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2 December 2021

How the system failed both Anthony Broadwater and Alice Sebold

The writer of The Lovely Bones has apologised to the man wrongly convicted of her rape. She is not the first survivor to have blamed an innocent man.

By Sophie McBain

Readers of Alice Sebold’s 1999 memoir Lucky know her side of the story: her violent rape and its long and painful aftermath, the subsequent trial of her attacker – a man who was caught after she recognised him on the street, five months after her assault.

Anthony Broadwater’s story has been silenced for decades.

In 1982 he was convicted of raping Sebold. He spent over 16 years in prison and 23 years on the sex offenders’ register. On 22 November he was exonerated by a New York court. His case was revisited only because Timothy Mucciante, an executive producer working on a film adaptation of Lucky, identified so many concerning details while reading Sebold’s memoir that he used his own money to hire a private investigator. The investigator, who also became convinced of Broadwater’s innocence, passed on his findings to lawyers.

We know only the broad outline of Broadwater’s story. It’s 1982, he’s 20 years old, a US marine who has returned home to Syracuse to see his sick father. He’s walking down the street when he recognises a policeman. “Hey, do I know you from somewhere?” he says – or something to that effect. We don’t know when he first learns of the mishearing on which the next 39 years of his life hinges: Sebold, standing between him and his acquaintance, spots him with a jolt of recognition. She is convinced he is her rapist, and thinks he is taunting her. “Hey girl, do I know you from somewhere?” she hears.

He is arrested, and later joins a police line-up. Sebold, invisible behind the one-way glass, doesn’t pick him. She identifies another man, standing on his left. When does he learn of this? Does he allow himself to feel optimism that this nightmare will soon be over? They have nothing on him: he has a clean criminal record, she failed to pick him out and he looks nothing like the police composite sketch either. His friend, the policeman, will testify that Broadwater was greeting him. The only thing that linked Broadwater to Sebold was a now-discredited form of hair analysis.

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And this is where my imagination starts to fail me. How do you begin to fathom the helplessness and panic he must have felt during the trial? Can you imagine serving 16 years in prison for something you didn’t do?

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Broadwater, now 61, married a year after leaving prison but never had children; he said he didn’t want them to be tarred by association. “On my two hands, I can count the people that allowed me to grace their homes and dinners, and I don’t get past 10,” he told the New York Times. “That’s very traumatic to me.”

The best thing to happen to him was that the story in which he was cast as the villain became infamous: if Mucciante had never come across the script for Lucky, Broadwater’s name might never have been cleared. According to the New York Times, Broadwater – who was released in 1998 – was still trying to save up enough money to pay for his own lawyer.

The knee-jerk reaction is to blame Sebold. There are discrepancies in her memoir. She writes that Broadwater and the man she picked out of the line-up were like “identical twins”. Photographs of the line-up show they are not. She writes that the deputy district attorney later told her that Broadwater had insisted on bringing a friend to deliberately mislead her. If this conversation did take place, the attorney was not only breaching ethical duties but also lying: we know now that Broadwater and the other man in the line up did not know each other. Mucciante told the Sunday Times that he had concerns about how she represented the trial: she refers to scientific reports that he could find no record of.

Many journalists have noted Sebold’s jarring description in Lucky of the “fear I felt around certain black men since the rape”. They note also that she writes “this wouldn’t be the first time, or the last, that I wished my rapist had been white”. This suggests some awareness of the racial dynamics. Even so, questions are being asked: if Broadwater had been white, would she have picked the wrong man in a line-up, or maintained her confidence in his guilt even after she had done so? If Broadwater had been white, would he have been convicted on such flimsy evidence? To make up for her earlier misidentification, Sebold was asked by the prosecution to point out her attacker in court. He was the only black man in the room.

But placing the blame squarely with Sebold lets everyone else off the hook too quickly. Of course she wouldn’t have wanted for the wrong man to be imprisoned. If she – a teenage survivor of a devastating assault – had too much faith in the American legal system to deliver justice, so did many of her readers, who did not notice the problems that Mucciante did.

Over the past three decades the Innocence Project has overturned 375 wrongful convictions in the US, of people who on average have spent 14 years in prison for crimes they did not commit. Over 60 per cent of those exonerated are black, and over two-thirds of their cases hinged on eyewitness misidentification. A 2017 research paper found that, judging from exonerations, a black prisoner serving time for sexual assault is three-and-a-half times more likely to be innocent than a white sexual assault convict. It noted that many “convictions that led to sexual assault exonerations were marred by implicit biases, racially tainted official misconduct and, in some cases, explicit racism.”

Sebold is therefore not the first rape survivor grappling with the terrible knowledge that they blamed an innocent man. Jennifer Thompson, who was raped at knifepoint in 1984, identified the wrong perpetrator, a man named Ronald Cotton, who was jailed for ten years before being exonerated on DNA evidence in 1995. Remarkably, the pair became friends after. They wrote a book together, campaigned for greater support for other exonorees, many of whom struggle to rebuild their lives after decades behind bars, and became advocates for restorative justice. Thompson’s charity, Healing Justice, supports other exonorees and crime victims, and acknowledges that all parties suffer deeply in the aftermath of a wrongful conviction.

On 1 December, Sebold apologised to Broadwater. “I am sorry most of all for the fact that the life you could have led was unjustly robbed from you, and I know that no apology can change what happened to you and never will,” she wrote. “Today, American society is starting to acknowledge and address the systemic issues in our judicial system that too often means that justice for some comes at the expense of others. Unfortunately, this was not a debate, or a conversation, or even a whisper when I reported my rape in 1981.”

Broadwater said he was “relieved” that she apologised. Writing in UnHerd, the critic Philip Hensher noted “her reliance on the passive voice, robbed of agency” and questioned her sincerity. Sebold was right, however, to point out that ultimately the criminal justice system failed Broadwater – and that it had failed her, too. Not every story breaks down simply into victim and perpetrator.

[See also: The reckoning: rape culture and the crisis in British schools]