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For Black History Month, we will highlight stories and statistics that aim to demonstrate the experience of being Black and wrongfully convicted. Today, we are discussing the staggering fact that innocent Black people are significantly more likely to be wrongfully convicted of sexual assault.

A March 2017 report by the National Registry of Exonerations titled “Race and Wrongful Convictions in the United States” found that Black defendants convicted of murder, sexual assault, and drug crimes are more likely than White defendants to later be found innocent. Perhaps the most shocking statistic to come from this report is that a Black person incarcerated for sexual assault is three-and-a-half times more likely to be innocent than a White person convicted of sexual assault.

The NRE’s report notes that there is no one explanation for this, but some causes they identified include the inevitable consequences of patterns in crime and punishment and deliberate acts of racism. Considering wrongful sexual assault convictions specifically, false allegations are a leading cause. Currently, more than half of all wrongful convictions can be traced back to a false allegation or false testimony. Because Black people represent nearly half of all exonerations, the burden of false allegations falls disproportionately on them. 

Why are these false allegations so powerful?

False allegationsparticularly about Black men being rapistshave been reinforced over and over again in our history. While shameful, America embraced the allegation a century ago, and America embraces the allegation today. It is imperative to know that the allegation is rooted in history to fully understand how ingrained it truly is in our society.

“Whether it’s a woman in Michigan falsely claiming that a group of Black men kidnapped, beat and raped her; another woman claiming a Black man kidnapped her 3-year-old and 14-month-old sons (whom she actually killed); the infamous Amanda Knox accusing a Black man of the heinous murder she was initially convicted of; or even a man claiming that Black men stabbed his wife to death (whom he actually killed),” Martenzie Johnson wrote in an article for The Undefeated. “In each instance, the initial story was believable because of the troubling belief that a Black man is capable of such a thing. It’s because we’ve always been told this is what black men do.”

Johnson draws the connection between modern-day attitudes about Black men perpetrating violence to the abhorrent film “The Birth of a Nation.” The film, which was screened at the White House in 1915, celebrates the Ku Klux Klan as heroes after a White woman jumps off a cliff to avoid the risk of being raped by a Black man.

“The Birth of a Nation” is a necessary part of American history to discuss because it systematized the idea that Black men are violent rapists. Again, it was screened at the White House for a viewing by our country’s leaders. Although that was over 100 years ago, the film’s message is still ingrained in our society and in our justice system. In fact, we embrace the film’s message every time we meet false allegations with unwavering support for the accuser and extreme animosity for the accused before there is a guilty verdict.

“The Birth of a Nation” is not the only thing that cemented the stereotype about Black men in our country’s collective consciousness. But it certainly set the stage for future perpetuations of the stereotype.

Brian Banks

At 17-years-old, Brian Banks was a football star bound for the University of Southern California on a full-ride scholarship when his life was uprooted by his classmate Wanetta Gibson.

Gibson and Banks had a consensual sexual encounter in a stairwell at Long Beach Polytechnic High School. Later that day, Gibson told authorities that Banks kidnapped and raped her. Facing 41 years to life in prison, Banks accepted a plea deal of six years incarceration and a lifetime as a registered sex offender. Banks had to make this unimaginable decision because the idea that he kidnapped and raped Gibson was instantly accepted as truth; in fact, he was booked in jail just hours after Gibson made the false allegation.

Ten years later, when Banks was no longer incarcerated but still facing daily challenges as a registered sex offender, Gibson recanted her allegation and admitted that she fabricated the story. Following the recantation, Banks was exonerated with the help of the California Innocence Project in 2012. He signed with the Atlanta Falcons in 2013 and now works in the NFL’s Department of Operations, but his life is forever altered by Gibson’s lie and the criminal justice system’s willingness to act on her lie without evidence.

Banks’s story is told in the 2018 movie “Brian Banks,” which is currently on Netflix. 

“Any Four Black Men Will Do.”

One year before Brian Banks was falsely accused, Iowa State University student, Katie Robb, reported that four Black men kidnapped her at gunpoint and took her to a wooded area to rape her. The allegation was front-page news the next morning and the search for any four Black men driving a Sedan ensued. Two days later, Robb admitted that she lied.

If any four Black men driving a Sedan were found, who knows what the outcome would have been for them? History tells us that it likely would have been four wrongful convictions. 

Tracey Owens Patton and Julie Snyder-Yulu, the authors of “Any Four Black Men Will Do: Rape, Race, and the Ultimate Scapegoat,” a study that examines institutional responses to the Iowa State case, argue that false allegations against Black men are upheld by a desire to protect the historically-based stereotypes that inform modern-day hierarchies.

“Institutions such as the media, universities, and campus police sanctify White patriarchal hegemonic hierarchies when investigating the “truth” is set aside in favor of the status quo,” they wrote.

The study describes Black men as the ultimate scapegoat for those who aim to protect this hierarchy.

“Robb’s falsification fed into the national mythology of Black male violence (i.e., Black men are brutes, Black men commit crimes, Black men rape White women) that indirectly justifies the policing of the hyper-visible “other” to protect the White majority,” they wrote.

The Central Park Five

About 30 teenage boys spent the evening in New York City’s Central Park on April 19, 1989. Some were simply hanging out, and others were injuring people in the park, throwing rocks, and harassing transients. That same night, a 28-year-old White woman, Trisha Meili, was jogging in the park when she was attacked and brutally raped. All of the teenage boys in the park, who were predominately Black and Hispanic, became suspects.

Kevin Richardson, 14, Raymond Santana, 14, Antron McCray, 15, Yusef Salaam, 15, and Korey Wise, 16, emerged as the accused and became known as the Central Park Five. They did not commit the crime. They did not see a jogger. None of their DNA was consistent with the DNA from the crime scene. Yet, all five boys were wrongfully convicted and served six to 13 years in prison for the attack. This was made possible by coerced confessions.

The Central Park Five case demonstrates the power of coercion because all five boys confessed. During the 14-30 hours of interrogation that each boy experienced, several coercive tactics were employed, including leading a boy to believe that another boy was getting beat up in the next room and that he would be next if he did not cooperate, to convincing them that they could go home if they would just say what happened. Ultimately, their confessions did not match the crime, but they were the sole basis for the wrongful convictions nonetheless.On December 19, 2002, the Central Park Five convictions were vacated following a confession from Matias Reyes, a serial rapist whose DNA was consistent with the DNA from the crime that occurred 13 years prior.

“We were branded ‘monsters’ and rapists, high profile New Yorkers called for our execution, and we lost a combined 33.5 years of our youth in prison,” Salaam, who serves as an Innocence Project Board Member, said.

Support racial justice work in Montana:

The Montana Innocence Project works to dismantle the power of false allegations, but here are some other racial justice organizations in Montana to support today:

  1. The Montana Racial Equity Project
  2. The University of Montana’s African American Studies Department 
  3. Montana State University’s Black Student Union