Anthony Broadwater always maintained his innocence. In the 40 years since he was accused and ultimately convicted for the brutal 1981 rape of then-18-year-old Syracuse University freshman Alice Sebold—including 16 years spent in prison and 5 denied appeals for parole—he never wavered in disavowing any involvement in the assault that took place in a desolate tunnel in the upstate New York city’s Thornden Park.
Last week, after decades of suffering stigmatization as a registered sex offender, a status which impacted everything from Broadwater’s eligibility for employment to his painful decision not to have children, the 61-year-old was finally exonerated as his conviction was overturned due to flawed prosecution and “junk science” in a Syracuse court on November 22.
From the New York Times:
In their motion to vacate the conviction, the defense lawyers J. David Hammond and Melissa K. Swartz wrote that the case had relied solely on Ms. Sebold’s identification of Mr. Broadwater in the courtroom and a now-discredited method of microscopic hair analysis.
They also argued that prosecutorial misconduct was a factor during the police lineup — that the prosecutor had falsely told Ms. Sebold that Mr. Broadwater and the man next to him were friends who had purposely appeared in the lineup together to trick her — and that it had improperly influenced Ms. Sebold’s later testimony.
The motion to vacate the conviction was joined by Onondaga County District Attorney William J. Fitzpatrick, who noted that witness identifications of strangers, particularly those that cross racial lines, are often unreliable. Ms. Sebold is white, and Mr. Broadwater is Black.
“I’m not going to sully this proceeding by saying, ‘I’m sorry.’ That doesn’t cut it,” Onondaga County District Attorney William Fitzpatrick told Broadwater in court, according to Syracuse.com. “This should never have happened.”
But Broadwater really wanted an apology from Sebold, telling the Times: “I just hope and pray that maybe Ms. Sebold will come forward and say, ‘Hey, I made a grave mistake,’ and give me an apology. I sympathize with her. But she was wrong.”
In the intervening decades, Sebold had gone on to become the author of the number one bestselling novels The Lovely Bones and The Almost Moon. But in 1999—ironically, the same year Broadwater was released—she’d launched her writing career with Lucky, a searing memoir which graphically recounted the details of her rape. It also included her subsequent identification of Broadwater, whom she renamed “Gregory Madison,” as her attacker following an encounter with a Black man on the street months later.
“He was smiling as he approached. He recognized me. It was a stroll in the park to him; he had met an acquaintance on the street,” she wrote (h/t Los Angeles Times). “‘Hey, girl,’ he said. ‘Don’t I know you from somewhere?’”
She recalled instantly knowing the man was her attacker. “I looked directly at him. Knew his face had been the face over me in the tunnel,” she wrote.
It was local police who, after failing to identify a suspect during a sweep, fingered a then-20-year-old Broadwater as having been in the area, though Sebold subsequently failed to identify him in a police lineup. She would later write that Broadwater and the Black man next to him that she did pick looked “almost identical.”
Sebold’s narrative recollection went on to express concern for how her uncertainty might bolster Broadwater’s defense. “A panicked white girl saw a black man on the street,” she wrote. “He spoke familiarly to her and in her mind she connected this to her rape. She was accusing the wrong man.”
As we now know, she had accused the wrong man—but her initial version of events became a number one bestseller; one that was being adapted as a film when executive producer of Red Badge Films Tim Mucciante became concerned by discrepancies in the recounting of the trial.
“I started having some doubts, not about the story that Alice told about her assault, which was tragic, but the second part of her book about the trial, which didn’t hang together,” he told the Times. He would later pull out of the production, and the adaptation was subsequently stalled due to loss of financing.
After dropping out of the project in June over his concerns, Mucciante hired a private investigator to look into the evidence against Broadwater, only to learn that it didn’t hold up. The PI suggested Mucciante should bring the results of the investigation to a lawyer. That lawyer, David Hammond, wound up representing Broadwater successfully in court along with defense attorney Melissa K. Swartz.
Eight days after his exoneration, Broadwater finally got the apology he’d been hoping for. On Tuesday, Sebold, now 58, published an extensive statement on Medium, expressing profound regret for implicating Broadwater in the crime.
“First, I want to say that I am truly sorry to Anthony Broadwater and I deeply regret what you have been through,” she began. “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.
“40 years ago, as a traumatized 18-year-old rape victim, I chose to put my faith in the American legal system,” she continued. “My goal in 1982 was justice—not to perpetuate injustice. And certainly not to forever, and irreparably, alter a young man’s life by the very crime that had altered mine.
“I am grateful that Mr. Broadwater has finally been vindicated, but the fact remains that 40 years ago, he became another young Black man brutalized by our flawed legal system. I will forever be sorry for what was done to him,” she added, also explaining her delayed response to the court’s new ruling:
It has taken me these past eight days to comprehend how this could have happened. It has taken me these past eight days to comprehend how this could have happened. I will continue to struggle with the role that I unwittingly played within a system that sent an innocent man to jail. I will also grapple with the fact that my rapist will, in all likelihood, never be known, may have gone on to rape other women, and certainly will never serve the time in prison that Mr. Broadwater did.
Sebold’s publisher, Scribner, has also responded to Broadwater’s exoneration, announcing on Tuesday that, in agreement with the author, it would cease distribution of all formats of Lucky “while Sebold and Scribner together consider how the work might be revised.”
The gesture is appropriate, given that there are now two clear victims in Sebold’s retelling of the story, but many have rightly raised questions of how restitution might be paid to Broadwater. Specifically, there is consideration of the innumerable profits garnered by Lucky—which has sold over a million copies to date in addition to being optioned for the screen, might benefit the man whose implication is also central to its plot.
The truth is, while Lucky did cement Sebold’s success—after her own unspeakable trauma—the city of Syracuse most clearly owes Broadwater restitution. But while nothing can give him back “the life [he] could have led [that] was unjustly robbed from [him],” given Sebold’s misidentification, perhaps it’s also not entirely unreasonable to surmise that some retroactive profit-sharing from their shared story—on the part of Sebold, Scribner or both—might also help restore at least some semblance of wholeness to the life left for the 61-year-old, as well as bolstering that much-needed apology.
“Throughout my life, I have always tried to act with integrity and to speak from a place of honesty,” Sebold said in conclusion of her statement. “And so, I state here clearly that I will remain sorry for the rest of my life that while pursuing justice through the legal system, my own misfortune resulted in Mr. Broadwater’s unfair conviction for which he has served not only 16 years behind bars but in ways that further serve to wound and stigmatize, nearly a full life sentence.”