It was the most perfect, imperfect hate crime: a Black teen girl was abducted and raped by six White cops. Three weeks before her Sweet 16, Brawley life soured. She was found nearly unconscious cocooned in a garbage bag, grossly defiled with excrement and racial epithets from head to toe clad in charred clothing. Instinctively Brawley became Black America’s posterchild for racial injustice while Rev. Al Sharpton along with attorneys C. Vernon Mason and Alton H. Maddox became her legal dream team. Still her alleged tormenters–one of which (Police Officer Harry Crist, Jr.) committed suicide–were never convicted.
That was 25 years ago today. And the case remains shrouded in mystery. he discrepancies surrounding Brawley’s case read more like strange fiction while others blame racial bias for the lack of creditability. Here’s a brief recap of the conflicting details: On November 28, 1987, Brawley headed to her family’s home at the Pavillion Condominiums in Wappingers Falls, N.Y., gets off the bus, is kidnapped and taken into the woods. Only problem is her family had allegedly been evicted two weeks prior, yet Brawley was supposedly seen entering the abandoned apartment the morning after her “abduction.” Her mother Glenda Brawley was allegedly spotted at the complex prior to the police finding her daughter but still didn’t report Brawley missing until later that afternoon. Even more bizarre is the account of a white female resident that claims she saw a black female climb into a garbage bag and lay still on the ground before she decided to call the Dutchess County Police that immediately involved the FBI.
Then there’s Brawley’s rape kit which produced no evidence of sexual or physical assault let alone exposure to any outdoor elements after she had to withstand several days in below-freezing weather. According to a grand jury report, the damage to her clothing occurred in the apartment where the “items and instrumentalities” used to create her appearance were discovered. And the charcoal-scrawled slurs “KKK,” “Nigger” and “B****” on her chest and torso? Allegedly self-inscribed because they were written upside down while the feces on her body and hair had come from a neighbor’s dog. Not to mention alleged reports from various friends and witnesses that said she admitted to fabricating the story with her mom’s help and that she was partying at local clubs during her “disappearance.”
In the end, Brawley’s disappearing act didn’t impress and her accusations didn’t add up in a court of law. Some believe it was an elaborate hoax orchestrated by her out of fear that her parents (particularly her stepfather Ralph King who was convicted for killing his first wife) would punish her for missing curfew and skipping school to visit an ex-boyfriend in jail. In 2007, Glenda balked at the notion, telling the New York Daily News, “How could we make this up and take down the state of New York? We’re just regular people. We should be millionaires.”
Although the Brawleys didn’t get a big payday, Tawana received monetary gifts and moral support from the industry’s glitterati including Bill Cosby and former Essence magazine publisher Edward Lewis, who posted a $25,000 reward for information on the case; former heavyweight champ Mike Tyson gave her a $30,000 Rolex watch and pledged with boxing promoter Don $100,000 for her higher education. Assistant District Attorney Steven Pagones, a local prosecutor accused of raping Brawley, proved the victor in a defamation suit for $345,000 against Rev. Sharpton, Mason and Maddox.
Despite their loss, Rev. Sharpton has never backed down about his belief in Brawley’s version of the events. Comparing it to another famous Big Apple Case involving five Harlem teens: “a jury said in the Central Park jogger case… that I was wrong,” he told the New York Daily News in July 2003, “and it was just overturned 13 years later. Juries can be wrong. I’ve stood by what I believe. Juries are proven wrong every day.”
Nowadays, the Howard University alum and Muslim (Minister Farrakhan renamed Maryam Muhammad) lives and works in Virginia as a nurse named Tawana Thompson. Since the trial, she hasn’t spoken and reportedly lives a fairly normal life with family, friends and loved ones. Silence isn’t always golden and we want her to finally have her say. However, we suspect that her uncle Matthew Strong, an Upstate New York police officer, who helped raise Brawley was most prophetic when he told People Magazine in July 1988: “I don’t know what happened to Tawana. I don’t think any of us is going to know until she decides to tell someone. But it doesn’t look like that’s going to happen anytime soon.”