What the Meredith Kercher Case Means for Women’s Justice in Portsmouth

Chief Executive of Aurora New Dawn, Shonagh Dillon, talks to Sarah Cheverton about the tragic murder of Meredith Kercher and what it reveals about attitudes to female victims of violent crime in Portsmouth and Hampshire.

Meredith Kercher was a student from North London who went to Italy for a year as part of her university studies. She moved into a house with an American student, Amanda Knox, who was on a similar placement. They lived together for three months before Meredith Kercher was sexually assaulted and murdered. The evidence indicates that there were two or more perpetrators at the scene when Meredith died. Knox was one of the main suspects, along with two men, Rudy Guede and Raffaele Sollecito. Rudy Guede has subsequently been convicted of the murder, but Knox and Sollecito – who were found guilty by a court twice but subsequently had their sentences reviewed – were finally acquitted for her murder.

Sarah Cheverton: What do you think the case tells us about female victims of murder and sexual assault?

Shonagh Dillon: The search for Meredith’s killers has been going on now for eight years. A lot of the case has been dominated by Amanda Knox and how it has played out in the media has been heavily gendered. There has been a focus on Knox as a sort of femme fatale and her nickname for herself, ‘Foxy Knoxy’, has been consistently used in the media.

In fact, the whole case has become dominated by Knox; for many people it’s no longer the ‘Meredith Kercher murder’ but the ‘Amanda Knox trial’. What is most concerning here is that we have a UK national who was raped and murdered, and she has been partly forgotten.

Where’s the justice for Meredith Kercher? Where’s the justice for her family? How can these two suspects be found guilty, then not guilty, then guilty again and now finally, not guilty? It’s hard to make sense of that.

Interestingly, US public has rallied around Amanda Knox demanding justice, but we haven’t seen that kind of public outcry for Meredith Kercher – a 21 year old victim – here in the UK.

What does that tell us about how normalised violence against women is for us? Do we really care about this? Are we culturally committed to ending violence against women? If so, where is the outrage?

There are strong similarities here on a local level. At Aurora New Dawn, we see victims being forgotten or not believed. The victims are not the centre of the crime. A horrendous crime was committed against this woman and as is often the case – far too often – the criminal justice system does not reveal what happened and does not bring justice to the perpetrator.

Sarah: Do you see any examples in your local work of the victim being forgotten in the criminal justice process in this way? What goes wrong?

Shonagh: Well, Hampshire has the lowest conviction rate for rape in the country. That speaks volumes in itself. We’re working very closely with the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) to make sure that changes in the future.

So many cases are NFA’d which means “No Further Action” is taken after a rape is reported (also sometimes called “No Crimed”), and that’s before you even get through the courtroom doors. Most of the cases we see don’t get to court.

Sarah: Why does that happen?

Shonagh: From the perspective of the criminal justice system, sometimes it’s on an evidential basis, so the incident doesn’t meet the criteria for criminal evidence. So, it can come down to “it’s his word against hers”.

But from the perspective of what we do, there’s a massive cultural problem that’s tied to gender, as I talked about in my last interview on the Ched Evans case.

Sarah: Is there any way to fix that?

Shonagh: Yes. I think we need to have a more specialist focus on making sure those cases get to court.

Instead of asking victims to “prove” what happened to them, I think it’s up to us as agencies to prove it. As agencies we need to link up more closely on that because many victims won’t want to make a statement. They’re just too frightened.

It’s possible to bring victimless prosecutions of these cases – we should do that more. Let’s take the pressure off a woman or man who has just been raped and traumatised, or a domestic violence survivor who has been terrorised for years and years.

Let’s ask ourselves to take action on that, not just as agencies but as a society.

As a society, we need to make it clear to perpetrators that their behaviour is criminal and it has consequences. We need to be clear about that.

I believe we place far too much responsibility on victims at a time when they are least able to take the pressure.

It might take more resources, but the trauma to victims whose cases have been NFA’d is also taking up resources, particularly in terms of their health and mental health. If we dealt with the cases better from the start, we might find that the experiences of victims are less traumatic and there’s less pressure on the NHS and support services.

Sarah: I think a lot of people assume that if there is no criminal justice process, then the rape or assault didn’t happen. Do you find that’s the case?

Shonagh: No. We work with all clients on the basis that regardless of the criminal justice system, we believe you. Just because the police decide there’s not enough evidence doesn’t mean we don’t believe the victim. And to be fair to the criminal justice system, it doesn’t mean that the police didn’t believe the victim either.

I think that’s a message that needs to be spelled out to the public loud and clear, from the police and from the CPS.

We’re making some strides forward with that. Hampshire Constabulary is now running a trial panel that we’re part of about rapes that are NFAs or No-Crimed. If they feel that a rape is a “No Crime”, the police will have to run the case past a panel of specialist experts first.

We’re also working with the CPS on a project called The Thirteenth Juror where we will be shadowing prosecutors in court and going in and out of the courtroom as the jury do. We will then be assessing them on how the case was tried: for example, how they described consent to the jury. We will see exactly what the jury sees and work with the CPS to improve rape prosecutions.

