For as long as there’s been an America, there have been high-profile instances of false rape reports—especially, interracial rapes. A 2015 report on lynching by the Equal Justice Initiative is blunt about what the tragic consequences have been for black men in this country:
Nearly 25 percent of the lynchings of African Americans in the South [between 1888 and 1950] were based on charges of sexual assault. The mere accusation of rape, even without an identification by the alleged victim, could arouse a lynch mob. The definition of black-on-white “rape” in the South required no allegation of force because white institutions, laws, and most white people rejected the idea that a white woman would willingly consent to sex with an African American man.
Much as we might like to believe that’s all in the past, some white women still fabricate violent crimes committed by imaginary African American men, and their stories are fueled by ongoing stereotypes of black men as insatiable predators.
In 2001, an Iowa State University student named Katie Robb reported to the college that she’d been raped by four large, armed black men and then recanted the next day. In 2009, Pennsylvania mother Bonnie Sweeten called 911 to report that she and her nine-year-old daughter had been kidnapped by two African American men; meanwhile, Sweeten and her daughter were at Disney World. In 2008, Ashley Todd, a volunteer for Republican John McCain’s campaign for US president, feigned a mugging by a six-foot-four black supporter of Barack Obama, even going so far as to cut the letter B into her own cheek. (The fact that the B was backwards, because she’d carved it while looking in a mirror, was the first clue that something was amiss.) And in 2011, a Brooklyn nun—or at least, a Brooklyn member of a cultish Christian sect, who identified herself as Sister Mary Turcotte—told detectives she was attacked and raped by a “6-foot, 250-lb. Black man.” She later blamed an “emotional break” for her decision to send police out looking for a racist caricature.
Why those women chose to concoct claims of violence is a puzzle I don’t have enough information to solve. Why they all chose to blame large African American men, however, is a no-brainer: centuries of systemic racism have primed us all to fear the black brute with a ceaseless drive to possess white women.
Two of the highest-profile false accusation cases in my lifetime have involved African American victims accusing white men of rape, evoking a legacy of sexual domination of black women by white men that goes back to slavery. However, by the late twentieth century, US culture had progressed to approximately the point where we remain today: simultaneously deeply racist and deeply ashamed of being called racist. So, in their rush to be perceived as supporting victimized African American girls and women, public figures ranging from black preachers to white feminists, from news reporters to prosecutors, threw their muscle behind two people who were just plain lying. And that is why every internet discussion of false accusations now involves some white dude bleating “Tawana Brawley!” or “Duke lacrosse!” as though nothing else needs to be said.
These cases are likely familiar to you as outlines: however, the particulars of each are telling about what goes into a false report, and who we believe capable of rape—and how other people’s agendas can work to compound a single, terrible lie.
Tawana Brawley was just 15 in November 1987, when she went missing for four days and then turned up in a garbage bag with feces in her hair and racial and sexual epithets written on her body. Brawley wasn’t suffering from exposure after her ordeal in the New York cold, nor was she malnourished, after four days ostensibly spent in the woods. The crotch of her jeans was burned, but her body was not. Her only injury was a bruise that did not seem all that recent. There was no physical evidence that she’d been raped.
At the emergency room, Brawley pretended to be unconscious but flunked a reflex test that said otherwise. She resisted medical professionals’ attempts to force open her eyes but eventually opened them herself when a doctor said, “I know you can hear me.”
According to a grand jury report published in the New York Times, “Tawana Brawley never provided a detailed account of her allegations, a detailed description of her alleged attackers, or named her alleged assailants to anyone.” The girl was largely uncommunicative, answering questions by nodding and shaking her head. At some point, she reportedly wrote a note that said “white cop,” and from there, a story emerged that she’d been abducted by two white men, one of them blond, with a light mustache, a badge, and a holster.
All of that detail became “fact,” though Brawley remained silent, and with the racial slurs written on her body, it was enough to get the FBI involved.
It was also enough to get Reverend Al Sharpton involved. In concert with lawyers Vernon Mason and Alton C. Maddox, Sharpton “[used] the case for various purposes, from raising black consciousness to raising cold cash,” wrote journalist Edwin Diamond in New York magazine. The story of a pretty, young black woman raped by white cops was irresistible to the media. Brawley’s legal advisors took full advantage of that fact.
After a white police officer in the area coincidentally committed suicide, he became the focus of an investigation that would bring several innocent men—friends of the deceased—under intense suspicion in the long months before the grand jury concluded that no abduction and rape had taken place.
According to a boyfriend of Tawana’s who gave an interview to New York Newsday, Tawana and her mother Glenda fabricated the story together but never intended for it to become public. The boyfriend said they went to such extremes to keep Glenda’s husband Ralph King from beating Tawana for staying out all night. Allegedly, King had done so in the past, and his wife and stepdaughter had good reason to fear him: King’s documented history of domestic violence includes a conviction for killing his first wife.
But once the police, the FBI, and the Sharpton-led legal/PR team got involved, a self-protective lie that was meant to stay within Tawana’s troubled family instead thrust her into the national spotlight for months. And it all happened without her saying a word.
Crystal Mangum, the woman who in 2006 accused three members of the Duke University lacrosse team of raping her after a party at which she’d performed as a stripper, said a lot more than Brawley, but her own words were suspicious and often contradictory. Without the single-mindedness of prosecutor Mike Nifong propelling it forward, the case would have died out before becoming such a cause célèbre of feminists and, later, men’s rights activists playing “gotcha.”
