Trials of Tawana


The story Glenda Brawley told was horrifying in the extreme. Her 15-year-old daughter, Tawana, had been abducted after getting off a bus near the family’s home in Wappingers Falls, N.Y., carried off into the woods and raped repeatedly over four days. When found on November 28, she was in a pitiable state, semiconscious and smeared with excrement. Speaking for her daughter, who seemed too traumatized to talk, Glenda Brawley told investigators that the attackers were six white men, including one who wore a badge, possibly a police badge.

No crime seems to incite a rage more virulent than rape—perhaps especially when the victim accuses men of a different race. So when Tawana Brawley’s story of gang rape and gross defilement by white tormentors surfaced in New York, the case made headlines, became a cause célèbre. Bill Cosby and Essence magazine publisher Edward Lewis posted a $25,000 reward for information on the case. Heavyweight champ Mike Tyson gave Tawana a $30,000 watch and, with boxing promoter Don King, pledged $100,000 for her education.

In time, maybe inevitably, Tawana became a symbol. She came to represent the notion of unequal justice for the black community, particularly in New York City, where the names of blacks killed by police in recent years have been elevated to a roster of martyrs—a city in whose black neighborhoods the belief was widespread that Tawana’s attackers, if white and certainly if white officials, would be protected, never prosecuted.

Though the venerable NAACP took her case initially, its lawyers were soon supplanted by others who were better with crowds, a team of hard-charging, hip-shooting ideologues who might have walked off the pages of The Bonfire of the Vanities, Tom Wolfe’s novel of a city locked in chronic class warfare. They were characters all right: the rotund Rev. Al Sharpton, an admitted FBI informant widely regarded as a confabulating clown; Alton Maddox Jr., a civil-rights attorney whose seething rage often led him to shout first and think afterward, if ever; and C. Vernon Mason, a respected and articulate lawyer who seemed to grow ever more strident and less rational, as though under the thrall of the other two.

Charging that high officials were covering up the crime, the three men counseled Tawana and her family to challenge the legitimacy of New York’s “corrupt” justice system by refusing to speak to authorities. Never at a loss for words themselves, the trio held seemingly endless press conferences at which they fired off charges so outlandish and reckless they sometimes verged on the hallucinatory: The assault on Tawana had been perpetrated by a racist cult—probably linked to the Irish Republican Army—in the sheriff’s department of Upstate New York’s Dutchess County, where the attack took place; State Attorney General Robert Abrams and Governor Cuomo are members of the Mafia. When an arrest warrant was issued for Tawana’s mother—for contempt of the grand jury’s subpoena—the council of three escorted her into the “sanctuary” of a Baptist church. There the scene, accented by the blazing heat of a city summer, careened crazily between circus and drama.

Finally the fabric of polemic and exaggeration in which the triumvirate had entrapped both Tawana and their cause appeared to be coming undone. First, Perry McKinnon, an aide close to Sharpton, went public to say that their defense of Tawana had been nothing but “a pack of lies.” Then, last week, one Samuel McClease, a self-styled surveillance expert, claimed that Sharpton had hired him last February to bug Mason’s home and office. The minister’s intent, McClease said, was to gather evidence that might save his own posterior because he “felt the game was over.”

But by then, what actually happened to Tawana Brawley seemed to have become an almost secondary issue. In place of a story of crime and punishment, the Tawana Brawley case had become a moral tale about what can happen to right in the wrong hands and how extremism in even the best of causes can be a vice.

McKinnon, 39, who served for the past year and a half as Al Sharpton’s right-hand man, appears to be a credible witness. A decorated Vietnam combat vet, former Georgia cop and hospital security chief, McKinnon said that the three Brawley advisers were lying when they claimed to have proof that law officers had raped Tawana. In fact, he said, they had never shown much interest in gathering evidence. McKinnon said he warned Maddox and Sharpton back in January that there were no facts to support the Brawley family’s rape story. According to McKinnon, Sharpton privately agreed with him, calling the story “bull——.” But, said McKinnon, Maddox insisted: “I don’t care ’bout no facts. I’m not going to pursue it legally. I’m going to pursue it politically.”

Politics, McKinnon says, and more particularly the political ambitions of the three Brawley advisers, are what the case has been about from the beginning. “This case is not about Tawana. It’s about Mason, Maddox and Sharpton taking over the town, so to speak.” He calls them “hustlers and crooks” and quotes Sharpton as exclaiming: “We beat this, we will be the biggest niggers in New York.” Alton Maddox, says McKinnon, laughed and said, “You know, you’re right.”

