
In fact, prosecutors didn’t need the police. Instead, they adopted the case handed to them by Alexander’s lawyers.
That case included the mutually flirtatious Facebook messages exchanged before their date and text messages Eleanor sent to mutual friends afterwards. She told one that she had “fun” and the pair were a “good match”, but later she texted another friend that she was on “suicide watch” after Alexander “fucked me and chucked me”. Prosecutors also pointed to CCTV footage of the couple’s shopping trip to Ann Summers – a high street lingerie and sex toy shop – the day after the alleged rape, as evidence that Eleanor’s “actions and behaviour” were “wholly inconsistent” with the allegation of rape she made.
Alexander told BuzzFeed News that the CCTV was conclusive. “Tell me, have you ever come across a rape victim who goes to a sex shop immediately after?” he said.
The head of the CPS, Alison Saunders, would later say the footage “unassailably contradicted” Eleanor’s account of the shopping trip.
Even so, under CPS guidance “the first question” before deciding to prosecute someone for lying about rape is whether the accusation was “clear and unambiguous”. Eleanor’s account to the police raises questions about whether this test was met. However, a spokesperson said the evidence in Eleanor’s case “was strong and it was clear there was sufficient evidence for a realistic prospect of conviction”.
After Alexander launched his private prosecution, Eleanor began to spiral. The rape counselling that the police had arranged when she was regarded as a victim was withdrawn, because she was now a suspect. Having lost the anonymity granted to rape victims, she was terrified of being identified in public. She became delusional and her behaviour turned increasingly bizarre, documents show. She believed that she was being followed and her phone had been bugged, and on one occasion police found her throwing food and shouting at staff in a supermarket.
Before they pursue false rape charges, police and prosecutors consider whether the suspect has any significant mental health issues, according to CPS guidance. The CPS was given a psychiatric report, which determined that Eleanor was fit to stand trial because she had the mental capacity to understand and challenge the court proceedings. But the report included a key caveat: She would need to be constantly evaluated, because the nature of her illness meant that her state “could quickly change”. His ultimate concern: She might kill herself.
He wrote that Eleanor was at “chronic and significant” risk of suicide.
Prosecutors set a court date.
When police told Rhiannon they were dropping the case against Paul, she fled to the riverbank with a bottle of vodka and packets of antidepressants. But, slowly, she got back on her feet: She continued counselling, started thinking about going back to law school, and began to date a former coworker. Then, in November 2012, six police officers knocked on her door.
After Rhiannon’s last interview 10 months earlier, in which she was an unwitting suspect but police had not secured a confession from her, police had assigned more resources to the case against her.
In a memo later introduced in court, the police superintendent wrote that they had enough evidence to soon arrest Rhiannon. It also noted that Paul had recently filed a formal complaint against the police. “I was lucky my case never went to court,” Paul told BuzzFeed News. “It’s an experience I wouldn’t wish on anyone.”
Even before a jury decided whether Rhiannon was guilty, authorities sent Paul £45,000 for legal costs and damage to reputation.
The six officers who arrested Rhiannon for perverting the course of justice took her to the police station.
There, Rhiannon told BuzzFeed News, she met the lawyer assigned to her case and learned she might be asked about her childhood trauma. After getting advice, she decided to confess in hopes she would just get a caution without having to talk about her past.
Still in shock, Rhiannon said, she read out loud a statement to police: “The allegations were not true and I’m sorry that I made them. I find it very difficult to understand why I said these things.”
Rhiannon made the confession because it “seemed like the best option at the time”, she told BuzzFeed News, and because she thought it could help her avoid prison. “It seemed like the only option, to be honest.”
It didn’t work. She was charged with 20 counts of perverting the course of justice and pleaded not guilty.
Police conducted a thorough investigation of Rhiannon’s life in order to secure her conviction. It was a harrowing experience: She later told the court that police contacted social services about the allegations against her and said they believed her then-unborn child was at risk.
They also dug through Rhiannon’s decades-old medical records and spoke with her childhood classmates to investigate whether she had faked other injuries throughout her life and lied about being abused as a child.
Rhiannon’s family members told police that her childhood had been abusive. The CPS guidance says that prosecutors should consider previous histories of domestic or sexual abuse when deciding whether to bring charges. In this case, prosecutors did not believe Rhiannon and moved forward anyway.
The thought of testifying in open court so terrified Eleanor that she started showing up to court in a burqa to hide her face. Her lawyers hoped she wouldn’t have to take the stand, but they could give her no assurances. The reason: The CPS failed to share Eleanor’s police interview, despite a court order to do so. Without seeing this key piece of evidence, Eleanor’s lawyers say they couldn’t decide whether they would need further testimony from her, or whether they could make the case without putting her on the stand.
But finally, the CPS coughed up the tape, and on 4 April 2014, three days before her trial, her lawyers planned to give her good news: She didn’t need to go through the ordeal of testifying. They believed her police interview was convincing enough.
It was too late. That very morning, Eleanor’s mother found her hanged at their family home. “Dear Mummy and Daddy,” she had scrawled on the lined paper of an old diary. “I’m so sorry to do this to you, but I feel trapped and that there’s no way out.”
