Date: Sat, 25 Jul 98 13:53:27 CDT
From: Workers World <>
Organization: WW Publishers
Subject: Racist aftermath of Brawley case
Article: 39816
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Racist aftermath of Brawley case: Civil Rights activists face hugh fines

By Pat Chin, Workers World, 30 July 1998

Brooklyn, N.Y.—On July 13, the jury in the Tawana Brawley libel case found civil rights activists Rev. Al Sharpton, C. Vernon Mason and Alton Maddox guilty of defaming former Assistant District Attorney Steven Pagones.

It’s a legal lynching. Nothing better describes the so-called judicial process that has been unfolding in upstate New York’s Dutchess County since Tawana Brawley accused six white men of abducting and raping her in November 1987.

The lawsuit, which seeks $395 million in damages, was resumed eight months ago from a case first filed on Oct. 31, 1988, by Pagones against Brawley and her three advisers.

The Brawley advisers have branded the jury’s report a fraud.

Brawley had been found semiconscious on Nov. 27, 1987, on the side of a highway. The 15-year-old African-American was wrapped in a plastic bag and half frozen. Feces had been smeared on her face. KKK and other racist slurs were marked on her body.

She later accused Pagones of being one of six white men who had abducted, raped and tortured her. Another, she said, had flashed a badge.

Brawley was then demonized in the big-business media, accused, along with Mason, Maddox and Sharpton, of upsetting race relations.

Since local law enforcement officials had been blamed by Brawley, her three advisers called on then-governor Mario Cuomo to appoint a special prosecutor. But Cuomo refused. Instead, a grand jury was convened under Attorney General Robert Abrams. Abrams had a house in Dutchess County at the time and was reportedly a close friend of the prosecutor--a central suspect in the case.

Because of this and other irregularities, Maddox charged Abrams’ office in March 1988 with attempting a cover-up for the good-old-boy network. He announced that Brawley’s lawyers and family would not cooperate with the grand jury.

The Brawley charges of rape, abduction and torture reverberated in the highest pinnacles of state power. This triggered a firestorm of retribution from the white-male- dominated capitalist state and its corporate media. Brawley’s resistance to the grand jury intensified the attacks.

Maddox and Mason were threatened by Cuomo with prosecution. In June 1988, Tawana’s mother, Glenda Brawley, was fined and sentenced to 30 days in jail for refusing to cooperate. Like a runaway slave with a bounty on her head, she sought refuge in a church.

Brawley and her family were chased all over the country. Mason and Maddox were subsequently barred from practicing law, and Sharpton has been constantly hounded by the press in connection with the case.

Some eleven months after Brawley was found on the side of the highway, the majority-white grand jury dismissed her accusations as a hoax.

The latest reactionary phase, in a country obsessed with denying its racism, is now being played out through Pagones’ case against Mason, Maddox and Sharpton.

In a defamation lawsuit involving a public official like Pagones, the burden of proof falls on the accuser to show that the defendant deliberately lied, with malice or a reckless disregard for the truth.

Legal experts agree that this challenge is extremely difficult to meet. The essence of the defense is not whether or not the statement is true but whether or not the defendant believed the statement was true, said Herschel P. Fink, a Detroit libel lawyer quoted in the New York Times of Dec. 30, 1991.

The jury, composed of four whites and two Blacks, deliberated for four days. They found the three advisers guilty of ten of 22 statements the prosecution claimed to be defamatory. One Black juror reportedly refused to sign the verdict sheet, but in a civil case the jury’s vote need not be unanimous.

Sharpton, whose popularity took the ruling class by surprise last year when he almost captured the Democratic Party nomination for mayor of New York, took the biggest hit. He was charged with defaming Pagones seven times. Maddox faces two charges and Mason one.

According to attorney Victor Covner, a defamation specialist, only one of the 22 statements introduced by prosecution lawyer William E. Stanton meets the defamation test. And even that one, made by C. Vernon Mason after the grand jury report, might not stand on appeal. In a discussion July 15 on WBAI-FM, Covner pointed out that the great majority of the statements were made before the grand jury had issued its findings.

To a large degree, it was the grand jury report, which the defendants deemed a fraud, that was apparently critical in the jury’s decision, said the July 16-22 Amsterdam News.

At the beginning of the case, Judge S. Barrett Hickman had instructed the jury that the truth was already established in the grand jury report. It was the centerpiece of Pagones’s case. But the defendants were barred from introducing portions of the document and minutes of the 1988 proceeding to refute the accuracy of its conclusions.

The jury is now considering punitive and compensatory damages against Sharpton, Mason and Maddox.

This is a battle that obviously is not over, asserted Sharpton’s lawyer, Michael A. Hardy, after the verdict was announced. An appeal is planned.

Racism is like a festering sore in the U.S. As this case shows, you don’t have to be a revolutionary to be a target. Anyone who challenges the self-serving selective system of bourgeois justice must be prepared to counter the retribution of the capitalist state.

The Pagones libel case is, in fact, an attempt to chill all progressive activism, particularly if aimed against the entrenched racism underpinning the profit-driven economic system.

Fortunately for the anti-racist struggle in the U.S., not everyone is being fooled.