Sarah: In an Edmonton courtroom last fall, a dozen women took their turns on the witness stand. The Crown Prosecutor asked each of them, “What brings you to court today?” Their testimony would span eight excruciating weeks. The oldest woman was 22. She answered the same way as the women before her, and those who would come after. “I was locked up and raped,” she said, “by Matthew McKnight.” McKnight was a powerful fixture in Edmonton’s bar scene from the early to mid 2010s. But now he stood accused of 13 counts of sexual assault against 13 different women. He pleaded not guilty on all fronts, but in January a jury found him guilty of five of them. He’s now awaiting sentencing, which, if prosecutors had their way, would keep him in prison for more than 22 years. The case stands as Canada’s first legal reckoning of the #metoo era, of what happens when multiple women come forward about a serial sexual predator. Can justice really be served? I’m Sarah Boesveld, sitting in for Jordan Heath Rawlings. This is The Big Story. Globe and Mail crime and feature writer, Jana Pruden followed this case from beginning to end and witnessed the scene I just described. Jana’s in-depth feature about it titled “He Said, They Said” was published in the Globe earlier this month. She joins us now to talk about it. Thanks for being here.
Jana: Thanks so much for having me.
Sarah: Maybe you could start us with the facts of the case. Who is Matthew McKnight and what kind of person was he in the bar scene and Edmonton?
Jana: Yeah, so Matthew McKnight was a bar promoter and he worked for a company called Urban Spark, that owned a series of bars and nightclubs around the city. He most often worked at a place called Knoxville’s, which was sort of a country themed party bar. And he was a fixture, popular, some would say infamous, certainly well known. He was a very flashy kind of person. He was often out at the bar wearing onesies was kind of his trademark thing. He had a lot of onesies of different characters. Sometimes he would be wearing funny hats are costumes, sometimes even going to the bar essentially just in a pair of underwear. So he was pretty noticeable just to see him. And he was quite well known for being, I guess, a party guy who would provide drinks for all kinds of people, and especially young women.
Sarah: Yeah. So that is inextricably linked with what he’s accused of doing. Can you tell us about the number of charges at one point, but early on, how did this sort of mount, what was it that he was accused of doing in the bar scene?
Jana: Yeah, so for years there had been rumours circulating that Matthew McKnight drugged and sexually assaulted women. And these were very– it was like an open secret in the Edmonton bar scene. And I can tell you, when I started working on this story, every young woman I encountered, if I told them what story I was working on, they either had a story about themselves, or a friend, or a friend-of-a-friend. I mean, it was very well known. And through the years, women did, on occasion, go to the police and begin proceedings to make a complaint. There was, I believe, two different women that went to the hospital and got rape kits after waking up in Matthew McKnight’s bed. But for various reasons, people– the women never proceeded. And there was one moment that really sticks out to me, a woman from 2010, who just said, you know, that he was so important and so popular and she felt like she didn’t matter. And that’s why she never went forward. So in 2016, however, we have a period where a young woman, 17-years-old, comes forward April, and makes a complaint to police about being sexually assaulted by McKnight. About a month later, less than a month later, another woman goes forward to RCMP outside the city, also with a complaint about being sexually assaulted by McKnight, and in that case, drugged. And then in the summer of that year. So just a few months later, a third woman goes forward. So with these three women, all on the record, all willing to proceed, the Edmonton police release– they charged him with three counts of sexual assault, and they release the charges publicly. When that happens, August 2016, it starts a flood of other women coming forward throughout that fall, and really all the way up leading to his preliminary hearing. At one point, at sort of, I guess the height of the case, he was facing 26 charges, involving 21 women. And then ultimately, some of those charges didn’t proceed for a variety of reasons. And he went to trial last fall, that’s the fall of 2019, on 13 charges of sexual assault against 13 different women.
Sarah: Wow. And even the young woman who sort of started this all by coming forward first, you mentioned the power dynamic. She said that she was concerned about a venereal disease. Like that was her reason for coming forward. It was, you know, it’s– it’s really complicated, but that– not necessarily, like, I’m in a me too moment or I’ve heard of other women coming forward for other people or other men, it was like, I’m concerned for my health in some ways too, right?