Eleanor asked that her funeral not be overly somber: “I would like happy songs‚ All things bright and beautiful. Bright and happy party dresses.”
In the aftermath of her death, Eleanor’s parents demanded answers from the CPS, and won a meeting with Saunders, the director of public prosecutions.
Saunders apologised for the “unacceptable” late disclosure of evidence. It’s a problem she has had to address a number of times since, in the wake of an ongoing scandal over failures to disclose evidence in rape cases.
But in a statement in 2014, she said she was “satisfied that the decision making in this case was correct and that it was made in accordance with our policies and guidance.” Prosecutions for false rape claims are rare, she said, “but where there is sufficient evidence to show that a false claim may have been made, the potential harm to those affected must be very carefully considered and an appropriate decision made”. The CPS had carefully considered “Ms de Freitas’ mental health”, Saunders added.
The police, however, stood by their decision not to pursue Eleanor. “I have always maintained that Eleanor shouldn’t have been prosecuted,” detective inspector Julian King wrote in an email to Eleanor’s father.
After Eleanor’s death, Alexander sued Eleanor’s father, David de Freitas, for libel, saying he had endured weeks of “public rubbishing” after David publicly questioned why the CPS chose to prosecute his daughter. Alexander is currently appealing the case after a judge dismissed it last year. David declined to comment.
“I really hate that fucking family,” Alexander told BuzzFeed News. “He’s got all the feminists into a frenzy thinking that she’s some kind of victim.”
“I’m the victim,” he said, “not them.”
This week the attorney general denied Eleanor’s father’s request for a public inquiry, confirming his view that it was right for the prosecution of Eleanor to go ahead.
Bulbs flashed as Rhiannon walked through the courtroom door in April 2014, her 9-month-old daughter in tow. Since she was now on trial, tabloids were allowed to trumpet Rhiannon’s name: “Trainee barrister cried rape 11 times to avoid taking exams.”
The prosecution initially said this was Rhiannon’s motive.
Rhiannon had been “reluctant to seek help because her allegations were untrue”, the prosecution said. “In reality she was having a nice time” with Paul.
Prosecutors introduced evidence showing that Paul’s arthritis prevented him from making a closed fist and a medical expert who reviewed photos of Rhiannon’s injuries and said they were compatible with being self-inflicted. They told the jury that Rhiannon had sent threatening texts to herself using a “mystery” mobile phone and then deleted them.
Perhaps the prosecution’s strongest evidence was that Paul had a “cast-iron” alibi for two of the 20 charges and that mobile phone analysis and other data seriously undermined others.
Rhiannon was cross-examined on the “list” she had long ago emailed her lecturer with the acknowledgement that it “makes no sense in places”, which she gave to the police after they arrested him. Also under scrutiny were dates she had referred to in police interviews as “guesstimates”.
Prosecutors said that Rhiannon had spun a years-long web of lies about Paul that had tricked many people in her life – friends, domestic violence counsellors, doctors, a lecturer, and finally experienced detectives – leading them to “substantiate her false allegations” without realising the deceit.
The prosecution argued that Rhiannon would have left Paul if she were truly afraid of him, and that she was an independent women capable of standing up for herself.
“These are dinosaur prejudices,” Rhiannon’s barrister said in her closing statement. “This prosecution has been a throwback to the bad old days.”
But throughout the proceedings, the prosecution reminded the jury: “This is not a rape trial.”
The prosecution abandoned its “student cried rape in order to pass her bar exams” argument after the defence pointed out that Rhiannon was an “outstanding” student and the allegations took place before and after school.
After an 11-week trial, the jury of 10 men and two women convicted Rhiannon on 12 counts out of 20.
Even after the verdict, no one seemed sure of a motive. “I don’t know why she did what she did,” judge Julian Lambert said, sentencing her to three and a half years in prison. “The likelihood is she cannot know herself.”
Rhiannon’s body, still producing milk, physically ached for her baby while she was in prison. She marked the days in her diary. “Didn’t even recognise my own daughter today,” she wrote after one visit. “This is so so cruel on her.”
Three months in, Rhiannon learned the solicitor general had appealed against her sentence – it was “unduly lenient”, they argued. Rhiannon was terrified: “That is absolutely my last chance of having a relationship with [my daughter] and it’s the last thing they could take from me,” she wrote.
The appeal was rejected. Rhiannon was released early in November 2015, after almost 17 months in prison. When she first sat down in the car on the way home, Rhiannon recalled, a strange expression came over her daughter’s face. “She just looked so confused,” she said. She spent the remainder of her sentence “on tag”, with an electronic monitor attached to her ankle.
Rhiannon now lives in a remote area hours away from the closest airport and unlisted on Google Maps. Once, she planned on dedicating her life to the law. Now she struggles just to get a supermarket job. She spends her days homeschooling her daughter while her partner is at work. On days off, they build sandcastles on the beach. If her family hadn’t stuck by her, Rhiannon said, she wouldn’t have been able to cope.
“I’m one of the lucky ones,” she said.