After a Decade, the Tawana Brawley Case Goes to Court


A decade ago, the teenage girl stood before cheering congregations, sported Mike Tyson’s Rolex on her wrist, rubbed shoulders with Don King and Bill Cosby.

She was Tawana Brawley--a cause, a poster child for racism, a black high school student who swore she had been abducted and raped by a gang of white law enforcers.

Then, in 1988, a grand jury declared her story a hoax. Attention quickly dwindled. And Tawana Brawley faded into rumor: Did she convert to Islam? Take a nursing job? Move to Virginia?


This month, the Brawley case comes out of the shadows. A $165-million defamation suit, filed by a man cleared in the case, goes to trial.

Brawley has already lost. Her refusal to answer repeated subpoenas led to a 1991 default judgment for Steven Pagones, the former assistant district attorney who was implicated by the girl and her three advisors.

Those counselors are now the accused; the Rev. Al Sharpton, C. Vernon Mason and Alton Maddox will be reunited at the defense table. The trio, on 33 separate occasions before a potential audience of millions, identified Pagones as a Brawley rapist.

“He was one of the attackers, yes,” Maddox said flatly on March 13, 1988. “If I didn’t have direct evidence, I wouldn’t be here saying that.”

The trio never provided any evidence, direct or otherwise. That didn’t stop the bombastic Sharpton --recently reinvented as a Democratic mayoral candidate--from inviting Pagones’ lawsuit.

“If we’re lying, sue us,” the pompadoured preacher challenged nine years ago. “Sue us right now.”

Pagones did just that on Halloween 1988, detailing the emotional and physical toll that the unproven allegations took on him: insomnia, stomach ailments, anxiety attacks. After years of legal wrangling, the case finally has a starting date.

Both sides say they are eager to go to court. Pagones--now a 36-year-old assistant state attorney general--says he hopes to clear his name, for his own sake and the sake of his young daughter. The advisors, who kept Brawley from cooperating with authorities, will finally get a chance to present their “evidence,” although it’s not clear if they’ll seize the opportunity.

“I am looking forward to dealing with it, closing the books and moving on,” says Sharpton, whose surprisingly successful political career is still dogged by the Brawley episode.

While Sharpton has thrived, his fellow advisors have fallen. Mason was disbarred in 1995 for price gouging, theft and abandoning clients. Maddox was suspended from practicing law after refusing to cooperate with an ethics panel probing his conduct in the Brawley case.

Almost from the beginning, the conduct of Brawley’s advisors shared the spotlight with the teen-ager’s horrendous story.

The 15-year-old girl, her body smeared with feces and scrawled in charcoal with racial slurs, was found in Wappingers Falls on Nov. 28, 1987. She had been missing for four days.

Asked what happened, the dazed teen wrote two words on a sheet of paper: “White cop.” Sharpton, Mason and Maddox, key figures in the successful 1987 prosecution of a white gang that killed a black youth in Howard Beach, quickly seized on the case.

Tyson visited with Tawana and gave the girl his high-priced watch. Cosby offered a $25,000 reward for the arrest of her attackers; no one ever collected. Sharpton raised her hand, like a boxing champion, inside a cheering Brooklyn church.

Brawley soon disappeared, refusing to speak with authorities or the media, as her advisors’ allegations grew wilder and wilder.

Maddox accused state Atty. Gen. Robert Abrams, special prosecutor in the case, of masturbating over photos of Brawley. Sharpton compared Abrams, a Jew, with Adolf Hitler. The three linked Gov. Mario Cuomo to organized crime and the Ku Klux Klan.

“The three advisors, Sharpton, Mason and Maddox, behaved in a ruthlessly irresponsible manner,” Abrams says now. “Their actions and statements are unforgivable.”

Pagones, in an unusual move, waived immunity to testify for a grand jury impaneled to investigate Brawley’s claim. Thirteen alibi witnesses testified on his behalf. There was no forensic evidence against Pagones, no eyewitnesses. (Brawley refused to testify.)

In its 170-page report, the panel denounced the case as a hoax and specifically exonerated Pagones. Sharpton’s response? Abrams, he said at the time, “is not after people who rape black girls.”

Sharpton says the advisors are considering two possible defenses in the Pagones suit. They could argue that Pagones’ position as a public figure invalidates his defamation claims. Or they could, finally, present evidence to support their claims.

Will Brawley, after a decade of silence, appear in court and provide her version?

“It’s too early to say,” Sharpton said. “We’ll see what happens.”

Pagones’ attorney, William E. Stanton, said Brawley’s name did not appear on a preliminary list of witnesses provided by the defendants. Pagones’ legal team plans to locate her after the trial, when the judge will assess any damages against Brawley, now 25.

Sharpton, once her family’s closest confidant, acknowledges that he and Brawley have fallen out of touch.

“I haven’t spoken to her in a couple of years,” he says.