It is now almost three months since Darren Hughes returned to his Wellington lodgings in the early hours of March 2, accompanied by an 18-year-old man who is said to have later run naked from the house in a state of considerable distress. The 18-year-old subsequently laid a complaint ‘of a sexual nature’ against Hughes, the precise nature of which has yet to be revealed. Hughes later resigned from Parliament. Only two people, Hughes and the young man, know precisely what happened that night. They are the only first-hand witnesses. This makes it both easier and more difficult for the police to decide whether to prosecute Hughes. Easier, because there are only two first hand witnesses; and more difficult because independent corroboration of either of their stories seems virtually impossible. Their creditability as witnesses will therefore lie at the core of the police’s decision whether to accept the young man’s complaint and charge Hughes or to conclude that there is insufficient evidence to undertake a prosecution.
Hughes’ resignation from Parliament cannot be taken as evidence of guilt. The very existence of a complaint of a sexual nature against him made his position as an electorate MP and front bench Labour spokesman untenable. He could not go on doing his job. As for the 18-year-old, aspects of his behaviour seem to require explanation: How did he get naked? To get naked you have to take off your own clothes or have them taken off by someone else. One implies consent, the other possible consent or force, stupefaction (including drunkenness) or waking from sleep to discover some form of sexual assault in progress. And why did he run naked into the street that night? Unless they were actually under threat of immediate physical violence, most people, one would have thought, would at the very least grab something to cover their nakedness.
For his part, Hughes has denied that he ‘did anything wrong’. But there is an ambiguity in the phrase. Does he mean morally wrong or legally wrong? The two are quite frequently not the same. Since there were no witnesses to what happened, unless Hughes confesses, or the young man admits he made the whole thing up, or the items taken from the house provide incriminating evidence against Hughes, what the cops have to judge on comes down to issues of credibility and probability. So we end up where we started: it’s Hughes’ word against the 18-year-old’s. Which brings me to my question: Should it really take the police almost three months to form a judgement on those matters? I would have thought not. More likely in my view is the theory that this sort of case, fraught with political considerations as it is, makes the police extremely nervous. Wrongly charging a former Labour Party Minister, Labour Chief Whip and Deputy Leader of the House with sexual assault would not be a good look. But not charging him would undoubtedly bring accusations of a weak-kneed response or even of favouritism toward a prominent figure.
More worrying is the possibility that, unable to come to any definite conclusion, the police might find it politic to go ahead and charge Hughes, thus transferring responsibility for his fate from their hands to a judge or jury. In the meantime, a cloud of suspicion hangs over both Hughes and the complainant. Those who think well of Hughes or support him politically may be attracted to the view that he is the victim of ‘morning-after’ regret by the 18-year-old or of some dastardly plot by Right Wing operatives to ruin his career. Hughes’ political enemies, along with those uncomfortable with homosexuality, may be attracted to the view that there is no smoke without fire and the ‘fact’ of an18-year-old ‘fleeing’ Hughes’ lodgings naked and seeking help from the police, is about as much evidence as they need. Both men’s lives are on hold and it’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that our boys in blue, who are absolutely brilliant at tracking down rapists and killers are, in this case, and for whatever reason, dragging their heels.