Jim Watts, 57, a former disability bus driver, is serving a 12-and-a-half year jail sentence for sexually assaulting four severely mentally and physically disabled women.But there are serious concerns, raised by his legal team, that Watts, a married father of two, has been the victim of a gross miscarriage of justice, and that his case could serve as a significant deterrent to people thinking of working with severely disabled people.
Watts’s trial last October was described throughout by the judge as “highly unusual”. None of the women could give evidence in court. Two (referred to as women 2 and 3) were able to give evidence via video link – one communicated by looking up for yes and down for no, the other used a computer and voice synthesiser. Another of the women could not communicate at all, and the fourth had had a severe stroke.
None of the women, along with the North Devon care home and Watts’s employer, can be named, for legal reasons.
Watts maintains that the charges of rape and sexual assault against him are a weird fiction; that the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) allowed an unsafe case to go to trial; and that the judge directed the jury away from compelling evidence that would have led to acquittal. His appeal starts next month and it is understood it will be heard by the lord chief justice.
When Watts was sentenced, the CPS issued a statement making much of the use of “expert intermediaries” and video links used to help the women give evidence. Yet, in some cases, detailed allegations about Watts’s abuse were not the women’s own words, they had to rely on images provided by police and care home staff, and identify their abuse and abuser using pictures of care staff and sexually explicit images.
Watts, with his grey beard and ponytail has the look and dress of a world-weary country singer. He used to sing and play guitar in local pubs, as well as being a bus driver, tree surgeon, electrician and driving instructor. He has volunteered as a Samaritan and an “appropriate adult” supporting vulnerable youngsters in custody.
I met him at Exeter prison, earlier this year, on an emotional visit with his wife of 35 years, Su Bennett. Watts’s voice cracked when he told me: “I didn’t do anything.”
He explained that he had been a driver for the care home for more than two years. He worked 12 hours a week, taking residents to pub lunches and for carriage drives at an equestrian centre. He would help with feeding but did not get involved in dressing or toilet duties.
He says that he believes his case has done great harm to the recruitment of staff in care homes: “Many people I know have ceased to work in care. They have told me, ‘If it can happen to you it can happen to any of us.’ One described working in a care home as ‘swimming with sharks’.”
The story starts when a volunteer carer told the care home manager that Watts “tickled” a woman’s breasts over her clothes as he was putting on her bib to feed her in a crowded pub. Watts says that he and the volunteer would sit back-to-back when feeding the women and that she is simply mistaken. The severely disabled woman is unable to communicate at all.
The volunteer carer also said she heard a second woman scream when Watts was alone with her in the disability bus at the equestrian centre. But in court she said that what she heard was the screeching noise the woman makes when happy.
To commit rape, Watts says, he would have had to get the woman out of her wheelchair, undress her and take off her double nappy and then replace it, all while parked in a van with large glass windows in full view of a busy riding school. And, Watts explains: “I always took the woman back to the van first because of her wellknown allergy to horses.”
Medical and forensic examinations of all four women could find no evidence of sexual or physical assault.
The third woman was mentioned to police by the care home manager after the volunteer spoke to him about her.
Watts was suspended from work in March 2008 but not interviewed by the police until June. After a nine-month investigation by the police’s newly created North Devon protection of vulnerable adults team, he was charged with 13 counts of rape and sexual assault – in a pub, the van, the women’s rooms and on a beach.
Watts worked part time and claims he was not there when the attacks were supposed to have taken place.
In court, his legal team argued that there was no case to answer as these woman were not safe witnesses. The rape charges were rejected but Watts was found guilty of six counts of sexual assault by a 10-2 majority.
Watts’s legal team says the judge failed to give jurors a fair summary of the case, making no reference to crucial evidence given by witnesses in court that would have demonstrated that the women’s testimony was “unreliable”.
The team will argue at the appeal that the police failed in the basics of interviewing witnesses with cognitive impairment, making no attempt to confirm that the women knew the difference between truth or lies, about anatomy or sexual matters, or to establish whether they understood the purpose of the interview, or its seriousness.
Both the women who gave evidence in court via video, according to an expert’s report, had almost non-existent knowledge of sexual matters, or the physical difference between men and women. Woman 2 used a computer communicator, which she operated with a switch in the headrest of her wheelchair. She cannot read.
She was told by police and care home staff that pictures of staff and body parts, including sexually explicit pictures, had been added to her computer to give her the opportunity to “tell us if anyone had done anything to her that she did not want”. The icons she selected were pre-installed with words or phrases, which were then synthesised to the court.
While there were computer icons for “yes” and “no” there was no icon for “I don’t understand”, or “I’m not sure”, which the defence argued means she was forced to give an answer when she may not have understood the question or may not have had an answer to give.
In the police report of a witness interview, the officer said “victim 2″ repeatedly hit the cursor on the “I’m scared” picture and “almost immediately disclosed she wanted to tell us something had occurred with Jim Watts”. “[She] then disclosed that Watts had punched [the computer's pre-installed word] her in the anus with his penis and it had made her cry.”
In the transcript of the interview, the police officer gives detailed descriptions. At one stage the officer says: “It’s Jim Watts in the car. He’s put his penis inside your bottom, your anus, on more than one occasion and you didn’t like it. Is that right?” The woman answers “no”. But the defence says it is not established whether she means “no it’s not right”, or “no I didn’t like it”.
The interview continues with allegations of rape and sexual assault being put to the woman only to receive seemingly contradictory “yes” and “no” replies. The interview is halted amid confusion when the woman starts communicating about other members of staff.
In her interview, woman 3, who, according to witnesses, uses not entirely reliable movements of her eyes to indicate yes or no, clearly does not understand the words “penis” and “vagina”, says Watts’s defence team. Yet the police statement says that she alleges that Watts forced the fourth woman and herself into sexual activities on numerous occasions including on a beach. But the defence says care home logs reveal that he had taken the two women out together only once to a pub with another member of staff.
In a video of her police interview played in court, the fourth woman got simple facts about her family and Watts’s appearance wrong. Yet she alleged that Watts repeatedly raped her at knifepoint. She also claimed that she had told her husband, although he told the court he knew nothing of the allegations. She could not be cross-examined as she had had a second stroke before the trial.
Zara Svensson, Watts’s solicitor, says: “I am amazed that at every stage somebody didn’t step in and say this case is not safe.”
Watts’s wife says the last two years have been a nightmare not just for them but for the families who have been misled into believing their loved ones have been abused. “There has been no justice for these disabled women and certainly none for Jim,” she says.
And she asks: “If Jim wanted to be a serial sex abuser why didn’t he take up the home’s offer of being a care assistant and have unlimited access to these helpless women?”
Meanwhile, Watts, a man who has never before been in trouble with the law, is in Exeter jail marked as an extremely deviant sex offender. He is writing songs, trying to stay sane. He even entered the prison poetry competition, its theme: the joys of life.
But he says: “I am angry at the cavalier way my life and good name have been taken from me.”
The care home operator did not wish to comment on the case.
Source and Acknowledgement: The Guardian