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‘Hollow victory’: a rape survivor’s journey through a broken criminal justice system  

Investigations

More women are reporting rape to the police but prosecutions are at an all-time low. As a new approach to investigating sexual crimes is piloted in Bristol, the Cable follows the story of one woman from reporting to the police to her attacker standing trial.

Illustrations: Sophia Checkley

Content warning: This story contains references to rape, sexual violence and suicide  

I met Katie* in a backroom of a hairdressers’ salon in May; she was getting her highlights done. It’s a cosy, albeit unusual place for an interview, but between work, raising her two young kids and the trial – this was a rare couple of hours she had to sit and talk. 

The 22-year-old had just beaten the odds. Just 3% of rapes reported to the police made it to court, of which only 42% resulted in a guilty verdict, according to 2020 research from the Centre for Women’s Justice.

In 2019, Luke Thompson, 32, raped Katie in the back of his car after they’d met on a night out. Two years later, she reported it to the police in May 2021 – the same month Thompson had raped another girl in Swindon, Katie would later find out. 

On 2 May, her case was heard in Bristol Crown Court. Thompson was charged, in relation to Katie and the other woman, with two counts of rape, two counts of sexual assault and one count of assault by penetration. 

Between slim chances of success and an often retraumatising judicial process, nearly half of rape victims drop their claims. “There were so many times I thought, I’m not doing this anymore,” Katie tells me, due to the extensive delays in getting her case to court. “And what if he was found not guilty, and then I’d just have to walk the streets with him angry with me!” 

“There were so many times I’ve thought – no I’m not doing this,” she says. “In the end, I just numbed myself to it all, you just keep going. The whole time I’d say to myself – at least I’ve tried to protect other women.”  

But her gamble paid off. After a four-day trial, a jury returned the verdict: guilty on all five counts.

“It doesn’t feel real,” Katie tells me after the judge delivered the verdict. “It’s been such a long time. Maybe when I know the sentence, then I can be like, ‘ok, so I can not think about it for this many years.’”

On 22 June, Thompson was sentenced to 16 years in prison, eight years for each offence, plus a further three years on licence. 

The same year Katie reported to the police, a new approach to investigating and prosecuting sexual crimes – Operation Bluestone – was piloted by Avon and Somerset Police. 

But two years on, are these changes being felt on the ground? In the first of a two-part investigation, the Cable has been trying to answer that very question, by following Katie’s trial and interviewing the police and Crown Prosecution Service. Here is her story. 

Chapter 1: The trial begins, the waiting game continues

On 2 May, 10am, in Bristol Crown Court, the court assembles to hear Luke Thompson’s trial. Three hours later, the defendant is still a no-show. “He lives on Ashley Road – it does not take this long to walk here from there,” the judge says sternly to the defence barrister. 

Meanwhile, on the floor above us in the courtroom, Katie waits anxiously in the witness room. “I’d been there since 9am, I hadn’t slept, I was taking beta blockers,” she recalls. 

News that Thompson hadn’t turned up was hard to bear: “I was so anxious and angry.” Thompson has form here. In the pre-trial hearings he turned up late, then without a lawyer. Each time causing months of delays, pushing the court date back further and further. 

The court breaks for recess. Outside I meet Chrissy,* Katie’s mother. She’s the reason I’m here – in April, she wrote to me about her daughter’s rape case, she’d wanted a reporter to look into the difficulties they’d faced navigating the system.

She’s a small, ex-punk woman, wearing fishnets, Doc Martens and an enraged expression. “He should have been remanded!” she says.

By the end of the day, there’s still no sign of Thompson. An arrest warrant is issued, and the court adjourned. 

My barrister just told me to get on with it. You can tell the courthouse is a man’s world.

Katie

Campaigners have long criticised the fact that rape victims, with high degrees of trauma, face the longest waits delays or their case to progress to trial. Two years is the average wait – the time Katie had to wait, too. 

A report from March by the charity Rape Crisis said the number of sexual offence cases waiting to go to the Crown Court now stands at 8,741. Of these, 2,210 are adult rape cases – a record high. 

The report also criticises the fact that perpetrators in rape and sexual offences are often not on remand – with victims left without sufficient protection. 

