This is the joint website of  Women Against Rape and Black Women's Rape Action Project. Both organisations are based on self-help and provide support, legal information and advocacy. We campaign for justice and protection for all women and girls, including asylum seekers, who have suffered sexual, domestic and/or racist violence.

WAR was founded in 1976. It has won changes in the law, such as making rape in marriage a crime, set legal precedents and achieved compensation for many women. BWRAP was founded in 1991. It focuses on getting justice for women of colour, bringing out the particular discrimination they face. It has prevented the deportation of many rape survivors. Both organisations are multiracial.

 

 

 

Report of the trial of Mrs Gail Sherwood in Bristol Crown Court

There seems to be an increasing trend to prosecute women who reported rape and were not believed by police.  On 8 January 2010 Mrs Gail Sherwood was put on trial in Bristol Crown Court accused of making false allegations.  She has had WAR’s support for nearly two years.

We are concerned that the trial should be accurately reported as the media coverage of such cases is often biased and sensational. So far newspapers have only mentioned the prosecution’s arguments, sometimes inaccurately. The defence begins on Monday 1 February and we hope that the media will present what Mrs Sherwood and her witnesses say.
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Mrs Sherwood is a single mother of three, a child minder for many years and a dog breeder. She is accused of making false allegations after reporting being stalked and raped by a stranger, allegations she is said to have retracted. To this day no one has been arrested for the rapes. Mrs Sherwood pleads not guilty to the charges and maintains that she was raped.

Mrs Sherwood reported being pursued in motor vehicles and receiving calls, gifts and cards from an anonymous stalker between 2000-2001 and Sept 2007 to the present, and two rapes, in April and June 2008.

Mrs Sherwood is charged with attempting to pervert the course of justice in relation to these incidents and causing a motorist, who cannot be named, to be arrested and held for 20 hours on 12 April 2008, after she alleged he had driven into the back of her daughter’s stationary car.

One of the prosecution claims dates back to 29 March 2008. Mrs Sherwood is accused of misinforming the police about a skirt she received by post and presumed was from the stalker. The defence explained that Mrs Sherwood initially suspected it may have come from the stalker because soon after holding the skirt up at the window, she received an anonymous text saying ‘I want to see you wearing it’. Mrs Sherwood had mentioned the skirt to an acquaintance who worked in the police control room, but she soon found out that the skirt had been ordered by one of her close friends and was mistakenly sent to Mrs Sherwood’s address. Her friend testified having sent the skirt, and the control room worker told the court that Mrs Sherwood had called within 24 hours to inform them of the mistake. But the police continued to investigate the skirt and the prosecution blamed Mrs Sherwood for this.

The court heard from the motorist Mrs Sherwood claimed had driven into the back of her daughter’s car. Some newspapers have claimed that the motorist was falsely accused of rape. This is inaccurate: he was arrested for harassment and released without charge weeks before the alleged rapes took place.

The defence pointed out that Mrs Sherwood had called 999 while driving, assuming that the motorist was her stalker. But when interviewed soon after and again at the identification procedure the next day, she had stated clearly several times that he was not her stalker – she could not see his face as he kept his head down. Yet the police kept the man overnight, searched his house and interviewed him twice. The motorist testified that during the 20 hours he was kept in police custody, he was never told that Mrs Sherwood had told police he was not the stalker. The defence argued that Mrs Sherwood was not responsible for the police decision to pursue this man.

The defence claims that right after the ID procedure, Mrs Sherwood overheard a woman officer commenting to a colleague that ‘she was a sad, lonely 50-year old who couldn’t get a man and had made it all up’. The WPC admitted in court that she was frustrated that they had not a shred of evidence and that she may have said Mrs Sherwood was ‘paranoid’ and ‘a sad, lonely 50-year old, who’d been left to bring up three kids’, but she denied saying Mrs Sherwood ‘can’t get a man’ and that ‘she had made it all up’. The court heard that the WPC was spoken to by senior officers fearing a formal complaint from Mrs Sherwood. She was forbidden from speaking to Mrs Sherwood but was not removed from the investigating team.

Two male police officers testified about the first alleged rape on 27 April 2008. They found Mrs Sherwood half naked in a remote field near Haresfield, her hands tied to a fence above her head. Both said that she was visibly suffering from shock, and that they took off their coats and tried to keep her talking so she would not lose consciousness. They had been very concerned about her, especially since it took a rescue vehicle a long time to reach her as the location was inaccessible.

During cross-examination, other officers admitted that Mrs Sherwood’s abandoned unlocked car had not been taped off as a crime scene for over an hour after it was found, so anybody could have taken or added something to the car. A crime scene officer said that she had not found Mrs Sherwood’s car key among the items at the scene, yet it mysteriously appeared in a police evidence bag many months later. The defence noted this as significant because Mrs Sherwood alleges that she was raped again a couple of months later, the assailant drove her in her own car. Before examining the scene, the officer did not ask what precise route Mrs Sherwood and her attacker took that night into the field, and she did not know that Mrs Sherwood claimed to have hit the man with a stick. Despite the stick being visible in the police photos, the stick was never retrieved or tested for evidence.

