TEXT ON SCREEN: November 28, 1987
ARCHIVAL (NBC NEWS, 2-26-88):TOM BROKAW: Tawana Brawley is a 16-year-old girl whose story is the talk of New York these days.
ARCHIVAL (CBS NEWS, 2-26-88):BOB SCHIEFFER: A New York State teenager who claims she was abducted and raped by six white men.
NARRATION: In the late 1980s, Tawana Brawley became a household name, as her horrific story spread across the nation.
ARCHIVAL (CBS NEWS, 2-10-88):RALPH KING: She had KKK written across her chest, and nigger nigger across her stomach.
NARRATION: Leading to widespread outrage
ARCHIVAL (ABC NEWS, 2-10-88):REV. AL SHARPTON: Were gonna expose the facts in these crimes that you do against black people.
NARRATION: And intense soul searching about race in America.
ARCHIVAL (CBS NEWS, 2-10-88):BILL COSBY: Let Ms. Brawley represent what were not going to stand for as parents, as Americans, and as human beings.
NARRATION: But how did investigators discover the truth behind the Brawley rape and what is its legacy today?
REV. AL SHARPTON: I think that the lessons of Brawley is very instructive for me and others. But I think that people want to cut off the lessons where they want.
THE TAWANA BRAWLEY STORY
NARRATION: In November 1987, a news story from a small town, 70 miles north of New York City, shocked the nation.
ARCHIVAL (NBC NEWS, 3-17-88):TOM BROKAW: Special segment tonight: the Tawana Brawley case.
ARCHIVAL (CBS NEWS, 2-10-88):REPORTER: She was found wrapped in plastic bag, by some accounts sexually assaulted.
ARCHIVAL (NBC NEWS, 2-26-88):REPORTER: The 16-year-old cheerleader said shed been abducted four days earlier and had been repeatedly raped and sodomized.
JOHN M. RYAN (ASSISTANT STATE ATTORNEY GENERAL, 1979-91): She was found in a fairly frightening state. She had a pair of sneakers which have been cut with a razor, her hair seemed matted and covered with feces. There was writing on her chest, the jeans that she had were burnt in the crotch. It was like, this is not a normal state to find someone.
NARRATION: More unsettling was the claim Brawley made on national television about one of her attackers.
ARCHIVAL (CBS NEWS, 2-10-88):TAWANA BRAWLEY: He was a cop.REPORTER: He was a police officer?
NARRATION: Brawley attracted a team of activists to her side; the Reverend Al Sharpton, C. Vernon Mason and Alton Maddox were well-known in the press, having recently focused attention on another racially charged case the killing of a black youth who was fleeing a white mob in Howard Beach, Queens.
ARCHIVAL (CBS NEWS, 12-22-87):REV. AL SHARPTON (COMMUNITY ACTIVIST): New York State is now the capital of racial violence.
NARRATION: In the Brawley case they saw the makings of a cover-up, and demanded a special prosecutor take over.
REV. AL SHARPTON: I was the spokesman for the legal team and the family of Ms. Brawley. I was involved to help bring light on the fact that there was a situation here that needed to be adjudicated.
ARCHIVAL (NBC NEWS, 3-17-88):REV. AL SHARPTON: We are not going to let this girl be the scapegoat of a corrupt system.
ARCHIVAL (ABC NEWS, 6-23-88):REV. AL SHARPTON: We want to show the world how low down, doggish. and callous the state of New York is.
NARRATION: Brawleys advisors declared they had a suspect a young police officer named Harry Crist, Jr. who had committed suicide days after her attack.
ARCHIVAL (WTZA LOCAL 62)REV. AL SHARPTON: The media now has released that Tawana identified CristREPORTER: Whats the evidence?REV. AL SHARPTON: Tawanas voice on a tape identifying Crist.
NARRATION: With protesters taking to the streets, the state Attorney General dispatched veteran investigator John Ryan to Upstate New York with orders to solve the increasingly sensitive case.
JOHN M. RYAN: We attempted immediately to sit down with Tawana and her family, and we reached out repeatedly to her attorneys, her advisors, and that was never fruitful.
REV. AL SHARPTON: Her lawyers, it was their decision, along with the family, which I announced, that they did not want to cooperate because they did not trust the special prosecutor that was appointed by the government.
JOHN M. RYAN: We might send them a letter, and then, you know, theyd have a press conference.
WAYNE BARRETT (FORMER VILLAGE VOICE REPORTER): Theyre at a press conference and all of a sudden Alton Maddox pops out with this guys name.
ARCHIVAL (NBC NEWS, 3-17-88):REPORTER: Her lawyers charge that Dutchess County assistant district attorney, Steven Pagones was among the girls attackers and demanded his arrest.
