Why Everyone Is Talking About The Sex Assault Case Against This Popular Radio Host

Photo: Todd Korol/Getty Images.
It’s been a busy month for high-profile criminal proceedings.

As Serial fans are well aware, Adnan Syed’s case returned to court in Baltimore, featuring testimony from alibi witness Asia McClain. Bill Cosby will proceed toward a trial, after a judge rejected a motion to dismiss charges of aggravated indecent assault. And in Canada, another major case has captured a nation’s attention: media personality Jian Ghomeshi’s trial on sexual assault charges.

The first of two scheduled trials against Ghomeshi, a former CBC Radio host, began last week. Dramatic revelations and testimony from the first days of the trial have already dominated headlines across Canada.

"I was pushed up against the wall, slapped a couple of times, and then slapped again,” actress Lucy DeCoutere testified in a Toronto court on Thursday.

DeCoutere is one of more than 20 people who have accused Ghomeshi of sexual assault.

Ghomeshi has pleaded not guilty and publicly renounced the allegations. In one statement made through his lawyer, Ghomeshi said he “does not engage in non-consensual role play or sex and any suggestion of the contrary is defamatory." His lawyer has not responded to Refinery29's request for comment on the case.

The trial has brought up all too familiar questions about credibility, victim blaming, and the way media and justice mechanisms treat women who accuse powerful men of sexual assault.

Here’s what you need to know about the case.

Who is Jian Ghomeshi?
A former member of '90s band Moxy Früvous, and host of CBC Radio One’s music program Q, Ghomeshi was a popular media personality until the charges against him surfaced in 2014. CBC Radio is akin to America’s NPR, and Ghomeshi was one of its most beloved hosts, having parlayed his music cred into increasingly powerful roles at the station. “I felt like Jian was CBC God,” one former CBC producer who claims Ghomeshi violently assaulted her told the Toronto Star.

In spite of his charismatic and “squeaky-clean” public image, Ghomeshi’s alleged unsavory behavior toward young women was reportedly common knowledge in the inner circles of Canadian media. Journalism students at the University of Western Ontario, for example, were discouraged from applying for internships at Q, The Star reported, after a 2012 report that he behaved inappropriately toward an intern.

What are the accusations he’s facing?
To date, more than 20 people have accused Ghomeshi of behavior ranging from inappropriate texting and groping to violent punching, choking, biting, and forced penetration using his fingers.

Ghomeshi is currently standing trial for four counts of sexual assault and one count of overcoming resistance by choking. If convicted of sexual assault, Ghomeshi faces a maximum penalty of 18 months; the choking charge carries a possible sentence of life in prison. He has pleaded not guilty to all charges.

By January 2015, a total of seven formal charges of sexual assault were brought against Ghomeshi. Two of those, however, were dropped in May 2015, because prosecutors lacked a reasonable prospect of conviction.

The remaining charge of sexual assault against a former CBC employee will be taken up in a second trial, set to start in June 2016.

Who are the women accusing him of assault?
The majority of women who have leveled claims against Ghomeshi have chosen to remain anonymous. All but one of the complaints that are part of the current trial are subject to a publication ban, which prohibits media from publicizing anything about their identities.

Lucy-Anne DeCoutere, an actress and Royal Canadian Air Force captain who alleges that Ghomeshi attacked her on a date in 2003, was one of the first accusers to publicly reveal her identity. She told CBC’s The Current that during a seemingly normal makeout, Ghomeshi suddenly began choking her and slapped her repeatedly.

Reva Seth, a lawyer and best-selling author, wrote about what she says was her own violent encounter with Ghomeshi on The Huffington Post. In her post, Seth anticipates the victim-blaming question of why she didn’t do anything about the assault in the immediate aftermath: “As a lawyer, I'm well aware that the scenario was just a ‘he said/she said’ situation. I was aware that I, as a woman who had had a drink or two, shared a joint, had gone to his house willingly and had a sexual past, would be eviscerated.”