In Katie’s case, this was a particular bone of contention, because for the past two years, Thompson lived just 10 minutes away from her. “I would see him every single day,” she tells me. “On my way to work, on the way to my kids’ nursery.”

Katie was so afraid to leave the house she moved back in with her mother, who had to take time off work to support her with childcare while Katie’s mental health deteriorated. 

“When I saw him – sometimes I would feel really anxious,” she says. “I couldn’t go out, I couldn’t take my son out. I used to spend hundreds of pounds on taxis. Other times I’d feel so frustrated, why is he still here and still walking around!” 

His absence that day aggravated her feeling of injustice. Why was she imprisoned in her house, while he walked the streets freely, she thought.

Chapter 2: Katie takes the stand 

The next day, there is still no sign of Thompson. It’s agreed that the prosecution case can begin without him. To speed up the process, witnesses won’t take to the stand to testify – instead the barrister Peter Rouch will read out shortened versions of their statements. 

Of course, in a rape case, the chief witness is the complainant. Katie’s interview with the police is played in the courtroom. We hear her recounting, in painful detail, the events of 1 September 2019. 

Katie, then 18, was at a nightclub for her friend’s birthday. “It was only like the third time I’d ever been out,” she’d later tell me. In the early hours of a heavy jungle and drum and bass night, with the sambuca buzz wearing off, she decides to go home. 

On her way out she meets Thompson in the smoking area. She’s not interested in him romantically, and definitely doesn’t want to have sex, but they get on well, and, at some point, they decide to go back to his for a joint. 

Katie recalls how a bouncer muttered, “Not another another one,” as Thompson walked her out.

He leads her through the tall iron gates to his apartment building and they sit in his car. Then, the mood changes. He’s going in for a kiss, and another. He’s not taking no for an answer, he pushes back her seat, ignores her screams – and rapes her. 

Katie blacked out; the last thing she remembers is the light of a street lamp above. 

Afterwards he pats her on the head and says, “good girl”. He insists on walking her home and Katie numbly agrees, later worrying if he did that to find out where she lived.

Luke Thompson

Later, when I speak to the investigating officer PC Bethan Doyle, she says Katie had a “strong case”. Her sister had taken her to The Bridge, a Sexual Assault Referral Centre, to get an examination, and the court was able to hear from the nurse’s records – the bruises, sores and scratches that matched Katie’s story. 

Witness statements described how she dropped out of the engineering course she was enrolled in, her mental health deteriorated, she lost her self-esteem, and cut herself off from friends. 

Pre-recorded evidence was a measure introduced to prevent victims from rehashing their trauma in open courts, years after the incident. But Katie still had to be present for cross-examination.  

When Katie takes the witness stand she’s behind a blue screen, designed to shield victims from their perpetrators view (though he still hasn’t turned up). The skin on her hands is peeling from stress-induced dermatitis. 

Katie tells me how she remembers the defence barrister Ian Morrell’s questions: “So you drove home?” “Or did you walk?” “Did you send this message?” “Was it your right hand or your left hand?” 

“The way he spoke to me, it just made me lose all my words,” Katie says. “My brain was hurting and I just burst into tears.”

Katie had a panic attack in the stand, the cross-examination was paused and the courtroom was cleared. “My barrister just told me to get on with it. You can tell the courthouse is a man’s world.” 

She didn’t return to court again after that. 

Chapter 3: Thompson’s defence 

Thompson is arrested overnight and brought into the dock for day three of the trial. He wears a messy top knot and a black hoodie, with the air of a child forced into detention. 

The case of the second victim begins, and within 10 minutes Thompson is asleep. Propped up by his elbow, leaning against the plastic chairs. The formalities and rigmarole of the court is somewhat lost on him.

When he wakes up, he’s agitated: “For fuck’s sake, do I just have to sit and listen to blatantly lying!” he yells. 

“Your Honour, Mr. Thompson is coming down off crack, cocaine and heroin,” says his barrister, by way of explanation. 

Thompson declined to give evidence and take the stand. Instead he yawned and groaned in the dock, and his police interview was read out instead. 

“I don’t know her,” was his defence during that initial interview. “Seems a bit far fetched,” was his response when Katie’s description of the rape was put to him. 

