How did this sex as­sault case end up in court?

The case against Abo­rig­i­nal Walter Cooke was weak. Was there race in­volved?

The Hamilton Spectator - - COMMENT - Mar­garet Shkimba is a writer who lives in Hamil­ton. She can be reached at men­r­va­ or you can “Friend” her on Face­book and fol­low her on Twit­ter (@men­r­va­sofia) MAR­GARET SHKIMBA

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.

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