Key evidence was not tested by police in alleged sex assault case

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Police failings deprived a woman of potentially "powerful" evidence against a man she accused of sexually assaulting her.

The suspect was cleared of wrongdoing following a trial that became mired in claims the alleged victim's evidence was unreliable because she had taken cocaine that night.

The woman denied this – but lost the opportunity to prove those claims were false because police did not test blood and urine samples taken within hours of the incident.

The same errors threatened to cost the woman her job – where staff were regularly drug tested – as police told her bosses of the cocaine claims.

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A judge has since ruled that, based on the evidence he heard in a civil case surrounding the investigation, he believed she was the victim of a sexual assault and there was "no evidence to contradict" her denials about drug use.

The judge, Recorder Peter Cowan found Merseyside Police breached the woman's human rights by failing to adequately investigate her complaint.

The force told the ECHO it accepted the judgement and was committed to supporting victims of sexual offences.

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A police investigation was launched after the woman reported waking to a man performing a sex act on her following a night out in Liverpool.

She had no recollection of how she ended up in his bed and, several days later, reported the incident to Merseyside Police.

Nine months later the man was charged and the matter proceeded to trial.

He was acquitted by jurors following a case that saw him and other witnesses claim the alleged victim had taken cocaine on the night in question.

This became a key element of the trial, with Judge Cowan stating that "credibility was a critical issue for the jury".

Devastated by the verdict, the woman wrote to Merseyside Police to question the force's investigation.

The samples that went untested but could have been crucial

It was upon these enquiries she discovered more than two dozen samples, including of her blood and urine, taken in the aftermath of the incident had not been analysed.

Within hours the woman, who cannot be named for legal reasons, visited a sexual assault referral clinic and was examined by a doctor.

The officer in command of the investigation was made aware of her visit to the centre, attended and, according to the civil judgement, asked for all samples available.

Instead of being given the full collection of 27 he was given a single swab.

The officer accepted that swab but did not question why he was not provided with any blood and urine samples – which the woman had described giving when she was interviewed the day before.

The civil case heard he was operating under a "misunderstanding" this was all he could expect, and that he was reliant on the centre to comply with his request.

Judge Cowan said: "It is difficult to conceive as to why he did not ask whether blood and urine was available. I am driven to conclude that when he attended, he had forgotten what was said the previous day."

Missed opportunities

Six months later, with the investigation still ongoing, the alleged victim emailed the officer for an update.

In that correspondence she asked whether the suspect had been interviewed in relation to the results of tests on her blood and urine samples.

The officer has since "conceded that he must not have read this email properly because he did not notice reference to blood and urine".

Judge Cowan found he was "oblivious to the fact the sexual assault referral centre had taken blood and urine but if he read it properly, he would not have been so oblivious”.

The Recorder continued: "He phoned [the complainant] later as she had requested – he accepted [she] asked him whether 'all the samples' had been tested."

The officer said he believed this was a reference to the single swab he had been provided with and underwear also released by the woman and "did not question" her use of language.

The judge said the email and phone call "provided him with another opportunity to determine whether blood and urine samples were taken" but "that opportunity was lost".

In cross-examination during the civil case the officer accepted he had made errors and apologised.

Failures led to lack of evidence to help woman fight drug use claims

The civil case saw representatives of the alleged victim claim the failures to secure and examine the full set of samples represented a breach of Article Three of the Human Right Act, which places on the state an "operational duty to investigate offences".

It was argued the failures, including to test the swab the force did collect, represented a series of missed opportunities to strengthen the prosecution case.

The court heard the samples could have been tested for the presence of a date rape drug and may have provided proof the woman did not take cocaine.

It was also argued the results could have sparked a second interview of the suspect in which he could have been questioned about a letter he gave the woman that was described as a "handwritten apology letter for an incident which [the suspect] recorded as his fault".

That interview would have been before he was charged – at which point he changed his position from denying contact with her to claiming it was consensual.

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Merseyside Police accepted there were failings and a review of the investigation saw the woman offered the chance for the samples to be tested, but this was rejected because of a loss of trust.