Chrissy comes out of the courthouse crying, and sits next to me. I hug her because any words of comfort feel inadequate. Katie’s barrister looks at her and says angrily: “You shouldn’t be in there, of course you’ll only get upset!” Chrissy agrees. She can’t hear anymore so leaves. 

Then two relatives of Thompson sitting in the public gallery come up to ask me whether I’m reporting on the trial. I say yes, and she rolls her eyes. “I suppose he has been a naughty boy,” she jokes. 

Chapter 4: The verdict 

In closing statements, the barristers each sum up their case. “You don’t go to a clinic if it was consensual sex,” says the prosecution. “This was a young lady who had too much to drink and a night that got carried away,” counters the defence. 

“We submit that the sex was consensual,” the defence added. Chrissy and I exchange confused glances, the judge picks up on the contradiction. Wasn’t the defence that Thompson had never met her? The defence barrister is flustered, shuffles papers and rectifies his remarks: “The defence submits that if the defendant had given evidence then he would have said that sex was consensual.”

The absurdity of these moments jars with the tragedy of the case. In closing statements, the prosecution barrister gets the name of the second victim wrong. The defence barrister confuses the two cases and says Katie had taken cocaine that night – when she hadn’t. 

“I was having a hard time not shouting out!” Chrissy would tell me afterwards. In the public gallery, she alternated between looking forward in disbelief at the barristers, or behind her, where her daughter’s rapist paced around the dock, and stared her down whenever he caught her eye. 

After the weekend, the jury took just under six hours to return a verdict: guilty on all counts. 

“I’m not as happy as I thought I would be,” Chrissy told me that day. “I’d rather he was dead than locked up, you know? I’d rather he had his dick cut off.”

Chapter 5: ‘A hollow victory’ 

Back in the salon after the guilty verdict, Katie’s hairdresser Jane interrupts us to check the dye and brings her a Pot Noodle. She knows everything about the case, she’s become a friend and confidante over the years. 

The three of us laugh as we wonder whether the ammonia is making us a bit high. A moment of light relief, as Katie reflects on the past four years. 

“I did want to report it initially, but I was also focusing on moving house and being safe,” says Katie, when asked about going to the police after she was raped. “And then six months later I was pregnant, and then it was Covid, and I had to let it go. I needed to just accept it, it happened and then move on,” she tells me. 

Between pregnancy, lockdown, holding down a job and processing the trauma, Katie’s mental health deteriorated. She was prescribed beta blockers and antidepressants, she’d have night terrors – which continue to this day. 

She says she had considered suicide, but the thought of her son kept her going: “If I didn’t have him at the time, I’d probably be dead. He literally kept me breathing.” 

At this point, Jane bursts into tears. “You’re fucking awesome you are,” she says, hugging Katie. 

The trauma of the rape nearly cost her life, and the stress of the trial caused her to relive it. 

I asked her how she felt when she heard the verdict. Relief? Vindication? 

Like her mother, her triumph is absent. “I’ve just been trying to keep it as normal as possible for my kids really – keep their routine,” Katie says. “One day, I guess I’ll have to tell them…” 

“It’s like a hollow victory, you know? It’s not something I’ll ever forget.”

*Names have been changed to protect identities 

If you’ve been affected by the issues in this piece, you can contact: https://247sexualabusesupport.org.uk/

You can read the other part of this investigation: the inside story of Avon and Somerset’s the new model for investigating rape.

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Comments

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  • I think the reason there are such difficulties as described above is that the justice system is not the place where healing takes place. It is a very important system but healing is something different on most occasions.
    The process can now begin for the person described above.
    For this, it is likely the person may consult therapists, counsellors or life coaches.
    We all have to heal from things throughout life. It is something we will all learn about. We have this sense of ‘we have been deeply wronged’. We will find, however, that it is nearly always the case that this ‘great injustice’ is our portal to growth and development. Invariably, foregiveness is the main part of the healing process. When we are ready for this, life changes and we step into beauty and light.
    The issue is, if we are carrying around antipathies towards our ‘attacker’ we are invariably filling our own life with hate. Thus, it becomes essential that we let go at that point in time.
    As Rumi says, ‘the wound is where the light goes in’. Deep trauma, though seeming terrible almost always acts as a portal to a land beyond. We call this, growth.
    Much kindness.

    Reply

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