Deathbed Confession Frees Falsely Accused Rapist, but Questions Linger
The deathbed recantation of a white woman led to the release of a black man who spent 12 years in prison for a rape that never occurred.
Now that Wayman Cammile Jr. is free, questions remain.
What part did racial prejudice play in his ordeal? Was the case properly investigated? Was he adequately represented? Should he receive $1 million in state compensation? Why did his release take so long?
How could such an injustice occur?
Cammile was a construction worker and a chronic alcoholic. He had described the purported victim, Alice Mock, as a drinking buddy.
On May 17, 1975, he was found drunk in her bed. Mock told authorities that he had forced his way in and raped her.
Cammile, who had a record of more than 40 arrests, mostly for drunkenness, suffered delirium tremens at a detoxification center after his arrest. Originally charged with first-degree rape, with a penalty of life in prison, he eventually pleaded guilty--urged by his lawyer, he says--to charges of sexual assault and second-degree burglary.
Sentenced to 15 years in prison, he had served more than 11 years when, late last year, his accuser recanted the rape charge as she lay dying.
Her confession was to Evelyn Burns, a former neighbor, who said Mock cried rape because she feared eviction if her landlord learned that she had a black man in her home. She was also afraid he would notice she had taken money from him.
“I can’t believe a woman could be that low,” Burns said. Through her efforts and those of Marian Harris, a member of the Delaware Human Relations Commission, Cammile was finally released four months ago.
The justice system, slow to restore Cammile’s innocence and freedom, moved swiftly when Mock falsely accused him.
To support her story, she was asked to take a lie-detector test, but the Delaware attorney general’s file of the case has no copy of the test results. The file contains a letter signed by New Castle County police saying she passed it.
It also contains court orders for polygraph and psychological tests for Cammile, but there is no evidence they were given.
Polygraph tests are not routine in rape cases, Atty. Gen. Charles M. Oberly III said. County police “must have had some question, and they wanted to make sure her story was true,” Oberly said. But he added, “I can’t say they disbelieved her.”
Perhaps they had reason to, Cammile’s supporters say.
“She was a known prostitute and habitual liar. She had no tangible worthwhile reputation,” Harris said. “But being a white woman, she was much more credible in the eyes of the system.”
“Everybody called her a bag lady when she didn’t prostitute anymore,” Burns added.
County police involved in the arrest refuse to comment because of the chance of a lawsuit, a spokesman, Sgt. Ronald G. Albence, said.
Edward C. Pankowski Jr., the prosecutor in the case who is now in private practice, said he would have dropped the charges if he had had any indication Mock was lying. The defense never raised questions about Mock’s credibility, he said.
Oberly said: “If there’s any blame in this case, it lies with the public defender.”
John A. Clark III, the public defender who represented Cammile, refused comment, also citing the possibility of a suit. Clark is now in private practice in Wilmington.
The public defender’s file, which would have shed light on how Cammile’s defense was handled, was routinely shredded after 10 years.
Cammile believes that he was coerced into plea bargaining rather than going to trial.
“There was a lot of prejudice going on at that time,” Cammile said. “When a white woman says a black man has done something, even today, the black man will be locked up.”
In August, 1975, shortly before he pleaded guilty, there were race riots in Wilmington when a white man fatally shot a 13-year-old black girl in the back for stealing peaches from his tree.
Burns recalls asking help from legislator Katharine M. Jester in seeking Cammile’s release. It was just days after Mock’s death that she approached Jester, who had helped Mock occasionally in the past and had taken her home from the hospital on the very day she had recanted.
Jester explained: “Whenever she needed help and all else failed, she called. . . . I knew Alice didn’t have anybody.”
She suggested that Burns contact corrections officials about the confession but acknowledged that “I really thought nobody would pay any attention.”
For a time, no one did. Burns said she called the governor’s office, the Department of Correction, the attorney general’s office, the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People and others.
“It seems like everyone gave me another name to call,” she said.
A break came in late January when her inquiries came to the attention of Harris. A member of the state Human Relations Commission’s prison committee, Harris interviewed Cammile on Feb. 11.
She said she spoke with several people in the Department of Justice but failed in repeated attempts to talk with Oberly.
She called and wrote to the public defender’s office, which promised to make the case a priority, but more than a month passed before she got a letter, dated April 20, saying a lawyer in the office would look into the case.
“I kept the pressure on him too,” Harris said. She and state Rep. Al Plant demonstrated in Wilmington on Cammile’s behalf, and on May 31, a story about the recantation appeared in the Wilmington News Journal.
Within three weeks, on June 17, prosecutors agreed to a public defender’s request that charges be dropped, a judge signed an order freeing Cammile and he walked out of prison.