Tawana Brawley II

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As the false prosecution of three Duke University lacrosse players continues, it is instructive to revisit a similar case from nearly 20 years ago, the infamous accusations made by then-15-year-old Tawana Brawley that a number of men — including a police officer and a New York state prosecutor — had kidnapped and raped her. Parallels exist between that case and what currently is happening in Durham, North Carolina, all the way to one of the chief accusers in both places, Al Sharpton.

When one says the words, "Tawana Brawley," the picture of false accusations comes to mind, which is why I refer to the Duke case as "Tawana Brawley II." One would think that people in authority would have learned something, but the only thing that I can take from comparing these two situations is that had Brawley accused people who fit the profile of the Duke athletes, they would have been tried, convicted, and still would be in prison. Brawley’s mistake was not lying about kidnapping and rape; her "mistake" was accusing the wrong people.

For those not familiar with the name "Tawana Brawley," she is a black female who claimed in November, 1987, that a number of white men kidnapped, tortured, and raped her near Wappinger Falls, New York. Brawley had been missing from her home for four days, and when found, she was lying in a large garbage bag, supposedly unconscious, with racial epithets written on her body with dog feces and charcoal.

At first, she did not respond to police, and her family then requested a black officer to question her, which was granted. Brawley told the officer that three white men kidnapped and raped her, including a local policeman. Investigators began building a case, and grand jury was empanelled to seek indictments against the perpetrators.

The original response to the accusations was an outpouring of sympathy and support for Brawley and her family. Well-wishers included Bill Cosby, among others, and supporters sent more than $300,000 to the family. Soon after Brawley made the accusations, three men took over publicity for the family, Al Sharpton and attorneys Alton H. Maddox and C. Vernon Mason, who already were known for their inflammatory racial views.

Sharpton accused the state government of New York of covering up the case, and he specifically named prosecutor Steven Pagones of raping Brawley. On the advice of Sharpton, Maddox, and Mason, Brawley and her family refused to cooperate with the grand jury, calling the entire process "racist," and then taking refuge in a New York church in Bedford-Stuyvesant to avoid having to testify. (Brawley’s family ultimately moved to Virginia, taking the $300,000 with them.)

As the grand jury proceedings moved on, the number of accused rapists grew to six, and the rhetoric that spewed from Brawley’s camp was vitriolic, especially after then New York State Attorney General Robert Abrams, a Democrat, began to hint by mid-summer 1988 that the entire episode was a hoax. This only heightened the rhetoric, bringing in then-Gov. Mario Cuomo, who repeated Abrams’ accusations that Brawley’s camp and its three advisors had "mocked and trifled with" the law. By October of that year, the grand jury concluded that the charges were false, and that Brawley had made up the story after having partied with friends for four days and was trying to escape punishment at home.

During the investigation, the grand jury heard evidence from inside the Brawley camp that the entire episode was fiction. The New York Times reported on its front page on June 18, 1988, that:

A former aide to the Rev. Al Sharpton testified yesterday before the grand jury investigating the case of Tawana Brawley, a day after the aide publicly charged that Mr. Sharpton and two other advisers to Miss Brawley had fabricated the family’s story ”as they went along.”

Not only was there no physical evidence demonstrating a rape, but some of Brawley’s friends testified she had been with them, while a former boyfriend said that she confided to him that she had made up the whole thing. Another witness testified she had seen Brawley climb into the garbage bag, while someone else who came upon her said she had opened her eyes, and then quickly shut them when she realized someone was nearby.

While the grand jury walked away from the case, that was not the end of the Tawana Brawley story and its aftermath. Sharpton used the whole thing to catapult himself to fame and "leadership" in the "civil rights community," being sought after as a speaker and, ultimately, speaking at the 2004 Democratic National Convention in prime time. The falsely-accused Pagones sued Sharpton, Maddox and Mason and in 1998, a civil jury awarded him more than $300,000. Sharpton and the others refused to apologize or admit that they lied. Maddox later was disbarred in New York, but not because of his role in the Brawley affair; it turns out he had engaged in false billing of clients.

Conclusions and Comparisons to the Duke Case

The Brawley case came about before the rise of the Internet, and no doubt modern bloggers would have blown her case apart long before a grand jury did the same. Yet, as one compares what is happening in Durham with what occurred in New York nearly 20 years ago, there are a number of conclusions that can be drawn.

The first is that Brawley made a tactical error in accusing police officers and a prosecutor of rape. One of the first lessons one learns in modern law is that the state protects its own. Had Brawley instead accused a local insurance agent or an ordinary community member of said crimes, one wonders if that unlucky person would have been tried, falsely convicted, and still be serving a series of life terms in New York state prison.

