Guilty Until Proven Innocent?

Guilty Until Proven Innocent?

August 2018 | Sport

Why on earth did the Crown Prosecution Service blame Ben Stokes for the incident that saw him put on trial?

After months of build-up, Cricketer Ben Stokes's trial for a fight outside a Bristol nightclub last autumn was over quickly. The jury took just 3 hours to return a not guilty verdict. He was immediately restored to the England squad for the third test in their current series against India. The ECB are still investigating him for putting the game into disrepute, but the punishment he will face for the incident is expected to be light. Many believe that his exclusion from the winter's Ashes series in Australia was enough.

The basic outline of what happened outside that club was always clear. A series of homophobic slurs against two gay men in the early hours of the morning resulted in a drunken fight between Stokes, teammate Alex Hales, former soldier Ryan Hale and fellow defendant Ryan Alli. At the end of the fight, Hale and Alli were unconscious, and Stokes was in police custody for knocking them out. The dispute was over who started it. Stokes and Hales have claimed all along that they stepped into to defend the gay men from homophobic abuse from the men they ended up fighting. The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) backed by the press claimed that Stokes and Hales were the abusers. It was the homophobia angle that saw Stokes excluded from the Ashes.

After a police investigation, the CPS charged all 4 men involved for Affray. A last-minute attempt to add an Assault charge to the accusations against Stokes was blocked by the judge because the defence didn't have time to prepare for it. In doing this, the judge acknowledged that an assault charge would have been accepted if added at an earlier stage. As such, the trial became an argument between Stokes and Alli about who started the fight, and which of them shouted the gay slurs that provoked it. The prosecution sided with Alli in accusing Stokes, and the defence sided with Stokes in blaming Alli.

The outcome was uncertain until video footage presented by the defence proved that Stokes's version of events was the accurate one. The video shows that the fight was started by Ryan Alli charging Stokes with a broken bottle. The fact that Stokes refused to back off until Alli and Hale were unconscious doesn't reflect well on the cricketer but are irrelevant to the Affray charge that he was up against. It would have been an issue if he'd been charged with Assault as well, but the CPS screwed that one up. Following the trial, the two gay men at the centre of the fight confirmed Stokes's story once again, publicly thanking him for protecting them from Hale and Alli in a TV interview. Their failure to speak up beforehand is understandable, they were blocked from doing so to avoid prejudicing the trial, but surely the police had interviewed them and recorded their side of the story?

Given the outcome, questions are now being asked whether the evidence was really strong enough to justify the affray charge. There is a suspicion that the high profile nature of the case and Stokes's position as the star of the England Cricket Team may have caused them to move forward on a trial that they otherwise might have dropped. Yet, the real question here is whether the prosecution was unfairly biased as a result of the press coverage surrounding the incident. In siding with Alli's version of the story, they appear to have accepted press reports of the event as fact. Instead, the press has exaggerated the story based off of limited information in order to sell more newspapers. That's not the first time this has happened - the media habit of building up heroes only to tear them down again is a risk that celebrities are mostly well aware of. In this instance, it is only served to prolong a legal process that perhaps would have been shelved with different participants, wasting valuable time and money for everyone involved.

At least it will serve as an example to professional athletes of the dangers in going for a night out on the day after a match. For this, the ECB will be thankful but expect them to fine Stokes and Hales for the incident anyway, if only to prove a point.

Image was originally posted to Flickr by Ben Sutherland at

Written by Alan Chatfield