In one of the most sensational cases of the 1980s, African-American teenager Tawana Brawley claimed she was abducted near her apartment in Wappingers Falls, N.Y., and raped repeatedly in the woods by six white men. Lending credibility to her story: She was found in a garbage bag wearing tattered and burned clothes, smeared with feces, and with racial epithets scrawled on her abdomen.
Her case became a cause célèbre in the African-American community, a symbol of black victimization at the hands of the white establishment. Actor Bill Cosby and boxer Mike Tyson were among those to lend her their support. Tawana’s family followed the advice of three civil rights advocates – including the Rev. Al Sharpton – and refused to cooperate with authorities during the investigation of the allegations. The advisers said Tawana’s case would not be taken seriously and that wrongdoing by the white perpetrators would be covered up.
A grand jury in suburban Dutchess County spent seven months investigating the claims. Glenda Brawley, Tawana’s mother, defied a subpoena and refused to appear to testify. Tawana did not appear either. In October 1988, the grand jury concluded that Tawana was not abducted, raped, or sodomized, noting that her sexual assault kit showed no evidence of such an attack and that physicians found no signs that she’d been outside in the woods for a prolonged time. The grand jury surmised that the teenager might have faked the attack to avoid punishment from her mother and stepfather for being absentee for several days. No charges were brought in the case.
The family’s advisers, meanwhile, had publicly fingered a young Dutchess County assistant district attorney and a state trooper in the attack. Ten years after the grand jury finding, the assistant D.A., Steven Pagones, won $345,000 in a defamation lawsuit against the three advisers.
As recently as 2007, Glenda Brawley asserted again that her daughter had in fact been the victim of a terrible crime.