The second conclusion is that the national press — and especially the New York Times — is all-too-eager to be taken in by politically-correct hoaxes. It took the Times, which put some of its top reporters on the story when it first broke, a long time to come around to admitting that the story could be false, even though it became quickly obvious that there were real gaps in Brawley’s tale. I have no doubt that the Times played an important role in hyping the case, but also played no instructive role in debunking what were obvious lies. Had the Times been able to perpetuate the hoax, I have no doubt that the editors there would have done so.

The comparison of what happened with Brawley and what has occurred in Durham is instructive, only in that it tells us that players in the press and in the "justice" system have learned nothing in the past 18 years. Perhaps, "learn" is the wrong word to use, since we are assuming that journalists, prosecutors, and judges actually are interested in learning the "truth." For example, while Newsweek recently ran a story that seriously questioned Nifong’s case, the material it used had been on the blogs for weeks and only when it became obvious that Nifong had lied to Newsweek’s reporters about an alleged "date rape drug" that he claimed players had given Mangum did the magazine do an about-face from its original "Nifong’s pronouncements as oracles from the gods" position.

Had Crystal Gail Mangum accused Durham police officers (and maybe someone on Mike Nifong’s staff, or even Nifong himself) of kidnapping, choking, beating, and raping her instead of Duke lacrosse players, it is doubtful that the story would have gained any legs. After all, police and prosecutors have a legal constituency that takes care of them. Reade Seligmann, Dave Evans, Colin Finnerty, and their teammates have had to pay thousands of dollars to find a constituency — defense attorneys — for them, and for that they were condemned by many on the Duke faculty and administration.

The third conclusion is that there are a number of groups in this country that have a vested interest in promoting lies. The false prosecution of these athletes — and the charges are transparently false — would not have been possible but for the feminists on the Duke University faculty, the NAACP of Durham, and the mavens of political correctness that dominate the staffs of publications like the New York Times, Newsweek, Time, and the various broadcast news outlets. That some broadcast outfits like Fox News, along with Newsweek have turned skeptical does not mitigate the fact that it was the news media that gave Nifong an uncritical platform to tell what now have been exposed as lies. The alliance of the politically correct reminds us once again that the legal agenda of so-called Progressives is to impose something akin to the Stalinist Show Trials for a system of "law."

The fourth conclusion is that the media never tire of hearing lies from Al Sharpton and his allies. Sharpton’s criminal — yes, criminal — role in the Brawley case should have disqualified him from ever being quoted again in any decent publication, and he, Maddox, and Mason should be sharing a prison cell at Attica. Instead, Sharpton is constantly feted as a hero, makes a grand living as a traveling speaker, is a featured speaker by the Democratic Party, and has joined forces with Cash Michaels of the Wilmington Journal to perpetuate the Duke "rape" lie.

My fifth conclusion is that the legal system (if we can call it that) has deteriorated even further from where it was in 1988, when the grand jury at least had the courage to declare Brawley’s story a hoax. Today, the grand jury in Durham swallowed all of Nifong’s lies, and until the charges are dropped or a jury declares "not guilty" (which I believe will never happen if the case comes to trial), these young men are in mortal danger of being falsely convicted, even though all of the major players know that the state’s charges are false.

We are told that there are "safeguards" in the "system" that help protect the innocent of being falsely convicted and imprisoned, or even executed. Those "safeguards" certainly did not exist during the Progressive Era, when black males were falsely convicted of crimes or the justice system failed to convict whites of murdering blacks. I contend that we are at an even lower point today. If it were not for the bloggers on the Internet, I seriously doubt that publications like Newsweek would have taken a second look at the story, and the young men would have been railroaded into false convictions or false pleas, which occurred when demonstrably false charges were made up in the Edenton "child molestation" affair.

We labor under the delusion that men like Michael Nifong are decent and honorable, and that the elected officials and judges in North Carolina who are overseeing this whole fiasco are honorable people who want to do what is right. They are not. They are nothing more than political animals that will do what is necessary to be elected and hold office, and have no interest whatsoever in what is right or wrong.

Robert Abrams and Mario Cuomo did not come to the realization that Brawley and her supporters were lying because they were honorable men; they came to that conclusion because it was forced upon them by political reality, and because those who were accused were part of the state legal apparatus. I contend that if those two men currently were attorney general and governor of North Carolina instead of having held those positions in New York, they also would be pandering to Nifong and Sharpton.

If the legal nightmare for Seligmann, Finnerty, and Evans really does end, it will not be because "the system works." It will be because bloggers, attorneys and a few heroic journalists made sure that the "legal" system did not work. We can only hope that Tawana Brawley II ends as did Tawana Brawley I: that despite the best efforts of the lying state "justice" apparatus, the truth was exposed anyway.

July 7, 2006

William L. Anderson, Ph.D. [send him mail], teaches economics at Frostburg State University in Maryland, and is an adjunct scholar of the Ludwig von Mises Institute.

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