Accusation: A Wife’s Story
Mary Fielding (with Jane Westaway)
Longacre Press, $29.95,
”J’accuse!” (I accuse!). Just over 100 years ago Emile Zola’s article in Le Figaro on the Dreyfus Affair appeared beneath this bold headline, and helped to resolve an injustice that had dominated French politics for years. He questioned the way in which, despite evidence to the contrary, the courts continued to assert the guilt of an innocent man. For although the army chiefs may have believed Dreyfus to be guilty of treason when he was first tried, the incontrovertible evidence now pointed clearly towards another man, Esterhazy. How was it possible that the courts could ignore this evidence, acquit Esterhazy, and keep Dreyfus imprisoned on Devil’s Island, off the coast of South America? What Zola revealed was the army’s willingness to engage in forgeries and cover-ups in order to keep a bungled investigation from public scrutiny, and their preparedness to compromise one man’s life in order to preserve a façade of “justice”.
A belief in justice is viewed as a cornerstone of democratic societies. A major objective of the criminal process involves the bringing of alleged offenders to justice, but what does this mean in practice? One dilemma arises from the need to balance the risks of convicting the innocent against the possibilities of acquitting the guilty. Our legal system asserts that, in the words of English jurist William Blackstone, it is “Better that 10 guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer.” This adage suggests that the criminal justice system should be weighted towards protecting the innocent from unjust accusation. In order to avoid the moral harm involved in wrongful convictions, we place the burden of proof on the prosecution and accept that at times a lack of evidence may result in those who are guilty walking free.
Sex offending is so obviously offensive that it should be of little surprise that the majority of those accused of such crimes strongly protest their innocence. To assuage their guilt and cover their shame, offenders and their supporters often accuse the victims of lying, and hope the police will, even if unintentionally, act in ways that collude with their offending. Should the case go to trial, they often know they can rely on defence lawyers to destroy the victim’s credibility. It is comparatively rare for trials involving sexual offending to result in the accused being found guilty and convicted. Rarer still are the cases involving wrongful conviction.
This is largely what makes Mary Fielding’s account so interesting. Her husband Steve was accused of masturbating in front of two high school girls, charged on two separate counts, tried before a judge and convicted – despite questionable “evidence” to support his identification as the offender. His wife asks, in ways reminiscent of Zola, how is it possible for him to end up convicted of such an offence if he is in fact innocent? What does this mean about the operation of our justice system? Or, she dares to allow herself to question, what does it mean about her husband? Is it possible that this man to whom she has been married for more than 20 years, who is raising their daughters with her, could actually have performed such indecencies?
The book presents a frank, first-hand account of Mary’s experiences, from the first knock signalling the arrival of the police at the front door through various court cases and appeals, culminating in her decision to write an account for others in the hope that positive change might happen. For what Mary concluded, after more than two years of personal hell while her husband was in the clutches of the justice system, was that her previous black-and-white, good-and-evil imbued picture of the world was profoundly flawed. She began to feel that the innocent were not innocent till proven guilty but perceived and treated as guilty from the very moment when they were charged. The police were not knights in shining armour on a quest for the truth but actors performing a processing role in an imperfect system. Her growing disillusionment plays and replays through the book, as she candidly admits:
It took me a long time to accept that the world was not as I’d believed it to be. I had always assumed people acted with integrity, particularly those in authority. I had always assumed the justice system was built on fairness and integrity. But it was not.
The impact of going through such an experience is clearly revealed, with one of the most striking aspects being the picture this account provides of how both Mary and Steve felt progressively ground down and eroded by the process. Months of effort trying to prove his innocence finally came to an end, as far as the courts were concerned, but an inner sense of resolution was harder to attain. Mary describes how Steve continued to feel wary and vulnerable, fearing another “attack” from the system, and panicking when he realised he had left them a chink – his warrant of fitness had expired. From her own perspective she comments on the difficulties of embracing a “positive” outcome when so much negativity had transpired. As she expresses it:
The day after the convictions were quashed I woke once more with mixed emotions – relief, even joy, that it was over, but terrible sadness that it had ever happened, that we’d been through so much, and what for? Here we were, spat out the other side of the mincer 18 months later, with no formalities, no are-you-all-right, no apology, nothing.
The merits of Accusation: A Wife’s Story lie more in the direction of the critical questions the book raises than in any particular literary flair. It follows a clear, chronological path detailing fully the twists and turns of the case, and unravelling the legal issues on which conviction initially rested and was later overturned. As such, it provides a full and frank picture of how, faced with the might of this system, Mary felt she and her family also came close to unravelling. Her account of the ups and downs of this journey, the times of anger, depression and helplessness she experienced, suggest this could be a helpful book to read for anyone faced with similar circumstances. However, as she herself states, it is unlikely that many men’s cases would replicate Steve’s and result in wrongful conviction. The alternative is far more common – of guilty men denying their offending and going free, leaving their victims vulnerable and invalidated.
There is some danger that this book may be seized upon as further “evidence” by those keen to suggest that innocent men are at colossal risk of being wrongfully convicted for sexual assaults. This would not only reflect an ignorance of the realities of case attrition within the justice system, but would also suggest a misreading of the book. Of key relevance in this particular case was the inadequacy of the police’s investigative efforts, their failure to establish identification and verify facts, and the subjective biases of key individuals. While lambasting the police for their failures and sloppy investigative work, Mary is also able to acknowledge the pressures placed on officers and to recognise that good officers can exist even within flawed organisational systems.
The problems with the adversarial justice system that helped to secure what appears to be Steve’s wrongful conviction are the same problems that more routinely allow the guilty to go free and victims to remain unheard. Increasingly, both internationally and in New Zealand, criminal justice systems are being challenged to increase their accountability and better meet the needs of victims. Hopefully the day Zola foresaw is coming nearer, when he optimistically proclaimed: “la vérité est en marche et rien ne l’arrêtera” (truth is on the march and nothing can stop it).
Jan Jordan teaches criminology at Victoria University of Wellington and is the author of The Word of a Woman? Police, Rape and Belief.