Believe All Women?

You may have read about the case of Alice Sebold and Anthony Broadwater. Sebold is now a pretty well-known novelist; Broadwater spent 16 years in prison after being convicted of raping Sebold when she was 18 years old. Sebold wrote a memoir titled Lucky about her rape and the prosecution of Broadwater, which started her on her way to literary success.

But Broadwater has now been exonerated and his conviction overturned. As a result, Sebold has publicly apologized to Broadwater:

Broadwater, who spent 16 years in prison, was exonerated by a court in New York last week. The case was re-opened after Timothy Mucciante, who was hired as executive producer of a film adaptation of Lucky, noticed discrepancies between the memoir and the script. Mucciante hired a private investigator to examine the evidence against Broadwater.
Sebold’s public apology came eight days after his conviction was overturned, as she had “struggled” to “comprehend how this could have happened. I will continue to struggle with the role that I unwittingly played within a system that sent an innocent man to jail”.

More specifically, it was Sebold’s own erroneous courtroom identification of Broadwater that sent an innocent man to jail.

She added that “years ago, as a traumatised 18-year-old rape victim, I chose to put my faith in the American legal system. My goal in 1982 was justice — not to perpetuate injustice.

“Forty years ago, he became another young black man brutalised by our flawed legal system. I will forever be sorry for what was done to him.”

This “apology” strikes me as a classic of our moment in history. Sebold blames “the American legal system,” and jumps on the BLM train: “he became another young black man brutalized by our flawed legal system.” And the passive voice here is exquisite: “I will forever be sorry for what was done to him.”

Done to him by whom? It was Sebold who identified Broadwater, Sebold who drove his prosecution, Sebold who testified under oath, in court, that he raped her. Our “flawed legal system” consists of the police officers, prosecutor, and ultimately the jury that believed Sebold’s testimony–testimony that turned out to be false. There is no “system,” there are only people trying to do their jobs as best they can. And the person who perpetrated this injustice, far more than anyone else, was Alice Sebold.

It seems that Sebold had reason to question her own certainty that Broadwater was guilty.

In “Lucky,” which was published in 1999, she gives a searing account of the assault and of the trauma she subsequently endured. She also writes in detail about the trial and about how she became convinced she had recognized Mr. Broadwater, whom she referred to with a pseudonym in the book, as her attacker after passing him on the street months after the rape.

The memoir chronicles mishaps in the case, including the fact that a composite sketch of her attacker, based on her description, did not resemble him. The book also describes Ms. Sebold’s fear that the prosecution might be derailed after she identified a different man, not Mr. Broadwater, in a police lineup.

One might argue that the prosecutor should have distrusted Sebold’s eventual positive identification of Broadwater. But there is no way around the fact that the principal fault here lies with Alice Sebold herself. Her “apology” doesn’t acknowledge the fact, but our criminal justice system depends on all of the people who participate in it, including crime victims and other witnesses. Alice Sebold sent an innocent man to prison for 16 years and more or less destroyed his life, and having done so, she profited greatly from her actions.

A number of lessons might be drawn from this story, but the most obvious one is that women who testify against men should not necessarily be believed.

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