The first witness at the sexual assault trial of Jian Ghomeshi has described how the former radio star appeared to be a “perfect gentleman” before pulling her hair and striking her on the head on two separate occasions.
“It felt almost like a rage, [in] that it wasn’t there the second before he did it,” the woman told a packed Toronto court on Monday, at the start of the first trial to result from a string of sexual assault allegations against the Canadian radio celebrity.
Ghomeshi faces three charges of sexual assault and one count of overcoming resistance by choking. The choking count carries the steepest penalty, with the possibility of years in prison. A fourth sexual assault charge is the subject of a separate criminal trial due to begin this summer.
The charges represent accusations by four women. But nearly 20 individuals have come forward to law enforcement and media to accuse the former CBC star of violent sexual abuse. Ghomeshi denies all the charges, saying that any sexual activities with the women were consensual.
Ghomeshi’s first accuser said she met Ghomeshi in late 2002, and went on two dates with him marked by escalating violence. For the first date, the two spent a half hour at a pub across the street from the set of Ghomeshi’s CBC TV show, Play. Afterwards, he drove her to her car.
She was charmed, she said, that he drove a yellow Volkswagen beetle.
“I remember thinking he’s funny, he’s charming, he’s intelligent, he opens doors,” the woman testified. “I thought he’s a perfect gentleman. I thought, what a nice guy … He’s driving a car that reminds me of a 1960s Disney movie … I’m feeling very safe with him at the moment when I’m with him.”
The two briefly kissed in the front seat, she said, when without warning, Ghomeshi yanked her head back with a violent tug of her hair. “It was painful and sudden,” she testified.
“He said something along the lines of, ‘Do you like it like that?’ And I don’t like that.” Ghomeshi made a “switch back” to his sweet demeanor, she said. She got into her own car not long after, she testified, wondering if he realized his own strength.
Their second one-on-one encounter, in the first week of January 2003, began when the woman and a friend attended another taping of Ghomeshi’s show, she testified.
After her friend went home, she and Ghomeshi went to his home in South Riverdale. The two flirted and kissed until Ghomeshi moved behind her and jerked her hair with force that brought her to her knees. He punched her in the right side of her head three times, she testified, with what felt like a closed fist.
“I’m terrified, I don’t know why he’s doing this. I don’t know if he’s gonna stop, can I take this pain? And my ears are ringing, and I thought I’m going to faint.” As she began to cry, Ghomeshi called her a cab and ordered her to leave, she said. She did not report her allegations to police until fall of 2014.
The accusations against Ghomeshi, which first emerged in fall 2014, stunned fans of the popular folk artist turned radio personality and his hugely popular program with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, Q.
The culture and current events show was one of CBC’s most successful programs, looming large in Canadian entertainment and attracting a substantial following in the US. Ghomeshi drew in a broad range of guests: Jon Stewart, Paul McCartney, Jay Z, Michael Moore, Werner Herzog, Wu-Tang Clan’s GZA and Brian Wilson.
Ghomeshi’s celebrity status makes this one of the most-anticipated trials in North America. But the trial is also being scrutinized in the context of Canada’s troubled history of handling sexual assault cases.
Victims’ advocates will be scrutinizing treatment of Ghomeshi’s accusers, especially by the prominent defense lawyer Marie Henein who is leading Ghomeshi’s team. On Monday, an overflow room held several criminal defense lawyers who came to watch Henein’s cross-examinations.
Already, the proceedings have reflected the broad questions about sexual assault that are swirling around the trial, with the prosecution’s first witness saying that stereotypes about accusers prevented her from going to the police with her accusations more than a decade ago.
“It just didn’t seem like anyone would do anything about it, or listen, or care,” she said. “I didn’t create the stigma about reporting sexual assault. But I am very aware.”
Henein hastened to cut off her statement. Before the court broke for lunch, Henein had begun to ask the woman pointed questions about how briefly police questioned her complaint of sexual assault, her media appearances to discuss her alleged assault, her level of excitement after a first date to see Ghomeshi again and her age.
“I think you would agree with me that you were a mature person?” Henein asked.
Henein indicated to the judge that she intended to question the witness about other times she called the police that year to establish “she knows how to pick up the phone and communicate with police”.
The prosecutor’s witness addressed her reticence to call the police in her testimony to the crown prosecutor. After the second alleged assault, she testified, she thought it was “too late” to call the police as soon as she left Ghomeshi’s house.
“It was just easier, I thought, to carry on and try to put it behind me as a bad experience,” she said. “I wanted to go home and curl up in a corner and cry, and the second reason is I didn’t think that anyone would listen.”
For an hour before the court took an afternoon recess, Henein launched an aggressive cross-examination of the witness. At one stage, there was a testy, 20-minute exchange on what caused the witness to misstate that she was wearing hair extensions when Ghomeshi allegedly yanked her hair.
Henein suggested that Ghomeshi did not own the yellow car the witness remembered at the time of their first encounter, and she highlighted inconsistencies between her morning’s testimony and the way she previously recounted her allegations to media and police.
The woman said that her recollections to police and the media did not come all in one burst. “This is new to me,” she said. In one case, “I was on national television. I was under pressure.”
“It was pressure that you chose,” Henein replied.
The case continues.
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