Decade later, Brawley case flares up again Accused attacker's defamation suit opens in upstate N.Y.

December 04, 1997|By Joe Mathews | Joe Mathews,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

POUGHKEEPSIE, N.Y. -- Everything is different now. Ten years after 15-year-old Tawana Brawley was found covered with human feces and racist graffiti and sitting inside a plastic bag outside an apartment complex near this Hudson River city, she isn't Tawana Brawley anymore.

Call her Maryann Muhammad, the name that Louis Farrakhan gave her, or Tawana Thompson. She lives in the Prince George's County suburb of Temple Hills and works at a Washington hospital. And she doesn't speak publicly of the attack that a grand jury investigated in 1988 and determined to be Tawana's own doing. A hoax.

Until this week, when everything is suddenly the same again. The three New York City activists who proclaimed Brawley's case to the media 10 years ago -- the Rev. Al Sharpton and former lawyers C. Vernon Mason and Alton Maddox Jr. -- are defendants in a multimillion-dollar defamation lawsuit that opened here yesterday. And Brawley, 25, has reappeared in New York City for the first time in nine years, adding new fuel to what once was one of the country's most controversial cases.

"I'm not a liar and I'm not crazy," she told a supportive crowd of 600 African-Americans at Brooklyn's Bethany Baptist Church. Brawley, however, has refused to testify in the civil case here. The defamation suit was filed nine years ago by a former Dutchess County assistant district attorney. The lawyer, Steven Pagones, was accused by Sharpton, Mason and Maddox -- though he was never publicly named by Brawley or charged by prosecutors -- of being one of six men who allegedly abducted, raped and scrawled graffiti on the teen-ager.

The three activists, repeatedly asked for evidence for their accusation, have produced none. They claim a massive cover-up has denied them the evidence they need to prove Brawley's charges. "It's going to get hot, very hot, inside that courtroom," says Michael Hardy, the attorney for Sharpton.

Brawley, who by most accounts was troubled, disappeared from her family's Dutchess County home on Nov. 24, 1987, and was not seen for four days. Brawley claimed to have been abducted by white men carrying police badges and tortured for four days. But an eyewitness claimed to have seen her crawl into the bag. No physical evidence of rape was discovered.

The three activists seized on an unrelated suicide victim, a part-time policeman who left a note bemoaning his failure to become a state trooper, and argued that the dead man was one attacker. After Pagones, a friend of the officer's, disputed the charge, Sharpton, Mason and Maddox announced that Pagones was an attacker.

When Pagones denied the allegation, Sharpton said, "If we're lying, sue us so we can go into court with you and prove you did it." In late 1988, when the grand jury's report exonerated Pagones, the attorney sued the three activists and Brawley.

Pagones, the son of a prominent former judge here, says he was forced to quit his job and left the legal profession for several years, before renewing his career in 1995. "It is a relief to finally have my day in court," he says.

The most difficult problem has been pursuing Brawley. After she moved to the Washington area, she refused to answer the subpoenas she did receive. In 1991, she defaulted on the case. Monetary damages against her will be determined as part of the current trial.

But the vast majority of the delays have been forced by the three remaining defendants, and their changing circumstances. Mason was disbarred for fee-gouging. Maddox, the most vocal of the three, has had his law license suspended, though he continues to represent himself in the defamation case.

While his co-defendants are adamant about Pagones' guilt, Sharpton, who finished a strong second in this year's New York Democratic mayoral primary, has slightly wavered. His advocacy for Brawley remains an albatross around his neck, despite his repeated efforts to acknowledge -- quietly -- that he erred. "It follows me everywhere," he said while campaigning this summer. "Even when I save the pope's life someday, you in the media will ask me about Tawana."

Yesterday, after an evidentiary ruling went against them, lawyers for the other two defendants suggested that the white judge, S. Barrett Hickman, was incapable of impartiality in the case.

"We are not going to let some judge's son think he can get away with murder, rape and kidnapping," Maddox said in his opening statement.

But the judge has forbidden the defendants to prove Brawley was raped and kidnapped. He says they lost that chance in 1988, when they, and she, refused to provide information to police or the grand jury.

But Brawley, and the defendants, got a better hearing during her Tuesday night appearance at the Brooklyn church. Local ministers warmed up the crowd for more than 90 minutes, with Maddox giving a speech that compared Brawley to Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth. Brawley said she did not believe that her allegations had hurt race relations. "We didn't cause any ruckus," she said. "We just woke it up."

Pub Date: 12/04/97

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