ARCHIVAL (ABC NEWS, NIGHTLINE, 1988):REV. AL SHARPTON: We have the facts and the evidence that an assistant district attorney and a state trooper did this.
REV. AL SHARPTON: She made statements to the lawyer. She never made statements to me. I did not ask a 15-year-old girl what happened. I believe the lawyers believed their client. And I believe that we had an obligation to go forward.
NARRATION: Without Brawleys cooperation, Ryan tried to divine some clues from the initial police investigation.
JOHN M. RYAN: In the course of the interview with the police, she literally only said one word. She would also indicate, I believe, by eye blinks. They would ask her a question, and she would indicate yes or no. The police officers took what they could get. She was found in a grassy area behind the building that her family had previously lived in, very near the apartment which was then vacant, but unlocked. She had literally just come off being grounded because she got home at five in the morning from some party. She goes to visit a boyfriend in jail, and then she eventually takes the bus home. And thats the last time anybody saw her, officially, during those four days.
NARRATION: From his headquarters at the state Armory in Poughkeepsie, Ryan and his team struggled to make sense of a case that seemed to grow more complicated every day.
PAUL M. RYAN: We were an investigation under siege
ARCHIVAL:REV. AL SHARPTON: We closed the bridge, the court and this building and main street!
PAUL M. RYAN: The press had its agenda. No offense. The advisors had their agenda. No offense. Quite frankly, we had the view it was those of us in the armory against the rest of the world.
NARRATION: There were scores of false leads. An acquaintance said he was with Brawley he wasnt. A man claimed to have secret tapes that cast doubt on veracity of Brawleys advisors he didnt.
PAUL M. RYAN: We started a rumor about a nine-fingered man, just to see how long it would take for a press report to call us and start to ask about the nine-fingered man. I think it took two days.
NARRATION: But such moments of levity were brief.
PAUL M. RYAN: A trooper starts up the steps of the armory, and these demonstrators decided they werent gonna let him in. He grabbed the demonstrator that was fighting him, next thing we knew Reverend Sharpton was accusing me of kicking a blind man. That bothered me. You realize how a lie can spread.
ARCHIVAL (ABC NEWS, 6-23-88):REPORTER: Her advisors have said a lot the past few months, charging that white local officials were involved in the crime not to mention the Mafia, the Ku Klux Klan and the Irish Republican Army.
ARCHIVAL (NBC NEWS, 3-17-88):REPORTER: Sharpton called Cuomo a racist, compared Abrams to Hitler and said Brawley would go to jail rather than cooperate with the investigators.
WAYNE BARRETT: Maddox would actually say that the attorney general of the State of New York was masturbating over pictures of 15-year-old Tawana Brawley.
ARCHIVAL (BET, JOURNEYS IN BLACK, 2000):REV. AL SHARPTON: They looked up and they saw Maddox, Mason and Sharpton! What wrong with them? What was wrong with us was crackers didnt choose us!
REV. AL SHARPTON: I think a lot of the rhetoric, including mine, went too far. But I think that theres a difference between the rhetoric and the reason we got involved.
NARRATION: But, at the time, that reason was questioned by one of his own associates.
ARCHIVAL (ABC NEWS, 6-23-88):PERRY MCKINNON: They are frauds from the beginning.
WAYNE BARRETT: Perry McKinnon you couldnt see Sharpton without seeing Perry McKinnon in those days. And he was with him at all times. And you know hes a decorated war hero. Hes all these other things.
ARCHIVAL (CBS NEWS, 6-15-88):PERRY MCKINNON: This whole situation is not about Tawana Brawley. Its about Mason, Maddox, and Sharpton, sort of, taking over the town. Their exact words were We beat this, we will be the biggest niggers in New York.
REV. AL SHARPTON: Lets take the outside chance McKinnon is telling the truth, and by the way nobody corroborated that. If I say that if I win for president when I ran, Id be the biggest black guy in America. Does that really mean that I perpetrated a lie?
NARRATION: As the press turned up the heat on Brawleys advisors, Ryan uncovered new clues.
PAUL M. RYAN: The jeans she had on were burnt in the crotch, but she wasnt burnt there. The cutting in the sneaker clearly it was done when the no foot was in the sneaker.
NARRATION: An FBI lab agent on the case drew his attention to bits of cotton found inside the feces-smeared glove allegedly used in the attack on Brawley.
PAUL M. RYAN: We were having a drink, and he said to me, and the damnedest thing is we found the same thing under her fingernails. Well, I almost spit my drink out. You got burnt cotton under her fingernails, burnt cotton in the tips of the glove. Theres a real good chance, you know, shes wearin those gloves.
