In November of 1987, Tawana Brawley was found in a trash bag covered in feces with the words “nigger” and “bitch” written in charcoal on her body. She told the authorities that two white men kidnapped her and took her to the woods where they and four other white men raped her. One of them, she told the police, had a badge.
Her story garnered much attention. Brawley’s story helped Rev. Al Sharpton become a national figure. He and Brawley’s attorneys, Alton H. Maddox and C. Vernon Mason, railed against the racist undertones of the attack and the apparent cover-up by those involved. Just a week after Brawley’s assault, Police Officer Harry Crist Jr. was found dead in his apartment. Sharpton and the attorneys claimed Crist killed himself out of guilt for raping Brawley. When Dutchess County prosecutor Steven Pagones presented an alibi for Crist, they accused him of involvement as well. They also accused Scott Paterson, who found Crist’s body, of participating in the assault.
Famous figures like Bill Cosby, Mike Tyson, and Don King offered money for more information and Brawley’s education and recovery.
It was the kind of case that rankles everyone, yet it turned out not to be what it seemed:
But a grand jury found in 1988 that Brawley was never raped and the whole incredible case was all a hoax.
The panel, which heard from 180 witnesses over its seven-month investigation, found evidence that Brawley ran away from home and was hiding out in the vacant apartment from which her parents were just evicted and that she spun her yarn to avoid being punished for staying out late and missing school.
Many believe Brawley feared her stepdad King’s wrath and needed an alibi for her absence.
The hateful words scrawled on Brawley’s body were upside down — likely written by Brawley herself, and traces of the charcoal-like material were found under her fingernails, the grand jury found.
Brawley showed no signs of genital trauma or exposure. No semen was found. The feces on her body was traced to her neighbor’s dog. One witness said Brawley was seen climbing into the garbage bag.
The grand jury found that Crist committed suicide because he was upset after breaking up with his girlfriend and over his failure to pass a state police exam. His death, the panel found, “had no connection with any incident involving Tawana Brawley.”
“It is probable that in the history of this state, never has a teenager turned the prosecutorial and judicial systems literally upside down with such false claims,” state Supreme Court Justice S. Barrett Hickman wrote at the time.
In short, she conned everyone. She conned the police, the state, her community, and the nation. It is unclear whether she or her attorneys decided to blame Crist for the rape, but what is clear is that the first false accusation led to many others. It resulted in hours of wasted time and money. It resulted in scores of people protesting essentially over nothing. It resulted in the attorneys and Sharpton slandering Pagones, which Pagones later sued they for.
Regarding that suit, it appears that Brawley never paid the $190,000 at 9 percent annual interest she was ordered to. She now owes Pagones $429,000. Indeed, Brawley made a new life for herself, albeit dishonestly:
Brawley, using aliases such as Thompson and Gutierrez, now has a young daughter, a neighbor says, and works as a licensed practical nurse at The Laurels of Bon Air in Richmond, where co-workers were clueless about her past. […]
State records show “Tawana V. Gutierrez” and “Tawana V. Thompson” have held the same nursing license since 2006. The Virginia Board of Nursing confirmed issuing it to a “Tawana Vacenia Thompson Gutierrez.”
Brawley maintains a PO box in Claremont, Va., under the name Gutierrez, according to sources.
Some people theorize that Brawley lied to get away from her step father who served time in prison for killing his first wife. Yet that is hardly an excuse for trying to send three innocent men to prison or for tricking a nation into believing you were raped.
The thing people should think about, beyond how public figures used the case to raise their own national prestige, is how believable Brawley’s lie sounded. When feminists complain about people talking about false accusations, they fail to realize the basic problem: most false accusations sound real.
We have all heard about people being kidnapped and raped. We have all heard about people being beaten or tortured. We have all heard about people targeting others of a particular race. When people make false accusations, the goal is not just to lie, but to lie believably.
There was enough evidence to bring Brawley’s case in front of a grand jury, and while it is true that a grand jury will typically indict anyone put before it, one still requires evidence. It is only because people checked Brawley’s story and paid attention to the evidence that was found that they caught her lie.
Yet the weight of her story was enough that many people ignored that evidence. Had this gone to trial, had it been placed before a jury, there was a chance there would have been a conviction. And this was a high-profile case. Imagine what happens in a low-profile case where there is no real scrutiny. It is likely that some of these false cases go to trial and end in conviction. We cannot say how many because there is honestly no way to know. Circumstantial evidence is enough to win a case, and if there is enough of that to convict, then short of finding new evidence, there is nothing a person can do to prove their innocence.
This is not say that every rape case is a lie, only that it is very easy for a lie to appear true, especially when people are not interested in looking into it. Organizations like the Innocence Project exist because there are wrongful prosecutions and false allegations. Yet those organizations only take cases in which they can prove with evidence the person’s innocence, usually with DNA exoneration. A number of potential false allegations and wrongful prosecution will never be exonerated because they do not have the evidence for it (either because it was destroyed, lost, or never gathered).
Cases like this should serve to teach people not to jump to conclusions until you have more facts.