A portrait of a rapist, an indictment of prejudice TRUE CRIME

May 05, 1991|By Leslie Walker

"White Lies: Rape, Murder and Justice Texas Style" an "Predator: Rape, Madness, and Injustice in Seattle" both are about men wrongly accused of rape, but that's about all these books have in common.

Jack Olsen's "Predator" (Pantheon, 402 pages, $23) is formulaic true crime: It offers a seedy profile of a sociopathic loser who eventually confesses to raping more than 50 women, mostly in the Seattle area. Authorities catch the rapist only after they mistakenly prosecute and convict an innocent man. Even though he is exonerated before he serves time in prison, the innocent man's life is shattered. Mr. Olsen's message, if he has one, is about the difficulty of catching and prosecuting rapists.

Nick Davies' "White Lies" (Delacorte, 366 pages, $24.95), by contrast, tells the powerful story of a black janitor who was railroaded in a small Texas town for the 1980 rape-murder of a white girl. Mr. Davies' message, and he certainly has one, is that racism is so ingrained in parts of our society that civil rights laws have about as much impact as "a knife stabbing the wind."

This extraordinary first book by a British journalist is more than a legal case study; it is an important social documentary. The true crime it reveals is not the murder of the high school student, horrible though that was, but the injustice deliberately wreaked on Clarence Lee Brandley by those sworn to uphold justice.

The only black among five janitors seen near the victim shortly before she was killed, Mr. Brandley, 28 at the time of his arrest, spent nine years locked in a 9-by-3-foot cell on death row before the Texas Court of Appeals finally overturned his conviction in December 1989. The judges agreed with a lower court judge who believed that Mr. Brandley was innocent and found that authorities had blindly focused their investigation on him because he was black, ignoring evidence implicating two white janitors.

Mr. Davies' narrative builds with mesmerizing attention to detail. Over and over, through interviews by lawyers and testimony in court, we hear how Mr. Brandley and the four white janitors he supervised were cleaning the high school on a Saturday, when a teen-ager separated from her volleyball pals to use a deserted restroom and turned up in the auditorium, raped and strangled. Mr. Brandley joined the search and helped find the girl, then was immediately arrested.

Over the years, the white janitors changed their stories about when they saw the girl going to the restroom, about who among them spoke to her, and about who among them disappeared during the time she apparently was murdered. All four janitors initially fingered Mr. Brandley. Finally, several admitted they had lied, and the truth began to emerge through the simplest of facts uncovered by the crusading defense attorneys.

Mr. Davies is determined to show that racism in the small town of Conroe so subverted the legal system that authorities routinely lied and perjured themselves during their battle to send Brandley to the electric chair. The prosecution lost most of the crucial evidence that might have exonerated the black janitor, including semen swabs from the girl that never were analyzed, hairs found on the girl's body, some of which were Caucasian,

and all the photographs of the crime scene.

Mr. Davies pushes his narrative beyond the confines of one case study and into social and historical commentary by examining the long, sordid history of lynchings and other acts of racial hatred in southeast Texas. He concludes: "The link to the past was more than mere symbolism. The history of public murder went to the heart of the treatment of Clarence Brandley. It was part of the corruption that had become a way of life. . . . Killing black men was easy. Not only had the whites always got away with it, but they had also always been able to justify it. Killing one black man was a means of disciplining the whole of his community."

Unlike "White Lies," which seethes with moral outrage, "Predator" generates little outrage over the wrongs the Seattle rapist committed against more than 50 women, and little outrage over the wrongs suffered by the innocent man who was convicted of rape. Mr. Olsen's book is less social than psychological commentary, an in-depth profile of a serial rapist who goes by the pseudonym "MacDonald Smith."

We are led to believe that Smith's sexual problems stemmed from his father's abandonment of the family when Smith was 13, and from the youth's pain and bewilderment over his mother's subsequent efforts to date other men. She remarried while Smith was still a teen-ager and confused him by taking him to see the pornographic movie "I Am Curious Yellow."

Smith is traumatized when his first love, at 17, jilts him to marry his best friend, then suggests a one-night stand a few weeks after the wedding. Soon, Smith's anger at women surfaces in rape fantasies that he eventually acts out.

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