Year
1987

A media controversy ignites over the case of Tawana Brawley

Tawana Brawley is found covered with feces and wrapped in garbage bags outside the Pavilion Condominiums in Wappingers Falls, New York. Brawley appeared to have undergone an extremely traumatic experience: parts of her hair were cut off, her pants were slightly burned, and there was a racial slur scrawled on her body. Brawley told authorities that for four days she had been held against her will and repeatedly raped by a gang of white men, one of whom she claimed had a police badge.

The Brawley case became a ’cause celebre’ when controversial attorney C. Vernon Mason, Alton Maddox, and community activist Al Sharpton declared their support for Brawley and alleged that there was a cover-up in the investigation. Unfortunately, Brawley’s story did not hold up to the close scrutiny that followed.

Although she claimed to have been abducted and held for four days, nobody had filed a missing person’s report for the teenager during that time. In fact, there was little concrete evidence that Brawley had been attacked and increasing suspicion that her story was fabricated. According to several witnesses, Brawley had attended a party while she was supposedly missing, and fiber evidence showed that Brawley had likely written the racial slurs on herself. In the face of mounting criticism, Brawley’s advisers began making wild, unfounded accusations, charging that Assistant District Attorney Stephen Pagones had participated in the alleged rape and that Special Prosecutor Robert Abrams was masturbating to the evidentiary photos.

While the controversy surrounding the case became a media circus, Brawley and her family refused to testify or cooperate with the investigation. They did, however, accept financial contributions. In October 1988, a Grand Jury dismissed the entire matter. Attorneys Mason and Maddox faced disciplinary proceedings from the New York State Bar for their conduct during the investigation and Pagones filed a libel suit against Mason, Maddox, and Sharpton, which he won in 1998.

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