Toronto Sun

October 19, 1999

Is it sex assault or robbery?

By HEATHER BIRD
Toronto Sun

Funny how the criminally accused don't look all that tough when they finally get to court.

Perhaps it's the handcuffs. Or maybe it's the prison-issue clothing which is always loose, thus inadvertently conferring a waif-like quality upon the wearer.

For whatever reason, Michelle Helen Lawes -- the alleged geezer squeezer -- looked pathetic, rather than predatory, in a brief appearance at a College Park courtroom yesterday.

A lot of people have had a lot of yuks at Lawes' expense since her arrest earlier this month. To be more accurate, most of the snickering has been directed at Lawes' victims -- the 16 men who have complained about being sexually groped and then robbed by her.

That's because conventional wisdom is that for men, there is no such thing as bad sex. It can be too quick, ho-hum or guilt-riddled but it's never bad. The theory goes that, by virtue of their hormones, men are grateful for every little bit which happens to come their way.

And the inference here is that the 16 dumb clucks who were allegedly victimized by Lawes were too busy enjoying themselves as she probed their genitals to notice that she had helped herself to their wallets at the same time.

"Only a man," mused a friend of mine to her husband, "would be dumb enough to stand there and allow someone to molest them long enough to lift their wallet." A woman who was approached by a strange man wouldn't have stayed around.

The role reversal has given rise to the appearance of gender inequity in this case. But the case has been a real struggle for the police. Should they press sexual-assault charges? If not, why not? What if the roles were reversed and you had a man groping a woman's breasts before stealing her purse?

It is, 14 Division Det. Const. Tim Moraes said, a matter of intent. In some criminal cases, you not only have to prove actus reus (that a physical act took place) you have to show there was mens rea (a mental intent to commit the act).

"We had exactly the same conversation here," Moraes said. "What's the difference between a female doing it to a male and a male doing it to a female? She had no intent technically. No intent at all with regard to the sex act. It was a distraction technique."

Besides, he continued, Lawes faces five counts of robbery which, by definition, incorporates any assault. (If there is no physical contact, the charge is one of theft).

What clinched it, Moraes said, was the wishes of the victims. While they ranged in age from 26 to 83, all but one was over 60. There are language barriers with almost all of them. And the young man, Moraes said delicately, had some mental challenges.

"We're still in the process of getting full statements from these gentlemen and they are a little embarrassed about what actually happened and kind of tight-lipped about the actual confrontation with her. They get very vague when it comes down to it."

As it turns out, none of them may have to relive those humiliating details in open court.

When Michelle Lawes was taken before Mr. Justice William Richards yesterday, she tried to expedite matters. The 35-year-old woman, who looked emaciated, clutched a handwritten letter that she wanted him to read. She told a court-appointed lawyer that she was prepared to plead guilty.

But Richards refused to hear what she had to say. Defence lawyer Robert Valentine wanted the case put over to this Friday so he could attend. You have a good lawyer, Richards told her gently. And you will be given credit for time in jail.

Besides, it doesn't look like the skinny blonde with the lived-in face will be going anywhere anytime soon. Crown attorney Robert Guerts stated that given her lengthy criminal record, (she has a string of convictions for drugs, prostitution and theft) he would be seeking a hefty jail term.

There was no one in the body of the court for her. Police say she once had a common-law relationship but hasn't lived with the man for some time. And her two children are in the care of the CAS. While they don't know for sure, police believe most of the $1,500 she allegedly stole was used for crack.

When the judge refused to accept her letter, Lawes slumped forward in resignation and lifted her arms to be cuffed.

She struggled to maintain control but as she reached the door which leads to the jail cells below, her face crumpled.

She turned to us in the front row. "Tell the people in the paper ... that I'm sorry, I really am."

You could hear the sound of her sobbing as the door slammed shut.

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