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Man wrongly accused of sexual assault sues police

Date

Rachel Olding

 A man imprisoned for almost a year on false claims of sexual assault is suing the police amid a "terrible and wicked climate" for sex crimes prosecutions.

Stephen Black, 46, claims the police were "high-handed, calculated, humiliating and oppressive" when pursuing vexatious claims by a teenage girl which saw him languish in a prison alongside rapists and murderers for 10½ months.

The same girl made a false claim that she was gang-raped by a car-load of men after leaving a house party in Baulkham Hills last year, which was investigated by 10 detectives and dismissed 10 days before Mr Black was due to go on trial.

Veteran lawyer Greg Walsh said it was "the worst climate I've ever seen" for sexual assault cases.

Several high-profile cases, such as the trial of Hey Dad! star Robert Hughes, and the royal commission into child sexual abuse, have encouraged more victims to report historical abuse and contributed to a rise in sexual assault statistics, the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research (BOCSAR) recently found.

However, there have also been a string of false reports and Mr Walsh said public sentiment was "guilty until proven innocent". He expects more lawsuits from falsely accused men who are doggedly pursued by authorities, without evidence.

"It's a terrible climate," he said. "The way in which sexual assault cases are being prosecuted, there is a real risk of miscarriage of justice. In this case, but for the false complaints that were made about other people, Mr Black might be languishing in prison for crimes he didn't commit.

BOCSAR director Don Weatherburn said sexual and indecent assault had received "enormous publicity" over the past three years.

"People are acting as if we're in the middle of a child sexual assault crime wave when, in fact, there were large numbers of cases before the courts 20 years ago," he said. 

He was not aware of evidence showing increased sexual assault conviction rates and said the public attitude of "guilty until proven innocent" was a problem that applied to all offence types. 

"The general presumption that people charged by police are guilty is a presumption most people seem to be walking around with when the fact of the matter is about half of all people who proceed to trial end up getting acquitted," he said.

In a statement of claim filed in the District Court, Mr Black alleges police knew the sexual assault reports were probably untrue but persisted in strip-searching Mr Black and arresting him in a "high-handed, calculated, humiliating and oppressive manner".

The 17-year-old girl said in her statement that Mr Black had a circumcised penis and that she knew the difference between a circumcised and uncircumcised penis. Mr Black's penis was not circumcised.

Despite the inconsistency, he was refused bail three times and kept in prison alongside murderers.

Mr Black's case was thrown out when the Baulkham Hills gang-rape was dismissed. Police then pursued AVOs against him, which were also dismissed by a magistrate.

Mr Black claims the police never apologised and he is suing due to "severe mental anguish, stress and distress".

He lost his job as a commercial landscaper and has not returned to work since charges were finally dropped in September.

A NSW police spokesman said the teenage girl had not been charged with making a false report. 

Hetty Johnston, director of Bravehearts, said there was nothing wrong with "silence, secrecy and shame finally being challenged".

"If that is making some people uncomfortable then tough luck," she said.

Anti-abuse campaigner Anthony Foster questioned whether lawyers were simply worried they were "losing control" because it was becoming harder to discredit victims in sexual assault cases.

"We now have a climate where victims are believed," he said. "In the past the pendulum had swung so far against victims and lawyers were able to question them so viciously that, in many cases, charges wouldn't stick. Now there is a tendency to start accepting... patterns of behaviour [by offenders]. Maybe lawyers are worried about that."

Former director of public prosecutions Nicholas Cowdery said he was confident there were enough checks and balances in the judicial system to prevent juries from being swayed by public sentiment.

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