Court Finds Tawana Brawley Advisors Guilty of Defamation

Dangerous Verdict, Dangerous Precedent

Revolutionary Worker #967, July 26, 1998

In November 1987 15-year-old Tawana Brawley was found in upstate New York after she had been missing for four days. The Black teenager was discovered semi-conscious, wrapped in a plastic garbage bag. Her blouse was full of burn holes, and the crotch of her pants was burned away. Dog feces was smeared on her, and chunks of her hair were cut off. Racist epithets were scrawled on her stomach. She later said that she was abducted and raped by a group of white men that included law enforcement officials.

The Brawley case touched off widespread outrage, especially among Black people. The authorities immediately moved to deal with this situation--not by expressing sympathy and offering support for Tawana Brawley, but by pointing the finger at Tawana, her advisors and her supporters. Far from helping this traumatized young woman, the system persecuted her and attacked those who rallied around her.

Now, more than 10 years later, the authorities are taking their latest step. On July 13, a Dutchess County court ruled that C. Vernon Mason, Alton Maddox Jr. and Rev. Al Sharpton--advisors to Tawana Brawley and her family--are liable for defaming Steven Pagones, a former Dutchess County assistant district attorney. Tawana had accused Pagones of being one of the men that assaulted her. As we go to press, the jury is deliberating on the financial damages in the suit--Pagones had asked for $395 million.

System's Counter-Attack

When news about Tawana Brawley first broke, many people connected it with the string of racist attacks centered in the New York area in the mid to late 1980s. This was a time when Bernard Goetz cold-bloodedly shot four Black youth on a N.Y. subway--and was then upheld as a hero by some in the ruling class. A time when Michael Griffith was chased to his death by a gang of whites in Howard Beach. A time when Yusuf Hawkins was shot dead by another group of white racists in Bensonhurst.

This was also a time of mass resistance to these attacks. Large demonstrations demanded justice for Michael Griffith. The "Day of Outrage" against the oppression of Black people brought parts of New York City to a halt when demonstrators blocked subways and bridges.

The whole racist history of this country and the current reality of national oppression for Black people were more than enough reasons to give Tawana Brawley the benefit of any doubt, at the very least, and basic support. But instead, the ruling class moved to strike back at the resistance and protest around Tawana Brawley and other cases of racist outrage. The media went on a campaign to crucify and slander Tawana and her family--as though she was the one accused of rape and torture. They dredged up anyone who had anything bad to say about her and her supporters in an attempt to discredit her story.

A grand jury officially exonerated Pagones and basically called Tawana Brawley's story a lie. At a time of intense racist attacks on Black people, the authorities went out of their way to cast doubt and suspicion on a young Black woman who said she was raped by a gang of white men.

A particular focus of this attack were Maddox, Mason and Sharpton. Maddox and Mason were practicing attorneys at the time. The three, along with others, acted as advocates for Tawana and her case for justice in the streets, in the media and in the legal system. The system branded them as "demagogues" who were trying to inflame a sensitive situation for their own ulterior motives. And by extension, the whole struggle against racist outrages was portrayed as a hysterical over-reaction.

In 1988 Pagones filed a civil suit against Tawana Brawley and the three advocates. Tawana never responded, and a judge ruled that Pagones had won the suit against her by default. The case against the three advisors went to trial at the end of 1997. The court found Sharpton liable on seven charges of defamation, Maddox on three and Mason on one--eleven other charges were dismissed. The jury rejected Pagones' claim that the three engaged in a "conspiracy" against him.

System's Agenda Behind the Lawsuit

Pagones claimed that the only reason for the lawsuit was to clear his name. But clearly there was another agenda involved. After the verdict Pagones said that the three advisers "hurt race relations." The statement immediately raises questions: What "race relations" were hurt? What was wrong with people being extremely concerned and outraged about the horrible condition that Tawana Brawley was found in, and about her account of rape and torture? Why shouldn't people take to the streets, airwaves and whatever else to demand justice for Black people and an end to racist attacks? Don't the actions by Pagones--and the system that stands behind him--only serve to protect the existing "race relations" characterized by white supremacy and national oppression of African-Americans and other people?

