'Great unfairness': 2 more sex assault cases where victims were jailed to ensure their court testimony

Two new cases uncovered by CBC News suggest a troubling pattern in the way the courts treat marginalized victims in sexual assault cases, says one of Edmonton’s top criminal defence lawyers.

A victim 8 months pregnant was jailed the night before she was to testify

A 16-year-old girl was shackled and jailed in the same courthouse cell block as the man who sexually assaulted her. (CBC)

Starlite was 16 when she was shackled and penned in a holding cell behind an Edmonton courtroom, where she stared at the man who had sexually assaulted her at knifepoint.

Susan, a drug addict and street prostitute, was eight months pregnant when she was forced to spend the night in the remand centre before testifying against the man accused of sexually assaulting and robbing her.

The treatment the two victims received at the hands of the Alberta justice system comes to light two months after CBC News reported a similar case that led to a provincial review.

The two new cases suggest a troubling pattern in the way the courts treat victims in such cases, says one of Edmonton's top criminal defence lawyers.

"I have seen a number of cases that have been disturbing in terms of how some of the witnesses are treated," said Brian Beresh, who pointed out that Starlite and Susan were both marginalized victims, unlikely to have access to legal advice, family or community support.

Brian Beresh, one of Edmonton's top criminal defence lawyers, says it appears that the Crown is more concerned with getting a conviction than with the well-being of the victims. (CBC)

"Particularly in terms of their rights, particularly in terms of their liberty. What appears to be first at issue is getting a conviction. I think that when that drives the process, it can result in great unfairness to individuals."

Both victims' names are protected by publication bans.

After reviewing the files, Alberta Justice Minister Kathleen Ganley issued a brief written statement to CBC News.

"While pursuing justice, we must ensure that victims of crime are treated with dignity, compassion and respect," the statement said. "We have asked a special committee to look into policies and procedures around ensuring that victims are supported and respected through the justice system. I am asking that committee to take these cases into consideration."

That special committee was assigned in early June to review policies and procedures after CBC News revealed the court's treatment of sex assault victim Angela Cardinal.

The three cases highlight a gap in the justice system, said Deb Tomlinson, a member of the committee who is also CEO of the Association of Alberta Sexual Assault Services.

"There is no legal counsel there to speak on behalf of the rights and the wishes of the victim," she said. "I think that's our challenge, and certainly where the problems occur."

'Halfway through, I just stopped fighting'

On a mild Saturday night in May 2011, Starlite and her group-home girlfriend decided to go drinking. A man drove them to an apartment rented by Ali Hassan Saeed.

Starlite was drunk after downing 10 shots of vodka from a "sparkly shot glass" over two hours. She fell asleep in one of the bedrooms. When she woke up, her friend and driver were gone.

She said Saeed tried to block her from leaving the apartment, but she managed to get outside.

Starlite was sexually assaulted on the lawn outside this northeast Edmonton apartment complex. (CBC)

"He pushed me to the ground and we started rolling around," she said in an interview with CBC News. "He started to hit me and ripped my clothes off. I got him one good shot to the side of his face with my heel, and that got him more angry."

Eventually, Starlite gave up.

"I started crying. And halfway through, I just stopped fighting," she said. "Let him do what he had to do."

She was initially reluctant to report what had happened, but a police officer eventually convinced her to go to a medicentre for a rape kit. Hassan was arrested and charged with aggravated sexual assault.

'He had sex with me without my permission'

First scheduled to testify in December 2012, Starlite was arrested the night before for allegedly breaching a court order. According to facility records, she spent two nights in custody at the Edmonton Young Offender Centre, and then was released without testifying.

When Saeed's trial resumed in January 2013, Starlite was again arrested on the eve of her testimony, again for the same reason. Her testimony spanned two days, but she spent a total of six nights in custody at the young offender facility.

"He had sex with me without my permission," she testified during the trial. "I just wanted to pretend it didn't happen."

Later, after she spent time near her attacker in the courthouse holding cells, Starlite decided she did not want Saeed to be convicted.

"I'm in custody, he's in custody," she explained to the court. "I don't want to go through with this, and I don't want to charge him. Because I believe everyone deserves a second chance. I've thought about it all last night. I didn't even sleep."

The recent cases brought to light by CBC News highlight problems in the Alberta justice system, says Deb Tomlinson, a member of the committee assigned in June to review policies and procedures. (CBC)

Tomlinson said placing Starlite in the same cell block with her attacker was wrong.

"We have to ensure that does not happen," Tomlinson said. "I think we need to put policies and protocols in place that witnesses who are victims, and in particular vulnerable victims, are not placed in proximity to the alleged offender."

Ultimately, Justice Doreen Sulyma convicted Saeed of aggravated sexual assault and sentenced him to five years in prison.

Sulyma also took note of Starlite's apparent change of heart.

"I am of the view that her empathy for this accused as a fellow in cells, my words, very much drove her position on cross-examination."

Starlite returned to court in February 2013 to deliver her victim impact statement.

"Due to the effects from the rape, I had very low self-esteem," she told court, according to the transcript. "I felt sad, angry, worthless and upset. I felt lost and confused. I felt hopeless and anxious that it'll happen again. I feel embarrassed, vulnerable, violated and alone."

8 months pregnant, victim was jailed

Ryan James White was charged with attacking three street prostitutes between December 2010 and December 2011.

Susan was one of them.

The 24-year old street prostitute was supposed to testify at White's trial in September 2015. When she failed to show up, the judge issued a warrant for her arrest.

She was nearly eight months pregnant when police went to her home and took her into custody just before midnight.

Susan, who did not respond to requests for an interview, was not forced to share a cell block with her accused attacker, because he was free on bail.

She told the court she got "zero" sleep at the Edmonton Remand Centre. "I didn't show up last week, because I woke up and I couldn't walk," she testified. "I think the baby's getting on a nerve or something, because my legs just don't work some days."

'He grabbed my throat'

During the trial, she testified about two encounters with White. Both times she said she performed oral sex on him, then gave his money back.

Ryan White was sentenced to 10 years in prison for robbing and sexually assaulting street prostitutes. (Postmedia)

During the second encounter, she said: "He grabbed my throat. He wanted his money. I got out of the vehicle and walked."

She was asked: "Why did you give him his money back?"

"Because," she said, "he had his big, ugly hand around my throat."

Beresh, who was White's defence lawyer, said he was alarmed by the way Susan was treated by the court.

"I was surprised," he said, "because I was led to believe that this person could not be found and would likely not be called. Then all of a sudden, we learned that she's been arrested, conveniently the night before she's to be in court. I'm lost as to why she would be arrested the night before. Except for the convenience of the prosecution, as opposed to the morning of court.

"It seemed like no one took her personal interests into account at all."

White was later convicted of robbing Susan and of sexually assaulting two other street prostitutes. 

He and Saeed were both prosecuted by then Crown prosecutor Avril Inglis, who was appointed a Court of Queen's Bench justice in June 2016.

Inglis declined CBC's request for an interview.

Starlite recently told CBC News her life spiralled out of control after she testified. She began using methamphetamine and experimented with injection drugs.

"I started going into escorting," she said. "I'm an addict. Homeless, right now."

The 21-year-old is currently on a waiting list for a drug rehab bed.


Janice Johnston

Court and crime reporter

Janice Johnston was an investigative journalist with CBC Edmonton who covered Alberta courts and crime for more than three decades. She won a national Radio Television Digital News Association award in 2016 for her coverage of the trial of a 13-year-old Alberta boy who was acquitted of killing his abusive father.