What follows is a shocking story of how a wrongfully accused teacher lost everything. His career, his home, his reputation and of course his happiness. It tells how he contemplated suicide as the only way to escape his suffering.
Simon Warr taught O level languages. He was, and is an innocent victim of the febrile atmosphere surrounding the ‘Savile scandal’ and the police policy of ‘believe the victim’.
30 years earlier he had taught at St George’s in Suffolk for two years, and the headmaster was later found guilty of child abuse and sentenced to 20 years in prison. It’s possible that the headmaster’s actions may have made anyone else who had worked there at risk of becoming a victim of wrongful allegations.
After two years Simon Warr moved to the Royal Hospital School in Suffolk where he worked for 30 years and his headmaster said that he was ‘one of the outstanding school masters of his generation’. Unfortunately, an unblemished career and a good reputation was no defence against a wrongful allegation.
Completely out of the blue, early one morning no fewer than five police officers arrived to arrest him and take him off to the police station. Here he was questioned and only released after 13 hours. He was accused of sexually assaulting an 11 year old pupil in the shower room after a PE lesson.
Simon had never taught PE, he was a language teacher, and he taught pupils over 14, not 11 year olds. Quite understandably he thought this was all a mistake and it would soon be cleared up. How wrong he was.
Death by a thousand cuts
What followed was a slow form of torture, a death by a thousand cuts. His name was made public. He was suspended from school. He was subject to internet trolling. One abuser told him that he should kill himself in a sewer. He contemplated suicide, by jumping in front of a tube train, but the thought of the effect this would have on the driver stopped him. He lived in an agonising limbo waiting to hear if he would be charged. Eventually, after nine months his nightmare became reality, he was indeed charged and to his horror he was told that there were other complainants.
His life was on hold for another harrowing 15 months until his court case came up. After a seven day trial when the inadequacies of the prosecution case became obvious, he was aquitted by the jury after only 40 minutes consideration. He wept with relief. He was not going to prison, but his life had been wrecked by an uncorroborated and absurd allegation.
The dangers of uncorroborated testimony
At the beginning I said that this was a shocking story. Indeed it is, but it is not so surprising to us at FACT. Arrest and public shaming, and sometimes even conviction on the basis of a single uncorroborated testimony is all too common. Read the story of David Bryant for example, who actually spent three years in prison after one man accused him of rape. David was in a sense ‘lucky’ because his wife managed to enlist the help of a barrister and a QC and a team of private investigators all for free, and because there was evidence that his accuser was lying. In most cases there will be no corroboration of the complainant’s or the defendant’s story and the verdict will depend on a jury who has to decide which person is telling the truth.
Even experienced interrogators can only accurately decide if someone is truthful in around 50% of cases, according to Galit Nahari (p 242 in Wrongful Allegations of Sexual and Child Abuse), meaning that flipping a coin is just as likely to correctly identify a liar. There are some validated interrogation tools that increase accuracy but these will not be available to a jury. The take home message is that it is asking a lot to expect juries to decide who is telling the truth in a situation which rests only on testimony. Juries are not necessarily objective either, it’s worth reading the Justice Gap’s article on this issue. Mistakes can and do happen.
The issue is further complicated by the phenomenon of false memories. False memories can be the result of poor investigative techniques such as repeated interviewing of someone who may be a victim, it can be caused by some kinds of counselling and can even occur spontaneously in people who are in contact with other people who claim to have had the same experience. If someone has a false memory they will sound as convincing as someone who has a genuine memory. Even a polygraph is unlikely to discriminate between a false and a true memory.
Whereas the civil justice system is well aware of the phenomenon of false memories, the criminal justice system pays little attention to it, and innocent men go to prison, (see articles on false memory in FACTion). The barrister Matthew Scott writes this in ‘The Shocking Case of David Bryant’ in FACTion.
‘Until we accept that there are some cases of this sort in which proof beyond reasonable doubt is simply impossible we will continue to sweep up the innocent along with the guilty.
How many more cases like David’s and Simon’s must there be before the criminal justice system understands that it is not acceptable to “sweep up the innocent along with the guilty”?