Black Teenager Claims to Have Been Gang-Raped by Police Officers Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Tawana Brawley, an African American teenager living in upstate New York, alleged that she was abducted and gang-raped by several white men, including police officers. Her claim, which turned out to be a hoax, nevertheless focused public attention on racial inequalities within the U.S. legal system. Critics following the case accused local police of covering up the charges and the justice system of ignoring, or downplaying, crimes against African Americans.

Summary of Event

Tawana Brawley, a fifteen-year-old African American girl living in Wappingers Falls, New York, failed to return home on November 24, 1987, prompting a neighborhood search by her parents, Glenda Brawley and Ralph King. Brawley was discovered by a neighbor several days later, on November 28, outside the Brawley family’s previous residence, the Pavilion apartments complex. [kw]Raped by Police Officers, Black Teenager Claims to Have Been Gang- (Nov. 28, 1987) Police corruption Brawley, Tawana Sharpton, Al Rape;of Tawana Brawley[Brawley] Police corruption Brawley, Tawana Sharpton, Al Rape;of Tawana Brawley[Brawley] [g]United States;Nov. 28, 1987: Black Teenager Claims to Have Been Gang-Raped by Police Officers[02310] [c]Hoaxes, frauds, and charlatanism;Nov. 28, 1987: Black Teenager Claims to Have Been Gang-Raped by Police Officers[02310] [c]Racism;Nov. 28, 1987: Black Teenager Claims to Have Been Gang-Raped by Police Officers[02310] [c]Law and the courts;Nov. 28, 1987: Black Teenager Claims to Have Been Gang-Raped by Police Officers[02310] [c]Social issues and reform;Nov. 28, 1987: Black Teenager Claims to Have Been Gang-Raped by Police Officers[02310] [c]Women’s issues;Nov. 28, 1987: Black Teenager Claims to Have Been Gang-Raped by Police Officers[02310] [c]Families and children;Nov. 28, 1987: Black Teenager Claims to Have Been Gang-Raped by Police Officers[02310] Mason, C. Vernon Maddox, Alton H., Jr. Pagones, Steven

A disheveled Brawley was found lying on the ground inside a garbage bag up to her neck, appearing weak and partially conscious. Her clothes were ripped, her hair was matted, and feces covered her arms, legs, chest, and hair. She was taken to St. Francis Hospital in Poughkeepsie, New York, where medical staff discovered burn marks in the crotch area of her pants, a grayish cottonlike material in her nose and ears, and several racial slurs written on her chest and stomach in a charcoal-like substance. Brawley exhibited no major injuries aside from a small bruise behind her ear, which surprised medical staff. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) joined the investigation because of the racial slurs on Brawley’s body. The slurs would make the case a hate crime as well.

On November 29, Brawley remained silent during most of her first interview with a local white police officer, but she began to disclose details about the alleged rape after a black police officer was assigned to the interview upon her request. Brawley revealed that her assailants had been three white men, including police officers, and in a later interview she alleged that they had kidnapped, sodomized, and repeatedly raped her in the woods behind her old apartment building during the four days she was missing. Brawley did not name any of her attackers during the interviews, and many of the details concerning her abduction and assault remained unclear. On January 13, 1988, Brawley and her mother, Glenda, were due to testify in front of a grand jury at the Dutchess County Courthouse in Poughkeepsie, but neither Brawley nor her mother appeared. By this time, Brawley was telling her friends that she was attacked by six white men instead of three. The media began to discuss the grisly details, and the mysteries, of the alleged abduction and sexual assault.

With growing public interest in the Brawley case, two black civil rights activists, lawyers Alton Maddox and C. Vernon Mason, began to rally behind Brawley and claim that local government officials were attempting to cover up the case to protect the white police officers who allegedly raped her. Support for this claim grew because of suspicious behavior and unexplained appointment changes in legal counsel in the criminal case. Three different prosecutors had been assigned to the case by New York governor Mario Cuomo; the first two prosecutors left after citing a conflict of interest in the case. Also, a local police officer committed suicide around this time, stirring further public distrust. In Maddox’s and Mason’s view, these events validated their accusations of a police cover-up. The Brawley media frenzy reached its height when Pentecostal minister and social activist the Reverend Al Sharpton began organizing rallies, holding conferences, and appearing on talk shows to demand that justice be served in the Brawley case.

Suspects in the Brawley case were left unnamed until March 13, 1988, when Brawley, Maddox, Mason, and Sharpton accused Steven Pagones, a white Dutchess County assistant district attorney, of being involved in the gang rape. Pagones, who had once lived near the Brawley family, received death threats, and the media and Brawley’s supporters demanded his arrest. Protest marches that demanded racial equality and justice in the case became more widespread and drew the attention of celebrity supporters, including comedian Cosby, Bill Bill Cosby, boxing promoter King, Don Don King, and professional boxer Tyson, Mike Mike Tyson. Public donations for the Brawley family began to pour in as well.

