Today, Tawana Brawley lives in Virginia and works as a nurse. But back in 1987, the then-15-year-old African American girl from upstate New York was at the center of a race-driven media storm concerning horrific gang rape allegations that targeted at least one member of law enforcement.
Now, 25 years later, the complicated case has been dragged back into the public eye. Last week, Brawley began paying defamation damages (she owes more than $431,000) to ex-prosecutor Steven Pagones; in 1998, a court determined that Brawley defamed Pagones when she falsely claimed he’d been among a group of six white men who had brutally raped her. After going missing for four days, she was found in a trash bag, smeared in feces, with racial slurs written on her body.
The case sparked public outcry, and celebrities like Spike Lee, Don King, and Bill Cosby rallied to raise money and support for the teen. Along with attorneys Alton H. Maddox and C. Vernon Mason, Rev. Al Sharpton -- then an outspoken street activist -- was hired as her spokesperson, and speak he did. “We have the facts and the evidence that an assistant district attorney and a state trooper did this,” Sharpton said at the time.
According to the New York Times, Sharpton also “called [New York] Gov. Mario M. Cuomo a racist and warned that powerful state officials were complicit.”
At her advisers' suggestion, Brawley stopped cooperating with the investigation. Her silence only bred doubt about her claims. Though she'd initially painted a terrible picture of racial and sexual abuse at the hands of a group of tormentors, there were holes in her story. No concrete evidence was found, no suspects emerged, and no one could back up her allegations. It was her word against the world, and she wasn’t talking.
Robert Shraft, a local state police investigator, expressed his frustration to the New York Times: “Even if someone came in this minute to confess, we still wouldn't be able to solve this case. We can't solve it until we hear from the victim.''
But the details that did emerge about Brawley’s reported assault were difficult to ignore. The NYT wrote of her account: “The group of men subjected her to various kinds of sexual abuse. She said she was struck and at one point in her interviews whispered to her aunt to tell the investigators that one of the men had urinated in her mouth. ... 'I believe that the story as given was false, but that somebody did something to her,' said one state criminal justice official who has monitored the case.”
But what exactly was done, and by whom, is unclear. When Brawley got to the hospital after being discovered, she was too traumatized to speak, and only communicated with nods, notes, and shakes of the head. Results of tests done at the hospital "showed no evidence that Miss Brawley had been raped, sodomized or sexually abused in any way, though they cautioned that such tests might not have detected sexual acts that occurred days earlier." She could describe just one of her alleged abductors: a white cop.
A local police officer, Harry Crist Jr., shot himself a few days after Brawley was found, leading her team to loudly, publicly proclaim that he must have been involved.
Brawley eventually returned to high school and tried to resume a normal life, which was difficult given the chaos her fame-seeking advisers had made of her case. At her trial, "after seven months, 6,000 pages of testimony and 180 witnesses, a grand jury found Ms. Brawley’s story to be a lie."
The most commonly held theory was that Brawley created the rape scenario to avoid violent punishment from her mother and her stepfather, Ralph King, after running away from home. (Apparently, in the '70s, King had spent seven years in prison for killing his first wife.)
She still hasn’t spoken publicly about what happened during those blank days in 1987. In a November 2007 story in the New York Daily News, Brawley's mother stood by her daughter, asking, "How could we make this up and take down the state of New York? We're just regular people.”
Still, it’s doubtful we’ll ever know the complete story. To me, it seems most likely that something happened to Brawley; would she really go to the excessive trouble of staging the awful found-in-a-trash-bag-covered-in-feces scenario? And women don’t make fake rape accusations often; according to Ms., over a 17-month period in England and Wales, only a small number of false allegations were found (35 out of 5,651 prosecutions).
Regardless, the entire case is incredibly sad. A 15-year-old girl was lost in the shuffle, used as a pawn by adults who should have helped her and shielded her, regardless of the veracity of her claims. If Brawley was scared enough -- of her parents or anyone else -- to invent a lie of such massive proportions, all was clearly not right, in her home or in her head. And if she didn’t lie -- if she really did endure all, or even some, of what she’s said she endured -- well, that’s even worse.