A doctor (forensic medical examiner) testified to having found a large number of injuries. Contrary to press reports, the examiner did not record that she suspected that Mrs Sherwood’s injuries were self-inflicted. She recorded that the injuries were consistent with rape but could also have been self-inflicted – a standard statement such doctors make. Under cross-examination the doctor denied having been rushed or brisk, despite being called out in the early hours, but admitted she had to get to London a few hours later to attend a conference. She acknowledged that a male detective had been present in the room while Mrs Sherwood was intimately examined, but said she could see noting wrong with this and did not agree with the defence that this male presence may cause a woman who has just reported rape considerable distress and embarrassment. Two women police officers reported to their seniors at this point that they had concerns about Mrs Sherwood’s truthfulness, noting that she did not make eye contact and kept her head down.

A second doctor who examined Mrs Sherwood after she reported the second rape, found similar injuries and again recorded that they were consistent with rape or could be self-inflicted. Mrs Sherwood claims she used a knife to defend herself during the rape. The police found and photographed a knife at the scene but have since lost it.

The prosecution brought a forensic pathologist as an expert witness who claims the injuries were mainly self-inflicted because they match the ‘textbooks’. When questioned by the defence about never having examined Mrs Sherwood or visited the crime scenes, he lost his temper and demanded to know what text books the defence had read. The judge had to intervene and tell him that he was there to answer questions not to ask them. He declined to comment on the intimate injuries Mrs Sherwood said were caused by rape.

Over the course of the trial the court has seen the detailed video statements Mrs Sherwood gave to police in which she describes being constantly harassed by a stranger. She’s seen to break down on many occasions as she describes what happened. Mrs Sherwood claims her young daughter saw a man on the roof of their house back in 2001. Several other independent witnesses have given evidence about flowers and cards appearing on Mrs Sherwood’s car or at her house when they were with her, so that she could not have placed them there.

The court heard from two of Mrs Sherwood’s close friends who have known her for 11 and 15 years. They travelled several hundred miles to testify that she is a caring, sociable, busy woman who is utterly devoted to her children and her dogs. They had each separately seen Mrs Sherwood the day after the two rapes and observed that she seemed visibly traumatised and injured. Their evidence contradicted the prosecution argument that she made things up because she was a sad, lonely attention seeker.

The defence highlighted internal police documents showing that officers had doubts about Mrs Sherwood’s reports early in the investigation, and was under surveillance.

In June 2008 she ceased being a complainant and became instead a suspect. The prosecution played poor quality covert CCTV footage in court which police had filmed outside Mrs Sherwood’s house without her knowledge. It shows a hooded person who two officers claim is Mrs Sherwood leaving her house around the time she reported being knocked out and abducted. The defence pointed out the police had not got a facial mapping expert to assess the identity of the hooded figure. The camera is zoomed in on part of the car and the front door. The patio doors, where the attacker had entered her house twice, were out of shot. When asked why the patio doors were not monitored, the police said they had to be careful not to intrude on the neighbours.

The defence questioned DS Wood, the officer in the case, as to why he had not viewed footage from an hour before the attack, which shows a man walking up the drive towards the house. The officer admitted he was unaware of the man in the footage. The footage would not play on the court TV so arrangements had to be made to play it later on.

The court has also heard from several CID officers who spent days devising an arrest and interview strategy based on Mrs Sherwood being a vulnerable person. But the arrest strategy was abandoned at the last minute. Instead DS Wood called Mrs Sherwood and asked her to bring to the station a box of matches she had reported having been left in her house by the stalker. He urged her to pass in on her way to walking her dogs rather than after. Mrs Sherwood drove to the station unaware she had been lied to. It was a hot sunny day and her five dogs were in the car. She was then detained for most of the day. The defence called it a ‘stitch up’.

DS Wood was asked if he knew about the dogs in the car. He replied that Mrs Sherwood mentioned them but that he had paid no attention as to how many there were. Mrs Sherwood was denied the right to phone anyone. DS Wood said that this was in case she tipped off an accomplice, yet police testified that they didn’t suspect any of her friends. But they claimed they needed time to speak to her friends and search her house.

Mrs Sherwood, a 50-year old mother with three children, five dogs in the car and no experience of arrest, was arrested at the station at 08.35. She was given a mental health assessment to check she was fit to be detained and questioned. Since she was considered vulnerable, she was allocated an appropriate adult, his first experience in the role.

The police called in Terry Curr to be her legal representative at the station. Curr told the court he had 20 years experience and knew many of the officers there. He spent just over an hour with Mrs Sherwood before she was interviewed. He said he informed Mrs Sherwood that the police had covert CCTV evidence of her proving she had lied; but had not shown her the footage. The defence suggested he did not have adequate time to go through the 14-page disclosure document the police had given him and to take instruction from his client. The defence also suggested that Curr had put pressure on Mrs Sherwood to confess, saying that the officer in the case didn’t like her, and that unless she confessed having lied about the attacks she would go to prison and lose custody of her children. Curr denied any of this. He acknowledged writing a confession which Mrs Sherwood signed. He also acknowledged that Mrs Sherwood did not have her reading glasses at the time.

The court heard audio tapes of the interview as the video recording had been spoiled. Mrs Sherwood was heard to say that she had lied about some of the incidents, but that others were true. She cried through the interview, giving monosyllabic answers, saying that she had made it up because she was lonely.

Later the court heard that immediately after the interview Mrs Sherwood told friends that she had been forced under duress to say she had lied; a statement was also read from a police inspector who was a personal friend of Mrs Sherwood saying that she later told him the same thing.

The case continues.

 

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