In the civil case the force argued that, because the case still proceeded to trial, it remained "an effective investigation" and the errors were not so severe that the enquiry breached the Human Rights Act.

Judge: ‘Forensic evidence would have been powerful evidence against him’

The judge disagreed, however.

He found the failings "only just" amounted to a breach, and there was "nothing to suggest" the officer in command "is not competent".

But Recorder Cowan ruled: "Had samples been analysed at any stage, it may or may not have revealed intimate contact between [the woman and the suspect].

"He would or should have been re-interviewed had he not changed his story; forensic evidence would have been powerful evidence against him.

"Change of story could have been hugely detrimental. It would appear forced upon him by forensic evidence.

"That is one reason why I find the act which should have occurred was in a material and real way capable of leading to a positive outcome… this is not investigative choices, but failure to take prompt steps which should have been taken and which [the officer] would have done had he paid sufficient attention to the signs.

"Even after [the alleged victim's email to the officer], it was capable of leading to a successful conclusion. "Credibility was a critical issue for the jury.

"For the reasons which I have explained, samples could have proved [the woman] had not taken cocaine that evening. That would have enhanced her credibility and damaged that of [the suspect]."

Woman faced disciplinary probe after police told bosses of cocaine claims

A separate complaint was also dealt with by the judge.

Amid claims the woman had taken cocaine, the officer in command informed her employer and she faced disciplinary action as a result.

It was argued this represented a breach of data protection legislation, but the judge disagreed.

He found the information submitted by police was accurate and that the "real complaint" was that the failures in the investigation prevented the woman from access to evidence that may have shown she did not take cocaine, which would have ended the disciplinary process.

She was eventually exonerated by her employer.

If you are struggling during lockdown and need help or support, here are some places you can contact.

  • To report a sexual crime to the police call 101
  • If you are in immediate danger, always call 999
  • If you prefer not to go direct to the police and you are not in immediate danger, you can contact a sexual assault referral centre (SARC) in your area
  • Childline 24-hour helpline 0800 1111
  • NSPCC’s online safety helpline on 0800 800 5002
  • If you are worried about a child, call the NSPCC’s helpline: 0800 800 5000
  • ‘Let down by the very people she trusted’

    Commenting on the outcome of the case the woman’s solicitor, Matthew McConville, argued “there could have been a wholly different verdict" in the criminal trial had there not been flaws in the investigation.

    Mr McConville, of Irvings Law, highlighted the judge's findings in relation to the incident and said his client was let down by "the very people who she trusted and should have been supporting her".

    He added: "Instead of them accepting their failings and admitting fault in response to her civil claim, to make matters worse, they then fought my client’s case over the past couple of years at the taxpayer’s expense and made my client have to go through the court process all again and the ordeal of a trial once more.

    “While this welcome decision brings a degree of closure to my client, the damage was already done by their failings.

    "It does worry me about how many other sexual assault prosecutions have collapsed in the past as a result of similar failings by Merseyside Police.

    "I hope that there are none and in light of this finding, all police forces now make sure that they investigate all sexual assault allegations properly.”

    Police: We will support each and every victim

    Merseyside Police said it was "committed" to investigating allegations of sexual offences and supporting victims.

    In response to the civil case findings, Detective Superintendent Sue Coombs, of the Protecting Vulnerable People Unit, said the force accepted the judgement and added the ruling found the Human Rights Act was "only just" breached and the report of cocaine allegations made to the woman's employer were found to have been in the public interest.

    Det Supt Coombs said: "Sadly on this occasion we didn’t get it right in the recovery of the samples provided, but we remain committed to supporting victims of sexual offences and will continue to do everything we can to support victims.

    "Our specialist Unity Team is dedicated to investigating and supporting victims from the initial report of the incident through to the end process, maximising the best possible chance of conviction.

    "As well as specialist police officers the team also includes lawyers, sexual offences investigative techniques officers, and detectives. The team work in partnership with Independent sexual violence advisers, sexual assault referral centre crisis workers and health professionals to provide the best possible joined-up service to every victim.

    "We know there is still work to do to encourage more victims to come forward and ultimately increase the number of offenders prosecuted. We will continue to work with partners to support each and every victim in the months and years ahead."

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