Protesters target Halifax judge after cabbie acquitted in 'drunk can consent' case
Protesters took to the streets of downtown Halifax on Tuesday, calling for an inquiry of a judge whose controversial acquittal of a taxi driver accused of sexual assault has sparked public outrage.
On Wednesday, Justice Gregory Lenehan found 40-year-old cab driver Bassam Al-Rawi not guilty of sexually assaulting a young woman who was found intoxicated, unconscious and partially naked in the back of his taxi in May 2015.
In his ruling, the judge said that the Crown had failed to show beyond a reasonable doubt that the woman did not consent to sexual activity. Lenehan’s verdict and his blunt comment during the ruling that “clearly, a drunk can consent” sparked public outrage as it stoked discussion of sexual assault, inebriation and the definition of consent.
The Nova Scotia Crown announced plans to appeal Justice Lenehan’s ruling on Tuesday as protesters gathered in downtown Halifax.
The Crown says he made an error in law when he said the prosecution provided no evidence of the woman’s lack of consent and that the judge engaged in speculation on the issue of consent.
Protest organizer Chrissy Merrigan took particular issue with Justice Lenehan’s choice of words.
“I understand there’s a legal system but his ruling and his wording just perpetuated rape culture,” Merrigan said during an interview with CTV News Channel on Tuesday afternoon. “By saying she was a drunk, using that terminology, it’s antiquated. It’s not okay. It’s not where we’re going toward as a society.”
Merrigan says the protesters will march from Halifax City Hall to the provincial courthouse on Spring Garden Road, where Lenehan will be on the job.
“He’ll be sitting this afternoon and we’ll be directly across the road making noise,” she said, explaining that organizers hope thousands will turn out to make their voices heard.
According to the group’s Facebook page, more than 1,000 participants said they planned to go to the event, and 2,000 more said they were “interested” in attending.
“Everyone is upset,” Merrigan said. “We’re tired of going to Facebook. We’re tired of talking about it at work in the morning over coffee. What difference does that make? We needed to do something tangible.”
“We’re just really fed up with how the justice system has been handling this, and that you can say the things that have been said by the judge and get away with it,” said protestor Sophia Slaunwhite.
Many protestors say they want to see Lenehan removed from the bench, but for others, the focus was on the broader issue of protecting women from sexual assault.
Demonstrator Nikki Jamieson hoped to draw attention to the issue of consent, by sprawling out on a park bench surrounded by empty cups, the kind often found at keg parties, with a pair of signs reading “Just because she isn’t saying no, doesn’t mean she is saying yes.”
“I’ve had a lot of negative comments so far,” she told CTV Atlantic. “People telling me to take responsibility for my own actions.”
Merrigan clarified that her group is not calling for the judge to be fired, as another protest on Wednesday is demanded. Her group is asking for an inquiry to be opened into the matter. The protesters say that Lenehan has a history of handing out light sentences to sexual offenders and failing to protect the victims of these types of crimes.
Jackie Stevens, executive director of the Avalon Sexual Assault Centre, says Tuesday’s demonstration shows the community is ready to unite behind the victims of sexual assault.
“People are coming forward, speaking about their truths, and people are believing those truths and standing with those people, and demanding that the laws be addressed,” she said.
In response to the backlash, the Nova Scotia Criminal Lawyers Association came to Lenehan’s defence in a statement issued on Monday.
“If a reasonable doubt exists, a judge must acquit the accused even when it would be publicly unpopular,” the release said. “He is fair. He is the type of person that any reasonable, informed member of the public should want as a judge."
Merrigan said she understands why the legal community has to support Lenehan and the legal process, but that it doesn’t mean she can’t voice her opposition.
“I’m not a lawyer. I don’t have a legal background. All I can do is make noise and say it’s not okay,” she said.
The protest organizer isn’t the only one voicing her concerns either, an online petition has also been created on the website Change.org demanding that provincial and city officials launch an inquiry into Lenehan. The petition has attracted more than 35,000 signatures as of Tuesday morning.
Crown attorney Jennifer Maclellan is handling the appeal. She says she is confident the ruling will be overturned.
“The six substantive grounds that we have identified all relate to how the judge handled the issue of consent,” she said. “Another of our grounds is based on the factual findings he made. There was no way he could have acquitted Mr. Al-Rawi. It should have been a conviction.”
Crown lawyers are so confident they have accurately identified the errors that they didn’t take the 30 days afforded to them to build their case, pressing ahead after just six.
The alleged victim says she is glad to see the appeal move forward, even if it means she will have to testify again.
“I’m not so much motivated to do it because of this case in particular, but I think it is important for the future of sexual assault cases that I see it through to the end,” she said.
For Merrigan, she’s just hoping the protests this week raise awareness about consent and sexual assault in her community.
“It could be any one of us in the back of that cab,” she said. “Halifax has a kind of party culture and we’ve all had our nights out. We all take cabs home.”
With files from The Canadian Press, and reports from CTV Atlantic’s Kayla Hounsell and Bruce Frisko