I was pushed up against the wall, slapped a couple of times, and then slapped again.

Lucy DeCoutere
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How did the case unfold?
The short answer is very publicly. Ghomeshi took a leave of absence from CBC on October 24, 2014, only to be fired two days later. He published a lengthy Facebook post defending his behavior and sexual predilections. “I’ve been fired from the CBC because of the risk of my private sex life being made public as a result of a campaign of false allegations pursued by a jilted ex-girlfriend and a freelance writer,” he wrote. In the days that followed, The Toronto Star posted stories containing vivid accounts from women who said they experienced non-consensual violence during sexual encounters. Ghomeshi denied those accusations and filed a $50 million lawsuit of wrongful termination against CBC, accusing his employer of making a “moral judgment” about his sex life (he dropped the suit in November 2014). Just a month after his firing, the first charges against Ghomeshi were filed. Global News, a network of television stations in Canada, has published a thorough timeline of the case, for those interested in more dates and details.

What has happened in court so far?
The trial got off to a dramatic start. During the first two days in court, Ghomeshi’s defense lawyer Marie Henein attacked the first witness’ credibility, claiming that the woman had lied under oath when she said that she had no further contact with Ghomeshi after the assault. With her formidable record of success in defending high-profile criminal cases, Henein is one of the most sought-after defense lawyers in Canada.

Henein revealed that the witness had sent Ghomeshi several emails and a photo of herself in a red bikini a year after the alleged attack, according to reports from court. The witness then claimed that she’d sent the photo in an attempt to “bait” Ghomeshi. The court subsequently placed a ban on the photo, preventing media outlets from publishing it.

During Lucy DeCoutere’s cross-examination on the third day, Ghomeshi’s lawyer interrogated her about the precise sequence of events and whether it was “kissing, slapping, and/or choking” or kissing, choking, and two slaps followed by a pause and third slap. Henein’s strategy appears to be highlighting discrepancies between the witness’ statements to the police, media, and court, in order to cast doubt on her memory and credibility.

Henein has also cited the 24 media interviews DeCoutere has given as proof that the actress is seeking attention, using Ghomeshi’s fame to cast herself as a national poster child for sexual assault. The actress once told a reporter that her work on the issue is “sort of like when David Beckham attaches himself to Armani underwear.” When Henein confronted her with this quote in court, DeCoutere acknowledged that she had made a bad analogy, according to reports.

The prosecution’s examination of a third witness began on Monday; she is being questioned as to why she didn’t previously mention that she went on a second date with Ghomeshi after the alleged assault.

I’ve been fired from the CBC because of the risk of my private sex life being made public as a result of a campaign of false allegations pursued by a jilted ex-girlfriend and a freelance writer.

Jian Ghomeshi
What is at stake?
Ghomeshi’s high-profile trial has heaped fodder on the larger debate about how the media and courts treat both the accused and the accusers in sex crime cases.

Ghomeshi supporters have argued that "he very likely committed no crime and has been defamed." As some online commenters have noted, it is Henein's job to mount a rigorous defense in any way possible.

Others argue that there’s a world of difference between discrediting a storyline and bullying witnesses. Bringing in irrelevant material about a person’s past or clothing choices and reinforcing false stereotypes about rape victims are malicious tactics that only undermine any possibility of justice for survivors.

In a 1998 clip that surfaced shortly after the trial began,
Ghomeshi’s lawyer herself demonstrates how defense attorneys can skirt the rule that prohibits using a witness’ sexual history in court. Henein reminds listeners that even if the evidence is ultimately deemed inadmissible, “well, oh well, the judge has heard it.” Laughter ensues.

If all of this sounds painfully familiar, similar issues have been raised in recent years following sex crime allegations brought against former International Monetary Fund Managing Director Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Woody Allen, Bill Cosby, Owen Labrie, and the list goes on.

Check back with Refinery29 for more coverage as the trial continues.
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