When a rape is NFA’d, it’s soul-destroying for the victim. I ask myself sometimes, ‘If I was raped would I report it?’ and I think the fact that I even ask myself that question highlights the reality of a system that might not be made for victims. And that feels very depressing because I work within this system and I want to believe that it can work for me and it can work for all victims.

Because of the changes that are already taking place, I’m more confident that my answer to that question would always be yes. But I would still need the help of specialists, like Rape Crisis Centres and ISVAs (Independent Sexual Violence Advocates) to support me through that process. No one should have to do that alone and everyone is entitled to the support of someone who is advocating for you all the way through. That’s what ISVAs do.

We do see cases go to court and we do see guilty verdicts, but the majority of the cases we see are NFA’d or found not guilty. I don’t think the majority of the public really understand that. There’s very low awareness in our society about the reality of rape and how it’s dealt with in the criminal justice system. Instead there’s a lot of assumptions at best and straightforward misunderstanding at worst.

To be clear, though, a case being NFA’d won’t be the worst outcome for all victims (though it’s far from ideal). Some victims come out of the court room and tell us, ‘I still got up there and said what I wanted to say.’

We work with victims for as long as they want us to, until they feel ready to move on.

Sarah: You said we can’t pin all of this on the criminal justice system. Can you tell me more about that?

Shonagh: In the courtroom, your jury are members of society. Even the most brilliant of judges and a fantastic prosecutor can only do so much. We have to change attitudes, we need national campaigns on these issues.

We need to be talking to children as young as five about consent, about equal relationships. If we don’t change the attitudes of society, the criminal justice system is banging its head against a brick wall.

The lack of public understanding about what abuse is, what rape is, what domestic violence is – it astounds me sometimes. We’ve seen cases that have been taken through the criminal justice system perfectly and they get found not guilty. That isn’t down to the criminal justice system, that’s down to the fact that we’re meeting twelve members of our society in that room.

I do believe in juries, but in order for them to work in cases of violence against women, we need to start talking about this. We need to start teaching and re-educating about these issues.

It’s not up to the criminal justice system to do that. It’s up to the education system, it’s up to the government, local councils, the media and so on, it’s up to us. It can’t just be left to charities and voluntary organisations in the violence against women sector.

Other communities have managed this. What is it about ours that says it isn’t a priority?

There are some systems in Canada and Australia that work really well. The UK has some ground-breaking systems for managing the risk to victims. But I’d probably look to smaller communities for inspiration.

Duluth is a small community in Minnesota that over twenty years ago came together and said that violence against women had to stop. As a community they had to make a stand. Duluth created a model for understanding abusive relationships that is based on understanding power and control. That model is now used all over the world and places responsibility on the perpetrator for committing violence against women and children.

Until the recent changes to the probation service, the Duluth model was the basis for programmes working with perpetrators here in the UK. As an aside, the model was removed from perpetrator programmes before the changes to the probation service were made because the powers that be want to remove feminism from perpetrator programmes.

I think that sends a significant message about where we are and where we’re headed in society regarding violence against women. If you take the feminist element out of our understanding of violence against women, where are you going with that? Because it’s a gender-based crime. I’m no expert on perpetrator programmes, but we need to see how that will play itself out.

Sarah: Could there also be better training in the criminal justice system?

Shonagh: Yes. We have a very good relationship with CPS Wessex and they take our complaints and recommendations very seriously. What the CPS can’t do anything about is the judges.

The judiciary is an ancient institution and the training of judges needs to be looked at in much deeper detail. It’s a very hierarchical institution and training isn’t always the answer.

Training can be a sticking plaster in some cases. People can go on a course – for a day, for a week. It doesn’t mean anything has really changed when they get back to their job.

What I think needs to happen is that the judiciary need to have professional probation periods just like the rest of us when we take a new job. If you’re starting to try rape cases as a new judge then somebody needs to watch you do that for 6 months or a year.

Sarah: How far away are we from a system where the experience of victims is front and centre?

Shonagh: That’s a really good question. I think the victims are front and centre in organisations like Aurora New Dawn, working all over the country. And I think the police are really moving forward. They want to change this and they’re going to change it, even with the current lack of resources facing them.

That’s really positive and encouraging because it’s happening from the top down.

The investigation process needs work, particularly in putting the victims at the centre of the investigation, but we’re making progress locally with that. Kate Brown, the Chief Crown Prosecutor CPS Wessex is a fantastic advocate for violence against women cases and is doing an awful lot to make sure we improve our convictions for rape victims and for victims of domestic abuse.

How far off are we? A long way, I think.

With the coming election, I’d like to see all those parties stood at the podiums at the Leaders’ debate talking about women. That’s before we get to the particular issue of violence against women.

But none of the leaders did, and 3 of them are women! 54% of the population is female – where’s our representation?

I would like to see pledges from all of those parties about violence against women. I’d like to see it raised in all of their manifestos. Because unless leaders start saying this is something we need to talk about and something we need to change, I feel like we’re a long way off.

All we’re talking about at the moment in the run up to the election is immigration and the economy. Both of those things have a massive impact on violence against women, but we’re still not talking about it.

So sadly yes, I think we’re still a long way off.

Photography by Sarah Cheverton.