After a tumultuous, racially charged trial, a jury on Monday found that the Rev. Al Sharpton and two legal advisors to Tawana Brawley defamed a former prosecutor by accusing him of raping the teenager.
The jury deliberated for 25 hours over five days before finding in favor of Steven Pagones, who brought the $395-million lawsuit against Sharpton and lawyers Alton Maddox Jr. and C. Vernon Mason.
More than a decade ago, Brawley, who is black, claimed she had been raped by six white men--including one who had a badge--and then stuffed in a garbage bag. Her accusations rubbed racial nerves raw and drew national attention. But after an extensive investigation, a grand jury concluded that the 15-year-old hadn’t been raped and was lying, possibly fearing punishment for staying out late after a party.
Tears in his eyes, Pagones--the former Dutchess County assistant district attorney--leaned over and kissed his wife Monday in the Poughkeepsie courtroom.
“I want accountability. I want responsibility,” Pagones said. “They hurt race relations.
“We have enough problems. We don’t need people like Mason, Maddox and Sharpton screaming out false allegations and creating further hatred,” he said.
“Unfortunately,” said former Gov. Mario M. Cuomo, who had ordered a special prosecutor to investigate Brawley’s claim, “it won’t correct all the injury done to Pagones, because he was hurt and his family was hurt, very badly.”
Jurors found that Sharpton made seven defamatory statements against Pagones. Maddox was found liable for making two defamatory statements, and Mason of one instance of defamation.
The panel was scheduled to reconvene today to consider monetary penalties against the defendants in the civil suit.
Sharpton and Maddox said they would appeal Monday’s ruling.
“If they want to stop me, they need to shoot me,” Sharpton said. “And even then, there will be hundreds that will come behind me and stand up, because you can’t stop people who stand up for rights. I am not going to stop as long as breath is in my body.”
Maddox said the fact the jury found the three men liable for only a portion of the 22 statements Pagones cited in his suit proved Brawley’s claims were not a hoax.
The jurors found that Brawley’s three advisors had acted with reckless disregard for the truth. One of the six jurors refused to sign the verdict, but under state law, five members of the jury constitute a binding decision.
The trial, which started Nov. 18, had been expected to last a month. Almost eight months later, weary jurors delivered their verdict.
How tumultuous was it?
A defense lawyer was jailed overnight for contempt of court. Attorneys shouted insults at each other. Defense attorneys called the judge a racist. In a highly unusual move, the jury foreman sent a note to the judge on behalf of the panel asking that the racial rhetoric be toned down.
One day, the court stenographer stalked out of the room in disgust.
When Sharpton’s lawyer finally rested his case in state Supreme Court, Justice S. Barrett Hickman, who sometimes was criticized for losing control of the trial, exclaimed wearily: “That’s cause for some celebration.”
Closing arguments in the case underlined the bitterness between Pagones and the three people he accused of defaming him.
“These men are dangerous. They’re bad. They’re evil,” William Stanton, Pagones’ lawyer, told the jury, comparing Sharpton, Maddox and Mason with Nazi propagandists who repeated lies, hoping they eventually would be believed.
“They don’t care who they stepped on and who they stepped over,” Stanton charged. “They destroyed lives for their own self-advancement.”
Sharpton’s lawyer sought to picture his client in the mold of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.--an activist speaking out in the cause of equality and justice.
“Rev. Sharpton’s business, if you will, was the business of civil rights,” Michael A. Hardy said.
“All Rev. Sharpton did was what he always does, what he has done for a long time,” Hardy told the jurors. “He came to the aid of a family in need, a young girl in particular, and made a call for justice.”
Mason’s lawyer, Stephen C. Jackson, took a much harder line, stating that Pagones is “lucky he is not in jail” for the rape and kidnapping of Brawley. He urged the jurors to “correct history” by dismissing the defamation and further charged that Pagones had manipulated the system to avoid answering accusations.
Maddox, who acted as his own lawyer, labeled the suit “three judicial lynchings” and sought to portray himself as a martyr.
“We are here because we stood up for the oppressed,” he said. “We have stood up for the poor, and now it’s time to be persecuted.”
Brawley also was named in the suit, but in 1991, after she failed to answer a deposition, Stanton won a default judgment against her.
A deal was offered to drop the judgment if she would be a witness in the defamation suit, but Brawley declined. She’s living near Washington, D.C., under a different name.