The trio counterattacked swiftly and savagely. Sharpton and Maddox called McKinnon a paranoid schizophrenic, a bigamist, an embezzler and “a killer.” After having a reporter physically ejected from a press conference for repeatedly asking whom McKinnon had killed, Maddox admitted lamely that the charge referred only to McKinnon’s service in Vietnam. No convincing evidence was presented to back up the other charges, all of which McKinnon denies.

McKinnon’s accusations were just one more reason to question the veracity of a story that had been surrounded by mystery from the beginning. When she was found, Brawley was lying in an open plastic garbage bag, with clumps of her hair cut off, and with “KKK” and “nigger” scrawled on her torso. Her story of rape by white men seemed to gain force four days later when a part-time police officer in a neighboring town apparently committed suicide (though a note he reportedly left spoke only of his despondency over his life and career).

The Brawleys contacted Sharpton when they became dissatisfied with the local authorities’ response to their charges. Sharpton brought Maddox and Mason into the case. Claiming a “massive cover-up” of police involvement in the attack, the three advised the Brawleys not to cooperate with investigators until a special prosecutor was appointed. Maddox and Mason had just succeeded in using the tactic of withholding victims’ cooperation as leverage to get a special prosecutor for the infamous Howard Beach incident. As a result of vigorous prosecution in that trial, three white youths were convicted of manslaughter in a racial attack that left one black man dead and another injured.

But in the Brawley case, the family’s silence only seemed to encourage doubts about Tawana’s story. (She has never spoken publicly about the case, except to express confidence in her advisers.) Journalists reported evidence suggesting that she had actually run away from home at the time of the attack, that she had been “partying” in a crack-infested section of nearby Newburgh while she was missing. Had she perhaps invented the abduction story to avoid the wrath of her mother and stepfather, Ralph King, an ex-convict who had served seven years for the killing of his wife? Sources told reporters that Tawana had run away before and that her mother had beaten her when she returned. Neighbors had heard people in an apartment from which the Brawleys had been evicted two weeks earlier. When police taped a telephone call between Tawana and a former boyfriend in jail, she was heard to say, “The only thing the newspapers got right was my name and address.” The newspapers had printed her family’s version of the story.

Acceding to the family advisers’ demands, Gov. Mario Cuomo appointed Attorney General Robert Abrams as special prosecutor, removing the investigation from the control of local authorities. But then Mason, Maddox and Sharpton vowed that Tawana and her family would not cooperate unless Abrams, not his criminal trial chief, personally handled every aspect of the case. The trio shifted their demands again and again: There would be no cooperation unless the grand jury was moved to another jurisdiction; no cooperation unless there was a federal grand jury; no cooperation unless there was a new special prosecutor; no cooperation until after there were arrests. It became clear that there would be no cooperation, period.

When Abrams subpoenaed Glenda Brawley to appear before the grand jury last month, she did not show up, telling the press that her lawyers had advised her not to testify, even at the risk of being sent to jail: “My lawyers did explain to me that this is for all black people.” At the hearing on contempt charges, Maddox and Mason failed to present any defense despite the judge’s fervent invitations, and she was sentenced to 30 days in jail. As she holed up in her “sanctuary” to evade arrest, Sharpton dutifully made a court appearance in another civil-disobedience case to avoid going to jail himself.

As the case unraveled around them, the three activists seemed to grow increasingly desperate. They repeatedly named a state trooper and an assistant district attorney as two of Tawana’s attackers, risking a slander suit that the assistant district attorney promises will be forthcoming. These and all their other charges had two things in common: No persuasive evidence was provided to support them and they made headlines.

And if those headlines dealt less and less with Tawana Brawley and more and more with Maddox, Mason and Sharpton, that was the point, says defector McKinnon. “What makes them tick? Cameras,” he says.

“There’s nothing wrong with being politically astute enough and media-wise enough to make an issue work,” replies Sharpton. “I would agree with what McKinnon said, other than that we said we’d be the ‘biggest niggers’ in town. We’d never say the word ‘nigger.’ I may have said ‘biggest blacks’ in town.”

