Friday, 30 May 2008

The problem with trial by public opinion

These are the facts of a recent case as given by police to the media, prior to the trial:

i, The victim, a 10 year old girl, died from suffocation, She had been found in her bed with trouble breathing.
ii, There were injuries to her genitals, including a rectal tear consistent with penetration.
iii, DNA from the semen of the uncle had been found on her underwear.
iv, The family, maintaining the uncle's innocence, washed her bedding and clothing after she was found.
v, The family was from a part of Africa in which the myth that sex with a virgin can cure AIDS is common.

The uncle was arrested and charged with murder. He was, of course, vilified in the newspapers.

These are the facts that showed up in the trial:

i, The victim was indeed found in bed with problems breathing. She was also unconscious and having severe, chalky diarrhoa, which had drenched the bedding. By the time she got to emergency, she had a severe fever, a racing heart beat, and no measurable blood pressure. She had lost so much fluid from diarrhoa that she had gone into hypovolemic shock, depriving the brain of oxygen.
ii, The victim had contracted HIV at birth, from her mother.
iii, The anal injuries consisted of small lateral tears, otherwise reported in HIV/Aids patients. The rectal tear (about 7 cm) was actually a swollen and distended anal canal, probably due to the combination of Aids, diarrhoa, and the fluids desperately pumped into her by the medical team. There was pinprick haemorrhage to her genitals and hymen, but no sign of penetration.
iv, There was no sign of the uncle's semen anywhere else on the girl or bedding. The amount of DNA was about one 100,000th the size of a sugar grain. The girls' clothing had been in the wash after she was taken, the family had a habit of handwashing underwear, and DNA manages to survive through washing quite often.
v, The medical team and police appear to have fixated on sexual abuse, and interpreted all the evidence in that light.

The uncle was acquitted.

Moral: Be damned careful of what you read in the papers, do not assume the worst until proven ESPECIALLY for the most horrific of charges, and don't allow your prejudices and prejudgements to blind you to alternatives.

Source here.