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Rolls-Royce Holding PLC : William Roache acquittal: inconsistent testimonies damaged prosecution

02/06/2014 | 08:15am US/Eastern

The case against Bill Roache was always going to be difficult to prove as the offences allegedly took place over 40 years ago and there was no contemporaneous evidence to show that he had ever even met his accusers.

Indeed, it was the Coronation Street actor's case that all five of the accusers were total strangers to him.

On Thursday the jury found him not guilty on all six charges, clearing him of the alleged rape of a 15-year-old girl in his Lancashire home in the 1960s and sexually assaulting four others at Granada Studios and in his Rolls-Royce.

None of the five women who accused him went to the police until last year. Most didn't tell anyone at all for decades. Some produced their husbands in court, who testified that their wives had told them what Roache allegedly did only many years later.

One woman, who accused Roache of groping her in the toilets at the Coronation Street studios when she was 16 in 1965, told the jury she complained to an aunt and another relative about what he had done. But both were now dead.

Another of Roache's accusers, now a grey-haired woman of 63, produced a signed photograph of Roache and a letter from 1965 which the actor had sent to her.

Signed "love Bill xx", Roache asked the woman, then 14, to write back "when you start school again". But the note also thanked her for her "marvellous letter" – proof, he argued, that it was simply a thoughtful response to a piece of fan mail.

It was not, Roache insisted, sinister evidence of what the prosecution called "grooming", but rather him taking time to pen a personalised note to a teenage fan.

There were other signs during the three-week trial that the prosecution's case was looking shaky. Some of the witnesses provided inconsistent testimonies – understandable, said the prosecution, given the passage of time. Proof they'd made it all up, said the defence.

One woman, now 59, claimed Roache groped her in his dressing room at some point between 1968 and 1970. She originally told police that she had been warned off Roache by Mike Baldwin, a character played by Johnny Briggs. But in court, having been told that Briggs did not join the Coronation Street cast until 1974, she said it was Len Fairclough – played by Peter Adamson – who she claimed warned her: "You want to keep your eye on him, he will lead you astray" and called Roache "a cockroach with a capital C".

She also changed her story about getting lifts home from Roache, saying it was in fact another actor, Neville Buswell, who would drop her off. In her evidence she repeatedly referred to Ken Barlow, rather than Bill Roache as being responsible for the abuse she claimed to have suffered.

That woman's sister, now 57, was criticised by the defence for the account she gave the court about being assaulted by Roache in his gold Rolls-Royce – a car which Roache did not in fact own until 1986, according to a hire purchase agreement produced by his barrister.

The jury heard that the woman's husband called the Sunday Mirror last year after hearing of an interview Roache had given in New Zealand, in which the actor implied that those making historic allegations against other celebrities were somehow being punished for something they had done in a past life. Accused by the defence of trying to make a profit by lying about Roache, the man insisted he had wanted to "tell his story" rather than "sell his story" because his wife would not go to the police, but had since regretted it.

Then there was confusion over the cottage in which one of the rapes allegedly took place, leading to one of the alleged victims being recalled to give evidence.

Other women were criticised in court by Roache's barrister for not remembering many details of the alleged attacks, such as furniture, exact dates and descriptions of the rooms and cars in which assaults were said to have taken place.

The women repeatedly apologised to the jury, saying they couldn't remember everything because "it was all such a long time ago". But they insisted they had vivid memories of the assaults – the woman who could still recall the rubber smell of the condom, another who said she could remember a double-decker bus pulling up next to Roache's car as he forced her to masturbate him in the front seat.

One charge was thrown out halfway through the trial – a count of indecent assault, which hinged on another woman's claim that she "believed" Roache had forced her to masturbate him in his car, but couldn't remember for sure.

The court heard she was picked up by the actor from Granada Studios in his car and thought she had been indecently assaulted, but had "no actual memory" of the episode.

Instructing the jury to find Roache not guilty on that charge, the judge said: "In relation to that episode, the witness was not giving evidence that it did happen, she was giving evidence that she was thinking it did happen and that is not a sufficient evidential basis for the conviction of an offence."

Sometimes the prosecution were hamstrung by the judge's refusal to allow evidence pertaining to Roache's past. Halfway through Roache's testimony, Anne Whyte, QC, for the crown, suddenly asked the judge (in the absence of the jury) whether she could adduce in evidence quotes from an interview Roache gave to the journalist Piers Morgan in 2012.

In the witness box Roache had maintained that while he was unfaithful to his first wife, Anna Cropper, during the period the sexual offences were supposed to have taken place, he was in control of his sexual urges and would "never force myself on anyone".

This, Whyte posited, was at odds with a remark Roache made to Morgan on his Life Stories show, in which the actor said of his womanising in the 1960s and 70s: "I didn't have any control over my own sex drive. I didn't have the strength to control it."

In the well-publicised interview, he admitted that in real life he had slept with "more than 1,000" women – and claimed that other Coronation Street stars called him CockRoache. When pushed about whether the real figure was nearer 1,000 he replied: "Well, I'm not denying it."

The judge, Tim Holroyde, QC, ruled the evidence inadmissible because "the reference to a thousand women would have a tendency to linger in the mind" and thus would be too prejudicial against Roache. Plus, the judge said, it was Morgan and not Roache who introduced the idea of 1,000 women, and in the context of a light entertainment show rather than a more serious setting.

In the witness box Roache's testimony was calm and confident, and he was supported by some of the most famous soap actors in the land who trooped into court to give evidence in his favour.

Anne Kirkbride – who has played Deirdre Barlow, the on-off wife of Roache's character Ken Barlow, since 1972 – called him "a perfect gentleman". Helen Worth, who has played Gail Platt since 1974, said he was a "father figure" to the cast, and Coronation Street's "elder statesman".

Perhaps the jury thought Roache's accusers were jumping on some sort of post-Jimmy Savile bandwagon, as his legal team suggested: "Jimmy Savile is like an elephant in the room. You can't ignore it. Jimmy Savile has affected, in fact, infected this trial and investigation of these offences," said Blackwell in her closing speech.

"We submit to you everything you have seen in this case, that in the post-Jimmy Savile crisis of conscience, when someone makes an allegation against a celebrity, that a fair investigation does not take place. In the post-Jimmy Savile era, once someone makes an allegation, it's got to go to court, no sense will prevail, it has to go to court."

She said it didn't make sense that Roache would have behaved so appallingly during a seven-year window from 1965 until 1972 and then suddenly stopped being a sexual predator. "An expression, ladies and gentlemen: a leopard doesn't change its spots," Blackwell said.

"What the prosecution say is that for some weird reason between 1965 and 1972, for no discernible reason, Mr Roache departed from his usual character and behaviour and became a young woman-snatcher, a risk-taker, taking people into toilets. Then as soon as this madness is visited upon him, it passes. It's nonsense, it just doesn't happen in the real world."

Halfway through the trial, Nazir Afzal, chief crown prosecutor for the north-west, slipped in to court. Spotted by a reporter, he insisted his presence did not indicate nervousness at the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS).

But there is no doubt that Roache's acquittal will prompt much soul-searching among the CPS ranks. He was the first celebrity to go to trial accused of historic sex offences in the post-Jimmy Savile era. He will not be the last.

(c) 2014 Guardian Newspapers Limited.

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