Today we know a lot about Crystal Mangum that wasn’t known in 2006. We know, for instance, that in December 2010, when Mangum was 32, she was convicted of misdemeanor child abuse for lighting her boyfriend’s clothes on fire in a bathtub, with her kids present in the apartment. We know that in April of the following year, she was charged with fatally stabbing a different boyfriend. We know there was no evidence that the rape she accused those lacrosse players of ever happened. We know she lied and lied, and when confronted with evidence that would disprove her story, she just kept changing it.
To go out on a limb: Crystal Mangum is probably not someone I’d like to hang out with. But, as Akiba Solomon wrote at Colorlines after Mangum’s indictment in the stabbing, the African American mother of three has also received more than her share of pain and criminal violence. At 14, she had a boyfriend twice her age, who allegedly “shared” her with three of his friends. (She filed a police report but never followed up on it, only documenting the incident in her personal diary.) Hospital records subpoenaed during the rape investigation show she’d been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and prescribed antipsychotics. On the night she alleged she was raped, she was visibly impaired by drugs and alcohol.
All of those things—previous claims of rape, mental illness, intoxication—show up in the profiles of many false accusers and many genuine victims. The authorities in Durham County should be applauded for taking her initial claims seriously. Reports of serious crimes should always be so, even when they come from citizens who will make lousy witnesses.
But taking marginalized, mentally ill, intoxicated, or generally odious people seriously does not mean abandoning all common sense. According to a “Summary of Conclusions” released by the Office of the Attorney General of North Carolina—following a reinvestigation of the horrendously botched rape case catalyzed by Mangum’s lies—the accuser had (what should have been) obvious credibility issues from the get-go. Not what passes for “credibility issues” in rape culture, like a history of drinking and having sex voluntarily, but actual credibility issues, like changing major parts of your story, identifying a man who wasn’t there as an attacker, and showing up to a meeting with special prosecutors so high on prescription medications you’re unable to walk in a straight line. That kind. As the “Summary of Conclusions” puts it:
While prosecutors acknowledge that rape and sexual assault victims often have some inconsistencies in their accounts of a traumatic event, in this case, the inconsistencies were so significant and so contrary to the evidence that the State had no credible evidence that an attack occurred in the house that night.
Nonetheless, in May 2006, three men were indicted for first-degree rape, first-degree sexual offense, and first-degree kidnapping. Several months later, after the lacrosse team had been suspended, their coach had been fired, and many feminists had thrown their support behind Mangum, the North Carolina State Bar brought ethics charges against Nifong. They alleged that the prosecutor made inflammatory and inaccurate pretrial statements to the media, positing a “deep racial motivation” for the fabricated crime, and painting the accused as suspiciously uncooperative, among other things. (Over 150 other things, to be exact.) More damningly, the Bar accused Nifong of sitting on potentially exculpatory DNA evidence for months.
Testing of Mangum’s rape kit originally showed no evidence of semen, blood, or saliva, which prompted Nifong to request more sensitive testing. On round two, a new lab “found DNA characteristics from up to four different males on epithelial and sperm fractions from several pieces of evidence from the rape kit,” according to the Bar’s amended complaint. The trouble for Nifong was, the lab concluded that all of the Duke lacrosse players could be excluded as the owners of that DNA. Undaunted, the prosecutor allegedly requested an abridged report from the lab, pointedly failed to reveal the full testing results to the defense, and then lied about it in writing.
“From his very first involvement in this case, Mr. Nifong weaved a web of deception,” said the State Bar’s attorney, Doug Brock, in his closing arguments at Nifong’s June 2007 ethics hearing. After less than an hour of deliberation, the disciplinary panel voted to disbar him.
Wringing a rape conviction out of faulty, shifting evidence is no better than drawing a rape accusation out of thin air. In both types of cases, the women in question are at fault, over-trusted—the latter a gift that otherwise seems exceedingly rare. But false accusations and convictions cannot be avoided by refusing to trust women who say they are was raped. A functioning justice system should account for and respond to an untrustworthy witness in order to protect the many more witnesses who will tell the truth over and over while people, remembering Crystal Mangum, close off their ears.
Without Crystal Mangum’s original lies, none of this would have happened. But without the district attorney’s inexplicable obsession with wringing a conviction out of a mentally ill woman’s constantly changing story, the case would never have gotten as far as it did. When we treat false arrests, prosecutions, and convictions as problems that can be avoided simply by never trusting a woman who says she was raped, we let serious flaws in our justice system go unchecked. And sometimes, those same flaws send innocent men to prison for rapes that really did happen.
More about Asking For It: Every seven minutes, someone in America commits a rape. And whether that’s a football star, beloved celebrity, elected official, member of the clergy, or just an average Joe (or Joanna), there’s probably a community eager to make excuses for that person. In Asking for It, Kate Harding combines in-depth research with an in-your-face voice to make the case that twenty-first-century America supports rapists more effectively than it supports victims. Drawing on real-world examples of what feminists call “rape culture”—from politicos’ revealing gaffes to institutional failures in higher education and the military—Harding offers ideas and suggestions for how we, as a society, can take sexual violence much more seriously without compromising the rights of the accused.
Illustration by Jim Cooke/Cover art via Da Capo Lifelong Books.