Jana: Yeah, it’s funny because the defence did sort of paint it as like a #metoo inspired kind of situation. In fact, sort of a #metoo hysteria is what he sort of referred to it as, meaning that these women came forward and then suddenly all these other women started to– I’m quoting here– like, recast their experiences or regret their experiences. A lot of these young women weren’t really aware of the #metoo movement. And in fact, it hadn’t really started in the form that we know it now.
Sarah: No. She said that she hadn’t heard of Jian Ghomeshi even, and that was sort of our Canadian precursor in a lot of ways, right? Cause that was early– that was maybe a month prior, 2016, right? That he was found not guilty.
Jana: Exactly. And so, that was really interesting to me, that in a lot of ways it kind of follows the arc of what was happening. It comes out of this time, as you point out, right after the Ghomeshi trial. But most of these young women, you know, they’re very young and they weren’t sitting around reading the news, and many of them, really at the time, had no idea. So this first woman that came forward. 17 years old, she’d snuck into the bar. And, you know, she really talks about– I’ve talked to her quite at length, and of course heard her testify, in the day– well, first of all, she was crying, you know, either as they left the apartment or immediately after she told her friends that night. And yeah, her first concern was for her health, which we actually heard in a few cases, you know, the immediate concern is whether you’re going to be pregnant or get some kind of disease. And with this first young woman, her sister started texting some people in the bar scene, and almost immediately they started hearing stories of other women that he had done this too. And she– it really bothered her to think, you know, how many other women are out there, and what if he keeps doing this, and no one says anything? So those are the things that really led her to come forward. The women that they contacted at the time, no one wanted to come forward. One of the women said, you know, I will write something anonymously to back you up, but I don’t want to be part of it. Although she later did join, and there was a charge involving her. So, yeah, even though it followed sort of the natural arc, but these weren’t women who were inspired by the movement by any means. We heard time and time and time again, that the women who came forward, especially after those first three charges, just wanted to protect other women and they wanted to back up– they knew that the women who came forward were telling the truth, and they wanted to back that up with their own experience.
Sarah: Yeah. And I want to get into #metoo a little bit later, but I also want to read you just a quote from your piece, sort of, if that’s not too weird, from the opening scene, which you kind of paint a picture of the day of the verdict, and you said, so quote, “The courtroom was silent and heavy with the questions everyone in that room, and many others far beyond it, had been considering for months. Would an innocent man really be accused of 13 sexual assaults? And could a guilty man face so many charges and still walk free?” That’s a big question that I think does kind of cloak a lot of these cases, right? And this is a really important case because here in Canada, it’s like really the first test in this new environment and climate, post, I guess the #metoo movement, and anything that sort of came prior to that here in Canada, to actually look at the criminal justice system’s response to a slew of women coming forward against one person with complaints of sexual violence. What was so compelling to you about this case, and those questions that you pose that really have been on the minds of some of us following this movement?
Jana: Yeah. So, you know, I’ve been a long time court reporter. I covered court for many years in Regina. And when I heard about this case, first of all, it’s extremely unusual to try that many charges at once, that relate to completely separate incidents. We see it sometimes with say, you know, a historic charge comes to light of a figure in a community who is sexually assaulted multiple children over many years or something, but it’s pretty unusual to have this many charges tried at once, this many different cases, and of course, someone pleading not guilty on all of those charges. And when I looked at the case, it just seemed to have so many of these elements that we’re sort of grappling with as a society. And you know, when we think about this traditional, he said, she said idea. Well, how are we going to grapple with he said, they said? And we see it as a very powerful social tool. You know, it has had profound consequences socially. Ghomeshi would be a good example of that. You know, he was not convicted and yet in the court of public opinion, I think it’s fair to say he was, and that appears to be having pretty profound consequences for him. This was a case going to court and I was really interested to see how the court system would grapple with it, and what the outcome might be. One of the things was also that, you know, having sat in court all those years, I have encountered many times that people in the outside of the system think things should be a certain way or perhaps see it in a more simplistic way than of course, the way things play out in court. In this case, I had a Crown and a defence who were both willing to talk to me and talk to me about, you know, how this case would move through the system. So in a way, I really saw it as an opportunity to have an anatomy of a trial and take people inside, you know, how complex this is and how the court system tries to grapple with these issues.