From a bourgeois legal standpoint, the grand jury report "cleared" Pagones' name years ago. The heart of the lawsuit was to punish those who acted as advocates for Tawana Brawley. And it also set a further basis to attack others who advocate for the victims of this system. Whatever Pagones' individual intentions, his suit served a larger ruling class agenda.

The suit hit the courtroom at a time when attacks on Black and other oppressed people have been mounting--especially police brutality. And there is rising resistance to this situation. Tens of thousands marched in the streets of New York after the police torture of Abner Louima last fall. Parents Against Police Brutality has mobilized many to fight for justice for Anthony Baez and others killed and beaten by cops. October 22 last year saw the second National Day of Protest Against Police Brutality, Repression and the Criminalization of a Generation.

In this context, the lawsuit has been used by the power structure as a two-pronged attack on the people.

Prong One: This case is an attempt to whitewash the racist nature of this system.

There is still much that is unknown about what happened to Tawana Brawley. For various reasons she has never made a complete statement. Brawley, her family and her attorneys refused to cooperate with the established legal authorities--saying they did not want to see this case covered up or easily dismissed. The defamation trial was the first time that at least some elements of this case were presented in a courtroom from the standpoint of Tawana Brawley's advocates. The judge, however, limited what the defendants could bring out--refusing to release further grand jury material and allow the defense to call Tawana Brawley as a witness. Overall, the trial has been an insidious attempt to push the view that people who come forward as victims of white supremacy should not be believed--until they come up with "conclusive" proof as defined by the judicial authorities.

Why is the whole power structure still so intent on trying to brand Tawana Brawley as a liar? Look at what has happened to Black people since her story first made the news more than 10 years ago. A whole generation of youth, especially Black and Latino, has been criminalized. Hundreds of people have been killed by cops and countless others victimized by police beatings. Racist rants from the likes of Howard Stern are accepted elements of "mainstream" culture. The rape of Abner Louima and the Texas lynching of James Byrd are not "exceptions" but reveal something basic about this system. The continuing efforts to discredit Tawana Brawley and her advisors are aimed at whitewashing this reality--and they objectively feed the ugly climate behind the racist outrages.

Prong Two: The lawsuit sets dangerous legal precedents for the people.

In the trial, Pagones argued that the statements made by the advisors showed "reckless disregard for the truth and knowing falsity." Pagones' lawyers demanded to know how much the defendants investigated Tawana Brawley's charges. Mason was asked if he searched for witnesses, went through her medical records or otherwise investigated her story. The fact that many of the charges by Pagones were upheld in court has the effect of forcing other advocates to prove--through their own investigation--the claims of various victims before they make public statements about them. Otherwise, they could face serious legal problems. This could have have a chilling effect on advocacy. Sharpton's attorney said that the trial was about whether or not his client has the right "to believe a 15-year-old girl."

The lawsuit has been part of the heavy attacks against Maddox and Mason for their role as lawyers in the Brawley case and other struggles. Maddox was suspended from practicing law in 1990 for refusing to testify before a five-judge panel supposedly investigating "complaints" about his actions in the Brawley case. The suspension was extended for five more years in 1994. Mason was disbarred from practicing law by the state appellate court in 1995 for what it called "professional misconduct" involving 21 clients. Mason said at the time, "After 22 years of defending my community in several thousands of cases, winning many victories, they managed to find 21 disgruntled people willing to speak ill of me."

Another dangerous legal precedent from the lawsuit involves the use of grand juries. The media and Pagones' lawyers pointed to the grand jury report exonerating Pagones as the definitive word on this case that "proves" the charges by Pagones against the three advocates. But that report is nothing more than the government version of events. Grand juries generally do what the government attorneys ask them to do. For example, in the past several years grand juries have exonerated a number of NYPD cops in cases where they clearly and cold-bloodedly committed murder. The fact that these grand juries "cleared" the police has nothing to do with the truth. The verdict in the Pagones suit potentially sets a precedent for people to be held legally liable when they make statements contrary to grand jury findings.


Whatever happened to Tawana Brawley, those in positions of authority have shown repeatedly that they do not give a damn about her. They don't give a damn about anyone who is victimized and brutalized by this white supremacist system. From the beginning of the case to this recent trial, their only motive has been to whitewash the many crimes of this system and to lash out against the righteous resistance of the people.

This article is posted in English and Spanish on Revolutionary Worker Online
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