Barroom rape convictions echo across two Bay State towns and US legal system

The final chapter is about to be written in a year-long controversy over a gang rape in a barroom in the port city of New Bedford, about 60 miles south of Boston.

Four men, convicted of aggravated rape, are expected to be sentenced today by Superior Court Judge William G. Young. Two other defendants were acquitted of charges that they took part in the March 1983 attack.

The four-week trial, which brought turmoil to the community and permitted an entire nation to peer into the personal details of the rape victim's life, ended last week.

The verdicts have sparked public protests, organized by a group called Committee for Justice, in the Fall River-New Bedford communities. The group says the defendants did not get a fair trial because they are Portuguese immigrants.

Attorneys for both sides in the trial deny that race or ethnic heritage played a role in the prosecution. The victim is also of Portuguese heritage, as is Bristol County district attorney Ronald Pina, whose office prosecuted the case. Several jurors were Portuguese-Americans.

The victim, a 22-year-old mother of two preschool-age children, has moved away from New Bedford.

More than 60 percent of the residents of Fall River and New Bedford are Portuguese-Americans. Many are concerned the national publicity the case has received will foster anti-Portuguese prejudice.

The case attracted nationwide media coverage after initial reports that some of the patrons at Big Dan's tavern in New Bedford cheered the attackers on, while others did nothing to assist the woman.

Much of the trial was broadcast live coast to coast by Cable News Network (CNN) based in Atlanta.

In part because of the media attention, the rape trial has taken on a larger symbolic importance, say women's rights activists who are monitoring the case.

''I see the victim as a hero, as a martyr. Her courage and her strength and her willpower did tremendous things for women across the country. But what a terrible price to have to pay,'' says Elizabeth Bennett of the New Bedford Rape Crisis Center.

The victim testified for nearly 15 hours, as defense attorneys worked to punch holes in her statements about the attack. Because the case was tried in Massachusetts, the state's ''Rape Shield Law'' protected the victim from questions or evidence about her past sexual relations.

Nonetheless, both prosecuting and defense attorneys admit the victim was, in essence, also put on trial. They say this is necessary in most rape trials to protect the rights of the defendants from exaggerated charges. During the trial, they add, the alleged victim's credibility or lack of credibility must be established.

''They say that prosecuting a rape results in a second rape,'' says Darlene Wheeler, a member of the local Coalition Against Sexist Violence, which formed after the March 1983 attack. Not only does a woman have to relive and recite the details of the attack in court, Mrs. Wheeler says, but she also must withstand an assault on her character.

There was concern during the trial that other rape victims watching the Big Dan's case on television might now be reluctant to come forward and work within the judicial system to prosecute their attackers.

But with four convictions in the case, women's rights activists say such a negative impact may be minimized.

''We are hoping that at least victims will understand the criminal-justice system can work,'' Mrs. Wheeler says. She adds that publicity from the trial and the live coverage has helped change public misconceptions about rape and about what happens at a rape trial.

''When someone is mugged on the street there are never questions about why was this person carrying $40 late at night, and why was the person wearing expensive clothes and asking for it,'' says Janet Feron, Boston chapter president of National Organization for Women.

Local newspapers, radio, and TV closely monitored the trial. In the rush to cover it best, several news organizations identified the rape victim by name. The rationale of most of them was that her name was already being broadcast live by CNN.

Although the court did not issue an order barring its publication, the judge told reporters last week it was ''an abysmal error of judgment to publish the name.'' He added, ''I regret intensely that you did not exercise your usual self-imposed embargo not to use her name.''

According to a CNN spokesman, no one at CNN anticipated the victim's name would come up in open court.

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