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Rehtaeh Parsons Sexual Assault Case Should Be Reviewed: Experts

04/11/2013 05:19 EDT | Updated 06/11/2013 05:12 EDT
HALIFAX - Nova Scotia's justice minister should call a public review into why the RCMP determined there were insufficient grounds to lay charges after an allegation that Rehtaeh Parsons was sexually assaulted, say scholars who follow policing of sex crimes.

Elizabeth Sheehy, a law professor at the University of Ottawa, says such a review is needed to provide answers to the 17-year-old girl's grieving family and women across the country on why Rehtaeh's case stalled.

"To be disbelieved by police or to have your report not pursued causes additional traumatic harm," Sheehy said Thursday.

She said she is troubled by the family's allegation that it took 10 months for investigators to interview the four boys alleged to have assaulted the girl at a house party in November 2011.

"That's an awful long time to wait to interview someone who's been identified by a complainant as someone who raped her," she said.

"It means other evidence is disappearing, if there is any physical evidence that could have assisted."

The Mounties have declined to confirm whether it took that long to interview the boys allegedly involved, but said they concluded there were no grounds to lay charges after consulting with the province's Public Prosecution Service.

The RCMP issued a statement Thursday saying their investigation into Rehtaeh's case was overseen by a team of experienced RCMP and Halifax police officers with specialized training in sexual assault investigations.

"Sexual assault investigations are complex and require significant time to gather evidence and to interview all parties involved," the RCMP said.

They also said the RCMP district superintendent and Halifax police chief met with Leah Parsons, Rehtaeh's mother, to express their condolences on the girl's death and reiterated their call for anyone who may have new information to come forward.

A spokesman for the Commission for Public Complaints Against the RCMP said it has received complaints from people about what they've heard about Rehtaeh's case. Tim Cogan said the agency is considering those concerns before determining whether any action is needed.

Anthony Doob, a criminology professor at the University of Toronto, supported Sheehy's call for a public airing of what happened.

"Given the importance of having a justice system that Canadians think reacts reasonably to difficult events, I can see the value of having an inquiry that examines a decision made in the past," he said in an email.

"The focus should be on what was known to the decision-makers — or could reasonably have been known — at the time of the decision, not what we know now."

Robert Gordon, the director of the School of Criminology at Simon Fraser University, said the decision to launch an inquiry is a "no-brainer."

Gordon, who studies police management and practices, said Rehtaeh's case shows signs of a lack of communication between police, educators and social workers.

"It's reflecting a breakdown for the services in charge of dealing with these kinds of instances," said Gordon.

"If I was the minister of justice, I'd be on this because it's an explosive issue politically and it's reflecting a failure of social and justice policy."

Provincial Justice Minister Ross Landry has asked senior officials for options to review how the RCMP and Public Prosecution Service handled Rehtaeh's case.

Sheehy said reports of sexual assaults not resulting in criminal charges is a national problem.

She cited Statistics Canada figures that show between 1998 and 2006, the percentage of reported sexual assaults that resulted in charges decreased from to 42 per cent from 44 per cent.

"We may gain some insight into what's going wrong (from a review)," she said. "It could give justice to other women."

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