Recanted testimony: issue tests criminal-justice credibility. Rape victim's new story to clear defendant failed to disprove evidence presented in 1979 trial, says trial judge

The fallout from a controversial 1979 rape case could affect the credibility of the nation's criminal justice system with the public. Questions regarding judicial procedures have arisen out of the bizarre and highly publicized case of Gary Dotson. Six years ago, Mr. Dotson was sentenced to 25 to 50 years in prison for the rape of a teen-ager. Last month, the victim, Cathleen Crowell Webb, came forward to say that she had lied at the trial and that Dotson was innocent.

A hearing was held, and Dotson appeared to be on his way to freedom, when a Cook County Circuit Court judge -- the same judge who presided over the original trial -- ruled last week that Mrs. Webb's new testimony was not believable. Dotson went back to prison. Much of the public was shocked.

``That does seem strange to most people,'' says Albert W. Alschuler, a law professor at the University of Chicago. ``And it ought to.''

Actually, many experts question less the verdict of the judge than the judgment of Dotson's lawyer. His petition forced the judge to rule on a fairly narrow issue -- the credibility of Webb's recantation.

``I think the integrity of the [legal] system is at stake,'' says David Goldberger, a law professor at Ohio State University. The national publicity has made the judge's ruling appear outrageous, he says.

``It has to raise questions about the standards of the criminal justice system in calling new trials,'' adds Peter A. Bell, associate professor of law at Syracuse University.

Courts have generally viewed recanted testimony with great skepticism, in part because the witness might be influenced by such things as bribery, coercion, or sympathy. The burden of proof fell on Dotson's defense, and both judge and prosecutors said later that a review of the original trial, new evidence, and Webb's testimony at the April hearing made the recantation unbelievable.

Dotson may yet be set free. Illinois Gov. James R. Thompson has indicated he might speed along a review of the case. The governor could either commute Dotson's sentence to the time already served, which would release him but not clear his name, or pardon him completely. At the time of writing, Dotson's lawyer reportedly was close to submitting a formal petition for clemency to the state's parole board that will be sent to the governor.

Many believe the case has now dragged on too long and could affect other rape cases.

``Disturbing,'' says Elizabeth M. Schneider, associate professor of law at Brooklyn Law School. ``It plays into stereotypes -- I think very damaging stereotypes -- of women lying about rape.''

``I don't think this one story is going to put people back . . . 10 to 15 years,'' says Sylvia Callaway, president of the National Coalition Against Sexual Assault. ``But it does do damage.'' The Dotson case has generated more calls than even the widely publicized March 1984 gang rape trial in New Bedford, Mass., she adds.

Over the past 11 years, laws in many states have been changed in attempts to make it easier to prosecute and convict rapists.

All 50 states, for example, have enacted rape-shield laws, which restrict admission of evidence in court about a victim's prior sexual activity, says Mary Ann Largen. Ms. Largen is principal investigator for a federally funded study on the laws regarding sexual assault.

Since 1974, about 30 states have made major redefinitions of the crime, broadening the kinds of offenses that could be prosecutable and treating those offenses more consistently.

Nationwide, the number of rapes dropped 1983 from a peak in 1980, according to the federal government's uniform crime reports. But they were climbing back toward the 1980 rate during the first six months of '84, with an estimated 6 percent increase.

The number of unreported incidents is much higher, although how much higher is unknown.

A nationwide survey last month by the US Bureau of Justice Statistics found that on average from 1973 to '82, only 52 percent of such crimes were reported to the police.

But the survey did not ask specifically about rape, relying instead on victims to volunteer the information, according to Marshall DeBerry, coauthor of the report. And other experts estimate that anywhere from 80 to 95 percent of the cases go unreported.

The long-term impact of the case is difficult to assess, many experts say. ``I tend to think people will forget rather quickly,'' says James Haddad, a law professor at Northwestern University.

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