How did this sex assault case end up in court?
The case against Aboriginal Walter Cooke was weak. Was there race involved?
This might be one of those damned if you do, damned if you don’t issues, but I have to write about it because the topic won’t leave me alone. I tried others, but this one kept tugging at my conscience.
A few weeks ago, the Globe and Mail published a blockbuster report on the number of sexual assault cases that are considered “unfounded” by police investigators across Canada. The report found that one in five sexual assault accusations were considered baseless and dropped by investigators, potentially leaving victims without justice, their perpetrators left to abuse again.
The number of unfounded cases in Hamilton, at 30 per cent, turns out to be higher than the national average. Last week, a Hamilton Spectator report stated Hamilton police undertook a review of those cases and had found that, indeed, the unfounded rates had been dropping since 2010. As someone who has been involved in gender-based violence issues for years, I applaud the efforts that Hamilton Police Services have undertaken in order to improve the support they provide to survivors of gender-based violence.
But then there’s this story and I’m not sure how to understand it; it troubles me.
Just over a year ago I opened my paper copy of the Hamilton Spectator. As I sipped my tea and turned the first page I almost choked on what I read. Walter Cooke, a respected Aboriginal Elder, was arrested and charged with sexual assault. I don’t know Walter Cooke well, but I have met him, and I know people who know him very well. They respect him. Their support for him never wavered; they were convinced of his innocence. I’ve been following the case.As to be expected with such a charge, Mr. Cooke was let go from his position at the health centre where he was working as a spiritual healer. There goes his income. As an Elder, you won’t be surprised to know that Mr. Cooke’s health was compromised, he’s close to 70. And as to be expected, it’s gotten worse waiting for over a year for a trial.
The trial wrapped up two weeks ago. Mr. Cooke was acquitted. It’s true what they say about the news. The Hamilton Police Services issued a news release of his arrest. The report of his arrest was on page two of The Spectator. As the trial progressed, the news fell further back in the paper. The report of his acquittal was toward the back of the Asection near the business pages. But at least the Spectator reported it. A Google search lists that CHCH, the CBC and CHML all carried the story of his arrest. Only the Spectator carried news of his acquittal. Maybe Google missed it? So, just in case you missed it, Walter Cooke was acquitted.
How the case came before a judge, now that the facts are out, is beyond me. Maybe I’ve watched too many well-scripted courtroom dramas where the questions the TV detectives ask are designed to carry you through the narrative. I can appreciate the difficulties in determining the truth in a real-life “I said, you said” encounter, but the evidence came out at trial that Mr. Cooke wasn’t even at the health centre on the day of the alleged assault. Isn’t that the first question police are supposed to ask? Where were you on the (insert time and date of crime)? But maybe that’s just TV.
Walter Cooke was acquitted because of inconsistencies with the victim’s testimony. Those same inconsistencies should have been apparent to the investigators and the Crown prior to trial. With a 30 per cent unfounded rate, I wonder why the police pursued this case and not one of the many others?
Was the rush to arrest, the temptation to reduce the “unfounded” number at work here, subconsciously perhaps? But my real question is: Did the fact that Walter Cooke is an Aboriginal man influence the rush to press charges? If Walter Cooke were a white man, would “unfounded” have been the investigative finding?
This has been a hard column to write. I’m the one who says “believe the victim”. And I don’t want to talk about the alleged victim in this case. What I want to focus on is the responsibility of the police to effectively investigate sexual assault cases so that the right cases are “founded” and go before the courts in the first place.
I’d like to see a breakdown of the Hamilton unfounded cases based on race and ethnicity statistics.
This case is another example of the failure of our system to effectively investigate and prosecute sexual assault cases. We must demand better.