Grappling with race in rape allegations

Arrests: Some Howard County residents suspect the treatment of three teens falsely accused of assaulting a girl had as much to do with their color as with the charges against them.

May 02, 2004|By Tricia Bishop and Liz F. Kay | Tricia Bishop and Liz F. Kay,SUN STAFF

The first thing you see when you walk into Gym's Barbering and Spa in Ellicott City is a giant mural of Muhammad Ali knocking out Sonny Liston. A few steps beyond, Columbia lawyer Jim Hill is getting a close trim.

As clippers buzz, Hill and the proprietor of this black-owned barbershop in mostly white Howard County continue a discussion that began in the shop two weeks ago, when three black teens were arrested and accused of raping a white classmate. It was an ugly accusation that authorities have since declared false.

"I think as African-Americans, we're held at a different standard than other citizens," said shop owner Malcolm Jefferies Sr., who thought authorities were too quick to believe the allegations.

He and other African-Americans in the county believe the students' race influenced the way police and school officials reacted to the incident, which began with sexual contact in a high school bathroom. It spiraled into allegations of rape, swift arrests, felony charges and incarceration before authorities dropped the charges this week.

"We have to look at [these situations] and be very suspect," Hill said from his barber chair.

Others aren't so sure race played a role. County Councilman David A. Rakes, the only African-American on the five-member council, was not surprised by discussion of race, calling it a "logical" leap, though one he doesn't think played a part.

"There's enough blame going around," he said in a telephone interview. "I don't think that race was a part of it."

The county prides itself on encouraging a diversity of population and thought, yet many residents agree that racial tensions and discrimination exist. The prompt action against the three boys and the outpouring of sympathy for their white accuser underscored the issue. Others, including an attorney for one of the boys, said the nature of the allegations fueled the rapid response.

"You're dealing with three African-American males and a Caucasian female, and a rape issue in a predominantly white school," Jefferies said. "Race is going to be an issue."

On April 15, a 15-year-old girl at Mount Hebron High School told administrators that she was forced to engage in sexual activity in a school bathroom with a freshman and two sophomores.

Principal Veronica Bohn immediately called the girl's parents, who took her to Howard County General Hospital to be examined, and the police, who took the young men into custody. They were charged with rape the next morning and held in jail for six days before being released on bail. They were cleared of the charges last week.

The mother of one of the boys, Cathey Jones, said that the situation never would have happened that way if the boys were white.

"They would have waited for the [hospital] report" before arresting the students, she said - although the report, which took hours to prepare, showed that the girl suffered trauma consistent with rape.

Jones' son has also said he believes that the arresting officers thought he was guilty from the start, but Howard County Police Chief Wayne Livesay said the incident was handled according to procedure.

Ellicott City resident Dana Miles, who is black, said he doesn't think race mattered in the incident. As he worked on his car, Miles said he was tired of hearing race used as an excuse.

"If they feel prejudice is a part of it, then they have a prejudiced view," he said.

Many African-Americans, noting a history full of false allegations against blacks, can't help but wonder. That perception is something people need to be sensitive about, said Patricia S. Gordon, the only African-American on the county school board.

"There are a lot of people who do carry certain perspectives that make it difficult for [them] to understand just exactly what the concerns of the black community are," Gordon said. "Certainly the situation with the boys could have been handled very differently."

Gordon said she still believes that Howard County is one of the more welcoming places in the country. She moved here 10 years ago from New York and found it "extraordinarily receptive" and full of opportunity.

"I don't want to appear to be an apologist. I am very concerned about the progress of the African-American community, and I want to advocate for them. But at the same time, I do not think that we have a pervasive racial situation in Howard County," she said.

The county takes its cues largely from Columbia, a planned community founded by James W. Rouse, who envisioned it as a cultural patchwork where people from varying backgrounds would live, shop and worship together. That image drew Ken Jennings here in 1968.

"I was among the first settlers in Columbia," said Jennings, a vice president of the African American Coalition of Howard County. He said the influx of black residents at the time helped sway the Howard County 1972 primary vote away from segregationist George C. Wallace.

"We were the swing vote," Jennings said.

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