In overturning two rape convictions from 2008, the Supreme Court (Högsta Domstolen) ruled that a victim’s testimony ought not to be given more weight than that of an accused rapist if there is nothing else indicating that one of them is more credible than the other.
According to the court, in order to secure a rape conviction, prosecutors must also present forensic or some other type of evidence to support the plaintiff’s testimony, something which was lacking in both cases.
In one case, a woman claimed that a man threatened her at knifepoint and forced her to have sex with him in the apartment of the man’s friend. The friend was asleep when the couple had sex in the bathroom, and then left the apartment at the man’s request, at which point the couple had sex in the bed.
The friend claimed not to have heard or seen anything, but testified that he doubted the sex had been anything but consensual. Investigators were also unable to find any evidence indicating the woman had had a knife held to her throat.
The second case also involved conflicting testimony from the alleged rapist and victim about whether or not the intercourse was forced.
When discussing the incident later, the girl admitted that she didn’t consider the incident to be a case of rape at the time.
The court also found that it could not be shown beyond a reasonable doubt that the man had forced himself on the girl using violence, as there was no physical evidence indicating violence had been used and certain details of the girl’s account raised doubts with the court.
“It should have gone this way from the start. My client is extremely relieved,” said Pia Liljeblad, an attorney who represented one of accused men, to the TT news agency.
“The lay judges and we lawyers aren’t psychologists. We can’t be certain in deciding who is more credible than another if there is no other evidence. And in the case I represented there were things that raised doubts.”
Liljeblad thinks that the Supreme Court believed it was time for a clarification regarding evidence standards, and that the attention given to the issue by Sweden’s Chancellor of Justice (Justitiekansler) Göran Lambertz contributed to the court deciding to take up the cases.
“It shows that one person’s word against another’s is not enough,” she said.
The cases mark the first time since the late 1990s that Sweden’s highest court has taken up this type of case, and Lambertz praised the court for demanding higher standards of evidence.
“It’s important to be careful about convicting if you only have testimony from the plaintiff,” he told TT.
According to Johan Munck, who chairs the Supreme Court and heard both cases, the rulings are of limited value with respect to setting a new legal precedent.
“If the plaintiff’s testimony is credible and is supported by other circumstances, it ought to be enough for a guilty verdict,” he told TT.
He added that both cases likely involved some sort of attack, but that there wasn’t enough evidence to establish that fact beyond a reasonable doubt.
Munck said the court decided to hear the cases due in part to public debate regarding standards of evidence as well as ongoing discussions on the matter in legal circles, although he wasn’t involved in the decision to refer the cases to the Supreme Court.
“We’ve received a lot of inquiries regarding standards of evidence for years, especially of this kind,” he said, adding that he expects the ruling to affect how police and prosecutors conduct preliminary investigations.