Judgment in Mandi Gray sexual assault case 'glorious,' but change to legal system will be slow: advocates

An Ontario judge's verdict in a sexual assault trial earlier this week has won praise from experts for decrying how the legal system treats survivors. However, those same people are not optimistic that it will lead to quick change.

'It doesn't mean we've won the war, but it is important,' legal expert says of judgement

After a fellow graduate student was found guilty on Thursday of sexually assaulting her, Mandi Gray told reporters that despite the verdict, she faces more hurdles. (CBC)

An Ontario judge's verdict in a sexual assault trial earlier this week has won praise from advocates for decrying how the legal system treats survivors. However, those same advocates are not optimistic that it will lead to quick change in a system that they say often doesn't work for those who report their experience to police.

On Thursday, Justice Marvin Zuker found Mustafa Ururyar guilty of sexually assaulting fellow York University graduate student Mandi Gray. Ururyar is due to be sentenced in October, but will be back in court Monday to learn if his bail will be revoked.

In a 178-page decision, Zuker wrote at length about how the legal system treats sexual assault survivors, and the nature of consent.

"No other crime is looked upon with the degree of blameworthiness, suspicion and doubt as a rape victim," Zuker wrote. "Victim-blaming is unfortunately common and is one of the most significant barriers to justice and offender accountability."

Zuker quoted poet Maya Angelou and referenced writer Virginia Woolf, and noted that: "There may well be an unrealistic expectation as to how 'real' victims should behave."

Gray herself was "taken aback" by the judge's language, but said outside court Thursday that it couldn't undo what happened to her, including the ordeal she endured as she went through the legal system.

In interviews this week, experts in sexual assault and advocates for survivors agreed with Gray, saying that Zuker's judgment was heartening, but did not offer hope for big or fast change.

"It was a glorious decision," a sexual assault survivor, whom we can only refer to as Jane Doe, said in a telephone interview.

"But we err if we assume that it's going to change things. For instance, how long are the media going to talk about this decision? Today, other sexual assault trials are going on and women are being assaulted in those trials."

'I had a great judge ... Nothing changed'

Doe, who cannot be named due to a long-standing publication ban, sued Toronto police back in 1998 after investigators used her as bait to catch a serial rapist. She now conducts research and does advocacy work around sexual assault.

Doe noted that in her case, "I had a great judge. He said all the things that Judge Zuker said. Nothing changed."

Pamela Cross, legal director of Luke's Place, a non-profit organization for women navigating the legal system, said Zuker had "a profound and almost astonishing understanding of the issue of sexual violence, of women's lack of autonomy in these situations."

She noted his references to academic and grassroots research that has been done on sexual violence over the last several decades, and that he took time to explore the issues of consent and reasonable doubt.

"He is assessing and analyzing the law correctly, which is what we want judges to do all the time," Cross said in an interview.

The decision is "moving, it's empowering, it creates a little bit of hope in a situation where I think a lot of us had been feeling that there wasn't any hope in terms of the criminal law being able to be helpful in a case of sexual assault," Cross said.

But one decision won't suddenly make a complainant comfortable coming forward to report an assault to police, she said. And it won't make her more likely to counsel a woman to make a formal complaint.

But she hopes other judges will read Zuker's words and "have the courage to follow suit."

And, she added, if the verdict is appealed and upheld, "it becomes a precedent-setting case that says important things about consent and the credibility of a witness."

'Some form of accountability needs to happen'

For Doe, Cross and Wendy van Tongeren, a former Crown prosecutor of more than 30 years who specialized in sexual assault cases, the judgment could have a broad impact beyond the criminal justice system. It could serve as an opportunity for the community at large to learn and change their attitudes toward women and violence.

"Maybe those people can learn something from this decision, too," Cross said. "We are only going to address this issue when we have a different societal attitude to women, to equality, to violence."

For van Tongeren, she understands the concern that women don't feel comfortable coming forward, particularly given that investigations and trials can be very hard on complainants. Prosecutors are in a difficult predicament, she said, given that they can make promises to protect a complainant during the process but are then powerless to keep that promise when other factors come into play, such as trial delays and defence tactics.

But she hopes the judgment spurs more complainants to report an assault to police because she says prosecuting such crimes is vital. "Our dilemma is that in order to protect society from wrongdoing, some form of accountability needs to happen after we've gone through due process."

Prosecutors can now have Zuker's judgment on hand when a complainant comes to their office, she said, and point to it as an example of a positive outcome.

"It's a tremendous tool for lawyers in their decision-making process as they proceed, but also it will provide an example to complainants, to witnesses on why this is a worthwhile process," van Tongeren said.

"This will only get better if these cases repeatedly come to the court, so the judicial minds can figure it out."

Change will also come to the legal system if judges look at this judgment and start to rely on it, she said.

But, she acknowledged, "legal reform is very slow and doesn't always keep up with social reform and understanding, and that's all the more challenging now because we have things happening in leaps and bounds in our social networks, particularly with social media."

'Lack of education is the issue'

For Doe, who has been monitoring rape trials for 30 years, listening to Zuker read his judgment on Thursday was "surreal."

"There's a lot to celebrate in Judge Zuker's decision," she said. "At the same time, and equally so, it's outrageous that he's the first and apparently only judge in the country to understand and be able to articulate the pretty much absolute degree that rape mythology has informed our legal system."

Doe said one judgment won't change the fact that many players in the legal system get little education or training in sexual assault.

"The ignorance of legal players is the problem," Doe said. "The lack of education is the issue."

But it's in the education system, from primary school right up to the country's law schools, where the quickest change could come, van Tongeren said.

"If academics could pick this up, people who train police, who train lawyers, those people could take this case and develop a curriculum with this case being part of it," she said. "You could teach a whole course, because it covers all the issues. He's done all the case research that you need. And it will start to circulate even by the nature of our precedent-based legal system."

As Cross points out, Zuker's decision does not undo what happened to Gray, nor can it alone create a meaningful change in the justice system.

"What happened to her was validated by a judge, and in our culture we value very highly judges' opinions. So it's a big deal," Cross said.

"It doesn't mean we've won the war, but it is important. It's very important."