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Echoes of the Brawley Case: Accused Becomes the Accuser

Ten years after racially charged case, sparks still fly as a white man presses for damages from blacks.

In the history of race relations, the case of Tawana Brawley may go down as one of the more divisive moments.

In 1988, Ms. Brawley, a black New York teenager, said she was raped by a group of white men, possibly white policemen.

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The case sparked a wrenching national debate - similar to the more-recent stir over the beatings of Rodney King in Los Angeles and Abner Louima in New York City - about how largely white police departments treat minorities.

Mario Cuomo, New York's governor at the time, expressed his shock. Celebrities donated money.

The incident also became a rallying cry for black civil rights leaders in New York, whose accusations served to mobilize the minority community. On TV talk shows, they claimed to have indisputable proof of the attack.

Yet when a grand jury investigated, Brawley's claims didn't stand up.

Today the civil rights leaders still stand by their story. But one of the white men they accused has sued them for defamation. After an eight-month trial, the jury is deliberating and could come to a verdict early this week.

Now, 10 years later, one of the lingering questions in the Brawley case: How far can minority leaders go in making political capital of racially charged incidents? Indeed, no matter what the verdict, the Brawley case will likely help set the standard for any future discussion of such cases.

FOR now, the jury is deciding if the Rev. Al Sharpton, Alton Maddox, and C. Vernon Mason defamed Steven Pagones, whom they claimed participated in the rape. Mr. Pagones, a former Dutchess Country assistant district attorney, was exonerated by a special grand jury, which determined that the Brawley incident was a hoax.

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Despite this finding, Pagones decided he had to go to trial to clear his name. "My purpose in coming to court was to show that there is nothing to connect me to Tawana Brawley nor was there anything to show that anything happened to Tawana Brawley," says Pagones. "If I didn't bring the suit, if I didn't try to hold them accountable, then there would be nothing stopping them the next time."

But the defendants see the trial in racial terms. During their cross examination of witnesses, they often asked racially charged questions. They tried to keep race as the key issue. "Steven Pagones has no intent to ever collect any money. This is about racism and politics," says Mr. Mason.

Despite their efforts to make the case about racism, the wider civil rights community stayed away from the red brick court house here. The Rev. Jesse Jackson, for example, did not come to the trial.

In a way, the three defendants were always outside the mainstream civil rights movement. "They are to the left of the civil rights groups, on the extreme side and more grass rootsy," says Randolph Scott-McLaughlin, a law professor at Pace University Law School. "They see themselves in a more activist mode."

The three men made their mark in 1986 after a mob in Howard Beach, Queens, attacked three black men whose car had broken down. An automobile hit and killed one of the men. Sharpton, Maddox, and Mason led marches, appeared on talk shows, and agitated. "The climate at the time made the Tawana Brawley allegations so easily believed," recalls Mr. Scott-McLaughlin, who has followed the case closely.

But former New York Mayor Ed Koch says Sharpton inflamed racial tensions. "He told us he took marchers into Bensonhurst [site of another racial incident] to inflame whites and get pictures of white fanatics holding up watermelons," says Mr. Koch. "He wanted to inflame blacks."

Since then, Sharpton has become more mainstream. He has run in the Democratic primary for governor and mayor. "He has managed to sound like a reasonable candidate," says Robert Lieberman, a political scientist at Columbia University in New York.

In fact, Sharpton has sometimes collected a considerable number of votes, mainly among minorities. But if Sharpton loses this case, Mr. Lieberman says, "It will make it much more difficult to win an election in a constituency that is not majority black."

Sharpton has also learned to use the airwaves to spread his stories. Shows such as "Geraldo" or "Phil Donohue" booked the men to talk about race or specific cases. In 1988, on television, he accused Pagones of kidnapping Brawley and raping her. "We are saying Steven Pagones did it. Now if Steven Pagones didn't do it, why isn't he suing us?" asked Sharpton.

If Pagones wins his case, he will seek financial damages for such statements.

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