By the end of June, the numerous discrepancies and a lack of concrete facts in the case led to increased public frustration and outrage. Most damning were the results of Brawley’s medical examination, conducted the day she was found in the woods outside the apartment complex. The exam revealed that she had no bodily injuries consistent with sexual assault, and the only DNA found on her body was that of Brawley herself. Experts on rape testified that Brawley’s story mimicked the testimony of those found to have falsely alleged rape.

Despite the burn marks on Brawley’s pants, medical personnel found no sign of a burn to her body. Also, Brawley had been discovered outdoors during the cold month of November, but she showed no signs of exposure; indeed, the exam showed that she was well nourished, a finding that contradicted her claim that she had been abducted four days earlier. Prosecutors claimed that the cottonlike substance found in her nose and ears had been used to diminish the smell of feces that covered most of her body, except her face, and that the use of cotton was simply uncharacteristic of a hate crime. Prosecutors also claimed that the racial slurs found on her body were written by Brawley herself with burned wet cotton, identical to a substance found under her fingernails at the hospital.

The investigation also identified witnesses who said they saw Brawley at parties during the four-day-period she claimed she was abducted. The neighbor who first discovered Brawley on November 28 testified that she saw the girl climb into the garbage bag herself. Witness testimony also disclosed that Glenda Brawley’s alibi the day her daughter was found was not concrete. The anomalies in the case pointed to a hoax.

Further details emerged as the case moved forward. Brawley had a history of running away from home, and her parents, particularly her stepfather, Ralph King, were known to be physically violent. The Brawleys also had financial problems at the time of the alleged rape, so they benefitted from the monies they received from sympathetic supporters.

Tawana Brawley, left, with Al Sharpton at a rally protesting Brawley’s mistreatment in her case alleging that she was raped.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

The media began to report on the court testimony and the evidence that suggested Brawley’s allegations were a farce. In response, her advisers scheduled a news conference so that she could counter the hoax claim. She never got the chance. On October 6, New York Supreme Court justice Ingrassia, Angelo J. Angelo J. Ingrassia concluded from the grand jury’s 170-page report that the gang-rape was fabricated, that Brawley’s injuries had been self-inflicted, and that the accusations against Pagones were unfounded. Brawley never testified.

On May 21, 1990, attorney Maddox was disbarred from practicing law by the New York Supreme Court. In November, 1997, Pagones filed defamation lawsuits against Mason, Maddox, Sharpton, and Brawley, seeking $395 million in damages; he was awarded $345,000 from Brawley’s advisers and $185,000 from Brawley on July 13, 1998.

In the meantime, Brawley maintained that she was raped. She also continued to receive support from Maddox and Mason, as well as from others who believed that justice was not served. Sharpton declined to pursue the case further. In November, 2007, Brawley’s parents requested that their daughter’s case be reopened and that Brawley receive not only justice but also monetary compensation.


Brawley’s gang-rape allegations and their revelation as a hoax became a catalyst for intense discussion and debate about racism and racial inequalities in the United States. Despite suspicions that the Brawley family, as well as Maddox, Mason, and Sharpton, had used the case to further their own personal agendas, whether financial or political, the hoax focused attention on a broken legal system, a racist America, and a sensationalist media. Polls conducted during the investigations revealed a wide gap between blacks and whites on the question of whether Brawley was telling the truth.

The case also reveals the extent to which a person may go in seeking financial or political gain. The Brawleys concocted a hoax so real that it captured a legal system during months of grand-jury investigations, which included interviews of close to two hundred witnesses. In his opinion in Pagones’s defamation suits in 1998, New York Supreme Court justice S. Barrett Hickman wrote,

It is probable that in the history of this state [New York], never has a teenager turned the prosecutorial and judicial systems literally upside down with such false claims. The cost of the lengthy, thorough and complete grand jury investigation was reportedly estimated at one-half million dollars. Police corruption Brawley, Tawana Sharpton, Al Rape;of Tawana Brawley[Brawley]

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Chancer, Lynn S. High-profile Crimes: When Legal Cases Become Social Causes. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005. An account of the “polarizing” criminal cases of the 1980’s and 1990’s, including the Brawley hoax.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Glaberson, William. “Plaintiff Is Awarded $345,000 in Brawley Defamation Suit.” The New York Times, July 30, 1998. Details the defamation lawsuit filed by Steven Pagones following his exoneration in the Brawley gang-rape case.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McFadden, Robert D., et al. Outrage: The Story Behind the Tawana Brawley Hoax. New York: Bantam Books, 1990. Provides a narrative of the Brawley case from the point of view of several New York Times reporters.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Nadel, Adam. “Parents Want ’Hoax’ Rape Reopened—Accusations in Brawley Case Ignited Racial Tensions Decades Ago.” Times Union (Albany, New York), November 19, 2007. Gives a brief report of the continued support and pursuit of justice for Brawley by her family.

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