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Brawley defamation case gets off to heated start

Tawana Brawley
Tuesday night, Tawana Brawley broke a long-standing public silence   
In this story: December 3, 1997
Web posted at: 10:04 p.m. EST (0304 GMT)

POUGHKEEPSIE, New York (CNN) -- The trial of three men accused of defamation in the racially charged Tawana Brawley rape case got off to a heated start Wednesday with a confrontation between the judge and defense lawyers.

Minister and civil rights activist Al Sharpton and attorneys Alton Maddox and C. Vernon Mason are the defendants in the $150 million civil lawsuit. They are accused of defaming Steven Pagones, a former prosecutor whom they repeatedly accused in 1987 of raping Brawley, who is black and was 15 at the time.

But even before the opening statements were made, the defense lawyers had shouted at the judge and refused to be seated, and the jury had to be excused while order was restored.

The furor began when state Supreme Court Justice S. Barrett Hickman ruled that a grand jury report could be used as evidence against the defendants, and that the defense could not challenge its veracity.

The 1988 report concluded that the widely reported abduction and rape of Brawley was a hoax. It exonerated all the men accused in the attack, including Pagones.

Brawley broke a 10-year public silence Tuesday night by appearing at a rally for the defendants and insisted that her story was true.

Hickman noted that Sharpton, Maddox and Mason had an opportunity to appear before the grand jury but refused. He read from a letter from the state attorney general's office indicating that the trio -- who became Brawley's advisers -- had been asked to help the grand jury.

Brawley supporters mutter 'white justice'

Maddox leaped from his chair and said he'd never seen the letter, while many of the estimated 100 Brawley supporters in the courtroom muttered about "white justice."

Hickman tried to begin the trial and even seated the jury, but excused it after 20 minutes when the defense lawyers refused to sit down until they'd had a chance to discuss the letter.

Once order was restored, Pagones' attorney Bill Stanton told the jury that the Brawley incident began "one of the most bizarre stories in this country's history." Lacking any evidence, he said, Sharpton, Mason and Maddox went from TV talk show to news conference claiming that Pagones was involved in the attack.

Stanton said Pagones was accused not only of abduction and rape, but of killing Harry Crist, a suicide victim whom the defendants claimed was Pagones' accomplice.

"The Brawley family hatched this story -- these defendants were the screen writers," Stanton said. "The only reason why we are here is that Steven Pagones had the courage to sue these guys."

Representing himself, Maddox told the jury that the purpose of the case was to "not let some judge's son think he can get away with murder, rape and kidnapping." Maddox likened Pagones, whose father is a retired judge, to a Kennedy, born to power and able to get away with misdeeds.

Attorney decries discrimination

Mason's attorney, Stephen Jackson, told the six jurors that "the criminal justice system is discriminatory against minorities."

Sharpton nearly won the Democratic Party nomination for this year's New York mayoral election and is considering running for a Brooklyn congressional seat. His attorney Michael Hardy, who will make his opening remarks Thursday, told reporters, "I'm not going to allow Al Sharpton to be ruined by the white justice system."

Brawley, who has been living in Maryland under different names, has failed to respond to subpoenas in the case. But Pagones, 36, said Tuesday he was willing to waive monetary damages against Brawley if she testifies at the defamation trial.

Reuters contributed to this report.


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