Political ambition is not the worst thing Al Sharpton has been accused of. A close associate of singer James Brown (thus the hair, which he has set weekly at the Primadonna salon) and of promoter Don King, the upwardly mobile, free-lance reverend has been into just about everything except a congregation since he hit the hustings at age 9 as the Wonder Boy Preacher. (Too busy with civil rights, he says.) Published reports have linked him to organized crime as far back as 1980. During the Michael Jackson concert tour in ’84, he reportedly threatened to picket arenas unless the black community shared the concert take, and he ended up getting paid handsomely by the promoters for his “community relations” work. He is currently under investigation for tax evasion, mail fraud and misappropriation of charity funds, perhaps including money donated for the Brawley family. In the midst of the Brawley hoopla, a Newsday exposé disclosed that Sharpton was a longtime FBI informant, providing information on drug dealers and black activists. (He denies the part about black activists.)

Sharpton insists he believes Tawana’s story and says he is sure that Tawana believes in him. “The thing I resent, more than anything, is they don’t give blacks in leadership positions credit for at least being sincere.”

Alton Maddox’s commitment to his cause is not in doubt, even if his tactics sometimes are. A graduate of Boston University Law School, he is under disciplinary investigation for allegedly throwing his briefcase at a judge in a 1984 courtroom melee and for his abusive verbal attack on a witness. Says McKinnon: “He hates all white people.” When he was a young community organizer in his home state of Georgia he was beaten up by white police, only to be convicted of resisting arrest. “Maddox tends to go overboard sometimes and get overemotional and say things he shouldn’t say,” Major Owens, a black Brooklyn Congressman, once observed. “I don’t think he will be an important or productive person unless he gains some discipline.”

C. Vernon Mason, on the other hand, had built a reputation as an impassioned and persuasive champion of justice. Born in Arkansas, he graduated from Columbia Law School, built a private practice and ran in the Democratic primary for Manhattan D.A. in 1985. But the Brawley case seems to have consumed him. He reportedly failed to appear at a hearing for a murder client recently, a serious dereliction of a defense attorney’s duty. And even before McKinnon’s accusations, his participation in the Brawley affair had spurred talk that he and Maddox might be disbarred, even jailed.

“If that’s the price,” he says gravely, “I’ll deal with it, the way Martin did in the Birmingham jail, the way Nelson Mandela is dealing with it in South Africa. That’s how strongly we feel about this case.

“The authorities haven’t focused on this case as a rape-kidnap because it involves a black woman,” Mason insists. “There is no equal protection under the law when it comes to us.” He recites a list of blacks who have been killed by police. “We had death after death after death and never a conviction,” he says. “We became like grief therapists as opposed to lawyers.”

Mason’s pain and anger seem sincere. Some say the tragedy is that he picked the wrong case on which to make his stand and couldn’t find a way to get out of it. Mason denies that. “If they want Tawana to testify, give us a new prosecutor,” he says. “She’s asked for a new one. She’s no fool.”

Perhaps. But doubts about her advisers’ handling of the case have reached all the way into her family, into the mind of her uncle Matthew Strong, the Upstate New York police officer who raised her half of her life and with whom she now lives while attending high school. “The issue should be Tawana,” he says. “It seems like it’s getting away from that. Everytime you turn around, they [Maddox, Mason and Sharpton] are in front of a camera, and they’re making allegations, but they’re not doing anything. They should get together with Abrams and sit down and talk, and if there’s anybody to be arrested and prosecuted, they should come up with something.

“I don’t know what happened to Tawana. I don’t think any of us is going to know until she decides to tell someone. But it doesn’t look like that’s going to happen anytime soon.”

Her increasingly beleaguered advisers, meanwhile, have kept up the decibel level, trying without notable success to drown out the accusations against them. The greatest threat may lie in the audio tapes a grand jury has subpoenaed from McClease. He claimed the eavesdropped conversations have the trio describing the alleged kidnap as “a four-day party”—though one attended, intriguingly, by a white police officer.

Mason has charged that the bugging was not ordered by Sharpton but by the U.S. government. “We’re living in South Africa,” he said. “We’re living in a society that is a state of siege to people of African descent.” But he, Maddox and Sharpton have long since overdrawn their credibility account, not least among those who might once have put their faith in them.

“Young people can use this [Brawley case] as an excuse to do violent things,” says Annette Kirkland, 47, who lives around the corner from the church where Glenda Brawley sought refuge, “because it’s getting heated more and more. Sharpton, Maddox and Mason don’t care. When it’s all over, we got to live with this, not them. When it’s all over, Tawana Brawley is just gonna be somebody else that made headline news for them, for their benefit, not hers.”

—Additional reporting by Benilde Little and Gavin Moses

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