Sarah: And within that anatomy, you know, of a sexual assault complaint, making its way through the court, it really does start with the police. And so you do bring us back to that first initial police report. And so tell us– which was that 17-year-old girl who sort of set all of this off with her coming forward. Tell us why it is so important to show all the steps. You kind of got at it a little bit in your answer there, but just sort of discussing the idea of the sort of tension between what the public thinks they know about the way that the court system works and the way that complaints of sexual assault moves through, versus what actually happens? Like, tell us about sort of the decision to make that arc the way that you did.
Jana: Yeah, I mean, you know, I think a lot of people base their ideas on the criminal justice system from television and movies, which are usually about the United States for one thing, which does have a different court system than us. And things typically happen to be way faster and quite a bit neater. So, the first woman that we talked about, and in the story she’s called Juliette, I mean, that’s the impression she had, is like you call the cops, and they lay a charge, and the guy goes to prison, and that’s done. And she told me, I think quite honestly, that it never even occurred to her what would follow, and even that a woman wouldn’t be believed. So in this case, I think starting with the way that police investigate these cases, and this is starting to change and we’re hearing more about kind of more victim centred approaches, but you know, there’s a moment that I include in the story where just as she’s about to describe the sexual assault, he takes a phone call. And to me, that just was so telling about how still to this day, or at least to that day, some of these women are treated, when they’re trying to share this thing that’s hugely traumatic. And of course that starts, and then it just rolls out from there. The court system is not a kind system to, I mean, probably to anyone, if we’re being honest, but especially in sexual assaults, it can be extremely brutal, and I can say personally, I have rarely sat through a trial that was as emotional and difficult as this trial. It was pretty staggering at times.
Sarah: Yeah. It sounds like the testimony was really staggering, you know, between the complainants, giving their accounts of what had happened, it sounds like some of them got really shaken up by the cross exam. And then also you heard from witnesses testifying for the defence and, and some saying, well, I’ve– you know, one woman particularly said, well, I’ve been sexually assaulted, but he– that is not what he did, you know? So everybody’s framing their own experiences and moving through this in their own, I don’t know, just responses emotionally and based on what they know and it’s fascinating.
Jana: Yeah. You know, so the testimony of the women’s spanned for, like, weeks. And that was part of it, is that even in a really horrible case, say a murder or even a multiple murder, I’ve covered some pretty difficult cases. You know, you have some people that are very closely related to the horrible act. And then you have witnesses that are further and further removed, to a pathologist and someone walking by, things like that. So it was different in this case that we had 12 women testify, because one woman testified both about herself and an assault she witnessed on her friend. To have that many victims, one after the other was really like weeks of this very high, emotional intensity. Dino Bottos, who’s the defence is an extremely good lawyer, and he believes in the function of cross examination. And there were times when, you know, easily, some of these women were cross examined for, you know, days, very in depth, very aggressive. And, you know, Dino and I talk about this a bit in the story, I mean, he believes there is a real purpose for that. If someone is going to go away potentially for many years in prison, the Crown in this case is asking for 22.5 years, you know, someone’s entire life is going to be changed, Dino says you have to test the allegations. That’s a day or two in court is not a to ask. So that’s one argument. On the other side. I mean, seeing someone go through that feels like torture at times. I mean, it was interesting to me when you talk about people bringing their own experience, there were people who were in the courtroom working– I don’t want to identify anyone in particular, but you know, women who have to be in court for their job, who told me, you know, they were having nightmares about him. I know a person who asked not to be in the courtroom anymore because they couldn’t handle the proceedings. You know, even some of the guards, it was interesting, their reactions to it, including in both ways. I mean, there was one moment where we were watching this very tough cross examination, and the woman who was testifying was, you know, sobbing, and we adjourned court and we walked out, and the guard basically said like, Oh, you can tell someone took acting in high school. And there was some moments like that too, yeah.
