Friday, March 02, 2007

The trials of Rickards et al...

The recent acquittal of Shipton, Schollum and Rickards brings an end to a long-running triad of cases that were caused by the accusations of Louise Nichols against Rickards. Only the conviction of Shipton and Schollum (as well as two others) of a rape at Mount Manganui has prevented the proceedings from being a complete and utter shambles.

I had pretty much known at the time of the Louise Nichols case that Shipton and Schollum had already been convicted. Yet despite this I didn't think there would be a conviction. Why? Because Louise Nichols had already made prior rape allegations against other police officers and against a "pack of maoris". She retracted the allegation against a "pack of maoris" saying she didn't know why she had made it while the allegation against other police officers went to trial several years back and resulted in not guilty verdicts. So while she gave the impression of one speaking truth, it was far less certain that what she believed had happened had actually happened. Combined with the statement of the flatmate, a guilty verdict from the jurors would have been grounds for sending them to a mental hospital.

While Louise's prior history had been widely described in the papers before the trial, the complainant at the recent trial was largely shrouded behind name suppression. It was only during the course of the trial that I realized that something incredible had happened - the police had managed to find a complainant even less credible than Louise Nichols. Why?

For starters, she initially stated that she claimed to have been in a relationship with Clint Rickards for about six months. Now she says she only saw him on the night of the attack. At the trial, she blamed the discrepancies on police misunderstandings.

Then there was revelation that she didn't come forward on her own but had been found by the police while they were investigating the Louise Nichols allegations. They had seized Shipton's notes, found her details therein (she had been in a relationship with him) and contacted her. It just so happens that she was having personal problems at the time ("including looking after her four children and dealing with the break-up of a relationship"). That's a strong incentive for many people to start fabricating evidence to gain needed sympathy and while truthful allegations can result

But for me the tipping point was when the complainant declared under cross-examination: "I know poor Louise Nicholas lost her case and I am trying damn hard to make sure these guys are done." From this point on, the case was dead in the water.

The prosecution certainly knew that the case was hopeless. The prosecutor covered himself with infamy when he had to accuse (video-link I'm afraid) Clint Rickards of being a practiced liar because he had been, wait for it, an undercover cop! Now when he deals with crimes involving the testimony of undercover police officers, all the defence attorney has to say is "as my distinguished colleague has said at Clint Rickard's last trial, undercover cops are practised liars" to get an acquittal.

The exposure of Shipton's wife as a probable liar certainly looked dramatic but for me, it only confirmed the essential weakness of the case. It's pretty much a truism that alibis offered by the relatives of the defendant are often unreliable and a jury can be made aware of this by a few questions under cross-examination. Hence for the prosecution to fly a witness in from Perth and then to recall Shipton's wife to the stand to get her to collapse is evidence that the prosecution was clutching at straws. Even if she did lie, it only proves that she was stupid, not that her husband and others were guilty of rape.

So with the trials concluded (there is another to come relating to the original investigation but that involves perverting the course of justice), I can safely say that neither of the cases involving Louise Nichols and the recent complainant should have been brought. The accusers were simply unreliable for any reasonable jury to convict. Clint Rickards faults the police for the investigation but I daresay they were leaving no stone unturned. What should have happened is that the Crown Prosecution Service should have resisted the political pressure and decided against bringing the case to trial. For them not to have done so was in my opinion a dereliction of their duty. Prosecuting the Mount Manganui case was the right decision in that a conviction has been obtained and three rapists are behind bars. But the prosecution of the other two cases only leaves the nasty impression that people were abusing the courts to drag Clint Rickards down through his association with Shipton and Schollum and that the introduction of politically motivated prosecutions into our legal system is a dangerous beginning...

UPDATE: Link added (referring to the claim the woman had known Rickards before the attack).