NARRATION: Next, Ryan set about discovering the source of the racial epithet found on Brawleys body.
PAUL M. RYAN: I was burning cotton in my kitchen and wasnt getting anywhere, and the burnt cotton fibers fell into the the sink. And my wife, whos always been smarter than me, leaned forward, put her finger on the burnt cotton and the water, went like this, went like that. Looks like it to me. It was the last piece of the puzzle.
ARCHIVAL (ABC NEWS, 10-6-88):REPORTER: Today, after 7 months, 6,000 pages of testimony, and 180 witnesses, a grand jury found beyond any doubt, Tawana Brawleys story is a lie.ROBERT ABRAMS (NEW YORK STATE ATTORNEY GENERAL): Those allegations are untrue. The people who made those allegations lied.
ARCHIVAL (CBS NEWS, 12-6-97):ROBERT ABRAMS: Their outrageous, irresponsible acts have increased the atmosphere of tension between the races.
REV. AL SHARPTON: I think that people have to advocate what they believe in. I have friends right now that believe O.J. Simpson is guilty right now. Right now. And a jury said hes not. Does that mean that I think they dont have credibility? That means that I think that they have a belief that I dont share and a jury didnt share. A grand jury did not believe Ms. Brawley. I believed there was reason to pursue this situation.
PAUL M. RYAN: One of the real victims of this case was the family of the police officer. They suffered the loss of their son through a horrible means, and then were subjected in the press to these allegations, which had nothing to do with him.
REV. AL SHARPTON: I didnt bring him in the case, Ms. Brawley did. I was speaking for Ms. Brawley. I mean, of course we wanted the aspects of what her allegation was investigated.
NARRATION: Pagones was also vindicated in the report.
PAUL M. RYAN: We accounted for virtually virtually every moment of his time over the four-day period and concluded he had absolutely nothing to do with it.
WAYNE BARRETT: There is absolutely no way that this served any good social purpose. If you concoct a rape, then you undermine the credibility of women who are raped. If you concoct a rape and turn it into a race crime then you undermine true victims of race crimes.
NARRATION: About six months after the hoax was unmasked, Brawleys former boyfriend told Newsday that Tawana had invented the scheme, apparently to avoid a beating by her mothers boyfriend after running away from home. But Brawley, who now works as a nurse under another name in Virginia has steadfastly refused to explain herself publicly.
ARCHIVAL (CBS NEWS, 12-6-97):TAWANA BRAWLEY: Im not a liar and Im not crazy.
ARCHIVAL:TAWANA BRAWLEY: What did I lie about? Lie about what? The grand jury to me didnt really exist. That was all a farce.
NARRATION: Brawley and her advisors lost a defamation suit to Pagones in 1998. Maddox had his law license suspended due to his refusal to answer questions about his conduct during the case, and Mason lost his because of unconnected ethical lapses. Sharpton was acquitted in a series of charity-related fraud charges.
REV. AL SHARPTON: I think that we, and certainly I going forward learned how to be more cautious. But I also think the media has not adopted a lot of its lesson. And I think prosecutors have not adopted its lessons.
NARRATION: The activist himself has moved on from the hoax that has altered the lives of so many others.
ARCHIVAL (CBS NEWS, 60 MINUTES, 5-22-11):REV. AL SHARPTON: Barack Obama!PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I told Reverend Al backstage, hes getting skinnier than me.
REV. AL SHARPTON: If we had something right or wrong, at least give us credit at least give me credit for a life that was geared towards social justice. Even if you think I was wrong on some cases, dont act like I wasnt geared toward social justice. I have a radio show, TV show, do lectures; I make a good living. Why am I doing it now? Whats my point now? Maybe I really believed it.
NARRATION: But after 25 years, one fundamental question about the Brawley case still follows him.
KIT ROANE (INTERVIEWER): Did a crime occur in your view still?
REV. AL SHARPTON: Whatever happened, youre dealing with a minor who was missing four days. So its clear that something wrong happened.
WAYNE BARRETT: Hes still saying I think something happened. Gosh, you know? Youre supposed to be a little bit bigger, all these years later than being able to say I think something happened.
ARCHIVAL (MSNBC, POLITICS NATION, 1-20-12):REV. AL SHARPTON: Welcome to Politics Nation, Im Al Sharpton.
WAYNE BARRETT: One would think if he sold you such a terrible bill of goods in such a giant story that dominated news cycles for such a long period of time and proved to be a total hoax that you might not show up at his next press conference with your camera crew. He has managed to transcend it magically.