Sarah: Wow. I guess if you just see that and see that and see that. Plus like add your own perspective on top of that. And that again, is also why this case is so fascinating and also so important to see it– the many experiences of it played out over all those years, right? You know, this stuff takes years. You know, you very, definitely sort of showed both sides, right? The role of the defence, which you spoke of, and then another compelling aspect being the Crown. You know, can you tell me a bit about them and some of their challenges? One major one being that they had to suggest in many ways that there was some substance used that was not traceable. They didn’t have evidence for that. And that’s a huge part of the He Said, She Said– or in this case He Said, They Said– problem with sexual assault cases, is that evidence that is beyond testimony.
Jana: Yeah, exactly. I mean, we heard a lot of testimony that sure sounds like drugging. And we had a forensic expert testify about specifically the drug GHB, which is often known as a date rape drug, mostly tasteless, odourless, colourless. You know, and we heard testimony from women who, they’d maybe had a couple drinks or in one case she hadn’t had any drinks at all. And then essentially they go into a deep period of blackout, maybe waking up in his bed, sometimes waking up sick on the floor of his shower. And even women who, you know, openly admit they were drinking pretty heavily and they blacked out from drinking before, said, you know, this is different. I’ve never blacked out like this. This was something different. And as I mentioned, this one woman who had not had anything to drink was coming from work, had not even a full drink, and was completely blacked out and sick. But GHB, as we heard in court, is very quickly eliminated from the body. And so, even women who, you know, when you think about it, you’re sort of coming to, at some point you get home, you’re traumatized, sometimes they’re sleeping. Often they did, you know, Google GHB, or immediately thought they had been drugged. But even going to the hospital within a few hours, once you sort of have your wits about you, the drug is already eliminated from your system. So one of the things that’s interesting right now, is that we’re going to see, I guess, in the sentence, whether the judge believes that he was drugging women or not. And one of the things we heard about from the toxicologist of course, was that GHB works really kind of deviously with alcohol. And if someone’s had a few drinks, it’s very difficult to tell and to separate one from the other. And yeah, it’s– so there’s no direct evidence, but there’s a lot of things that point to the fact of a drug being administered. And of course that speaks in a huge way to whether it’s premeditated, to what level of, I guess, maliciousness and nefariousness he’s bringing to it, or if it’s simply a matter– not simply, but, you know, a matter of a woman being too intoxicated. Those are two pretty different things. Although the Crown, in sentencing, is arguing that in a way, it doesn’t matter if he intentionally intoxicated them with alcohol, with liberal shots and free drinks, or with a drug. In both cases, it’s using a drug to essentially incapacitate them to then take advantage of them, sexually assault.
Sarah: So tell us what Matthew McKnight had been found guilty of by a jury.
Jana: So the jury began deliberating 13 charges. And I mean, everyone in the court house, everyone I talked to, myself was just thinking about like, what’s going to happen? And in a way I really thought that it would sort of be all or nothing. Even though the jury was instructed to consider each case separately, my thought really was, you know, if you believe him, then you should believe him on every one, and you think the women are lying in every case, and you should find him not guilty of all of them. If you don’t believe him, then you believe them. And then you should find him guilty on all of them, because, you know, if you believe them, then you shouldn’t believe anything he says. That was not what happened at all. He was convicted of five and found not guilty of eight. And although the cases are all very similar, they of course all do have differences and individualities. I have never been able to make sense of which ones he was convicted of and which he wasn’t. And I’ve talked to all of the lawyers involved in the case, both of the Crowns and the defence, they–
Sarah: You can’t talk to the jury though. That’s the unfortunate thing in Canada, right?
