Tyson's toughest fight yet is against 98-pound woman accuser

January 26, 1992|By Phil Berger | Phil Berger,New York Times News Service

No fighter since the days of Muhammad Ali has been dissected and inspected quite the way Mike Tyson has. At age 25 he has been one of those public figures who fascinate the masses and command constant attention.

While some of that has had to do with the primal aggression Tyson showed in becoming the youngest heavyweight champion ever, as much curiosity has focused on Tyson's personal life and problems outside the ring. There, as his own worst enemy, Tyson has sometimes seemed on the verge of short-circuiting that glorious career as a fighter.

That dire prospect surely looms as Tyson prepares to go to trial tomorrow in Indianapolis, where he is accused of raping an 18-year-old beauty pageant contestant last July. If the prosecution makes its case, Tyson could go from being a multimillionaire boxing legend to a convicted felon facing up to 63 years in jail.

The courtroom proceedings will focus on the question of what happened in Room 606 -- Tyson's room -- at the Canterbury Hotel in Indianapolis during the early hours of July 19. Was it, as Tyson has insisted, a matter of consensual sex? Or was it, as the 5-foot-4, 98-pound woman told the police, forcible sex?

Whatever answer the 12-member jury settles on, the events in the courtroom of Judge Patricia J. Gifford will be followed by reporters and television crews from all over the world. But of the more than 100 accredited journalists who will converge on Indianapolis this week, only a fourth of them will wind up in Gifford's 50-seat courtroom.

And unlike the rape trial late last year of William Kennedy Smith, which transfixed a nation of American viewers for days on end, the State of Indiana v. Michael Gerard Tyson will not be televised.

But what those who do witness the trial can expect to see is a courtroom drama steeped in the sort of classic personality contrasts that novelists and screenwriters tend to conjure up: real-life judicial theater in the heartlands.

Against the hulking Tyson, a onetime juvenile delinquent, will come the petite plaintiff, who by all accounts is a model teen-ager. She is a college freshman from Coventry, R.I., who, as one of the lawyers in the case put it, "looks like 12 years old -- not like 18. She's very articulate, very small. She's nice. She's sweet. She's naive."

No doubt the prosecution will emphasize the woman's background. As described by her lawyers, before enrolling in Providence College last September, she was a volunteer Big Sister to a foster child with special needs, an usher in her Baptist church, a varsity cheerleader, a student government officer and a softball player good enough to compete in a national tournament. From December 1988 to August 1990, she worked 16 hours a week as a K-Mart cashier while studying hard enough to win a full-tuition college scholarship.

But on the stand she is likely to face a rigorous, if not hostile cross-examination by Tyson's defense team, led by Vincent J. Fuller, whose previous clients have included John Hinkley and Michael R. Milken. While the prosecution is expected to offer the testimony of medical personnel and hospital scientists to support its case, it will be the impact the complainant makes on the jury that probably will decide the case.

"If the jury doesn't believe her," said David Dreyer, a member of the prosecution team, "the other stuff doesn't make any difference."

By the accounts of her lawyers, these have not been easy times for the woman, who represented Rhode Island in the Miss Black America contest at the Indiana Black Expo where she met Tyson for the first time.

"She's very sensitive that she's about to become bait in a media feeding frenzy," said Ed Gerstein, a Rhode Island-based lawyer representing her. "Her fears and concerns are there all the time. Only on rare occasions can she escape, through school, family or teaching Sunday school. She's become very quiet. My understanding is she used to be outgoing."

David Hennessy, of Indianapolis, who also represents the woman, said his client has had to fight depression since July. "It's a day-to-day thing," said Hennessy. "Some days are good, some are not."

Although most newspapers have not published the woman's name, Tyson's promoter, Don King, has spoken it aloud, particularly in September when the fighter was arraigned.

"She saw it as a further violation," said Hennessy, "and ultimately strengthened her resolve to see this through."

An Indiana rape-shield law prevents the defense from prying into the woman's sexual past during the trial. But another state law gives the prosecutor the latitude to rummage through Tyson's past, especially, as Dreyer said, "with the time span close to the time when he was charged."

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