Jana: Yeah. The jury’s deliberations are secret. They remain secret forever. We will never know how they decided. But to me there’s very little rhyme or reason, including you know, one of the defence’s main arguments was these first three come forward, and then the publicity and the, you know, social media pressure and the social movement really then makes all these other people reconsider their experiences. And, you know, there’s a line that the Dino Bottos said that was basically like, “You didn’t want to be his lover, it was easier to be his victim in that environment.” But in the verdict, there were not guilty verdict on two of the first three women who came forward, and you know, those women had truly nothing to gain, had nothing to recast had nothing– and that the jury found not guilty verdicts on two of those. It’s a very, I think a pretty perplexing verdict to those of us, you know, who knows the case so well. And now the judge alone is deciding what sentence he should receive for those five sexual assaults. And the sentencing range is definitely the hugest range I’ve ever seen being suggested by the Defence and the Crown. And the Crown’s asking for 22.5 years, the Defence is asking for five to nine years. I don’t know where the judge is gonna fall.
Sarah: Well, and also the defence is trying to use the fact that he was– Matthew McKnight was beaten in his jail cell, I guess, where he’s staying until they decide what to do with them. Because that he was identified, I guess, as by his peers there as a sexual offender, right?
Jana: So he was beaten quite badly, there’s video of it, in custody. And he says that it’s because his charges got out. And I think we have no reason to disbelieve that. That’s pretty, I think, well known that sex offenders are not well liked in custody, from either the inmates or the guards. So, and there is case law that collateral consequence like that should give you some reduction of sentence or should sort of count in sentencing. What that actually means is what we’ll see, is that, you know, a month comes off your sentence, no time comes off your sentence, is it a year comes off your sentence? The Crown basically says, well, it’s unfortunate, but it’s not worth any time. The defence, you know, I think is arguing, it should be worth some significant amount of time. He hasn’t put a number value on it. That’s probably what we’ll hear when we go back for further argument on Thursday, but to be knocking– to be getting down to five to nine years, he’s obviously thinking it should be worth some considerable reduction.
Sarah: Right. And just as a last question, you’re an experienced crime writer. You’ve been in the court system following it along. You have that depth of knowledge. But what did this case teach you or tell you about how the criminal courts deal with complaints of sexual violence, sexual assault, I guess, more specifically, particularly in this new time that we’re in? What maybe would be the limitations or the opportunities, or just the role of it? You know, is it justice? You sort of mention that at the end of the piece. You know, women who maybe did not get their charges heard with a conviction, or decided with a conviction, are still wondering about justice.
Jana: Yeah. I mean, it depends what justice means, I guess. And certainly a lot of the women, even women who, while they may struggle with a not guilty verdict in their case, they’re really glad to see him facing consequences and going to prison. They truly believe him to be a very dangerous man. I believe that as well, I believe him to be very dangerous. And I also truly think that without all of them, he wouldn’t have been convicted of any of them. And I think that’s a really important thing. But clearly, the court system is nota wonderful way to deal with these things. I mean, it’s just absolutely brutal. We are seeing things like restorative justice, which can work very well and be, I think, a kinder process, and also maybe a deeper– a kinder process for the victims, and maybe a more profound process for the offenders. However, something like that wouldn’t apply in the case of a serial sexual predator, like Matthew McKnight. That’s more, you know, individual kind of cases where both sides have to be willing. You know, in some sense I do think it’s true, we do have to– we can’t just send someone to prison without testing an allegation against them. But I think if the process were kinder all the way through, that maybe the testimony itself wouldn’t feel so battering, maybe people would be more prepared for it, and, you know, still have some strength left in them by that time. I don’t know. I’ve thought a lot about, you know, if someone asked me, well, what could we do to fix this? What would be the answer? And I think there’s a lot of smarter people than me than that can consider that. But I think, even just the way that we do sexual assault examinations, the way that those original police reports are taken, I mean, all of that sets a tone and maybe the court system is always going to hurt a bit, but I don’t think it has to hurt this much.
Sarah: And you certainly showed us what this all looks like through this amazing piece. Thank you for writing it. And thank you for being with us to talk about it.
Jana: Thanks so much for having me on. I really appreciate it.
Sarah: Jana Pruden is a crime and feature writer with The Globe and Mail. That was The Big Story. For more from us, you can visit our website, thebigstorypodcast.ca. You can also follow us on Twitter at @thebigstoryFPN. And you can now write to us to let us know what you think or tell us what you’d like us to tackle in a future episode. That email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. I’m Sarah Boesveld. I’ll talk to you tomorrow.
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