(The Root) — In 1987 a 15-year-old black girl from upstate New York became the center of a national media circus. Tawana Brawley had gone missing, which, of course, wasn't the story. It was when she was found that all hell broke loose.
After her four-day absence, a neighbor discovered Brawley, seemingly unconscious and unresponsive, lying in a trash bag. Her hair had been cut, and her clothes cut and burned. Her body was smeared with feces, and the n-word and "bitch" were written upside down in charcoal on her chest. She was taken to the hospital, where she indicated to an officer that she'd been dragged into the woods and repeatedly raped by six men, one of them a cop.
Seven months and a media firestorm later, a grand jury investigation found "there was no medical or forensic evidence that a sexual assault was committed on Tawana Brawley." It's believed that Brawley created the elaborate hoax to avoid being punished by her stepfather for staying out late and missing school.
In 1998 Steven Pagones, a former New York prosecutor and one of the men Brawley accused of raping her, sued Brawley for defamation. She was found liable for $190,000 at 9 percent annual interest. The ruling judge said of Brawley, "[She] appears caught up in her own fiction and unwilling or unable to recognize the grief and hurt she caused those she wrongly accused."
She never paid her debt. Instead, Brawley promptly disappeared, changing her name and Social Security number. From then until now, she's never explained what happened, never provided proof to back up her claims, never apologized to the men accused of raping her, their families or anyone who believed her story.
Brawley is back in the news again, more than 25 years later. On Sunday the New York Post reported in a cover story that Pagones had received 10 checks totaling $3,764.61.
In December the Post tracked down Brawley in Virginia, where she works as a nurse and is raising her daughter. In January Pagones filed court papers seeking the money he was owed from Brawley. A Virginia court ordered that the money be garnisheed from her wages.
"People criticize me for going after a hardworking single mother trying to support herself and child," Pagones told the Post then. "My argument has been she has not been held accountable. If she is not going to tell the truth, then it is about the money … I look at this as another opportunity for her to tell the truth."
Pagones has said that if Brawley confesses that she lied, he will forgive her debt. I wish she would take him up on the offer.
At 15 Brawley was a scared child, who couldn't have predicted that her hoax would spiral so far out of control. Overnight, and for months after, her name was in the headlines, and she became a cause célèbre, with attention and sympathy pouring in. The NAACP showed up to defend her, as did the Rev. Al Sharpton — who some say used the allegations to catapult himself into the national spotlight — later on, accompanied by an all-star legal duo.
I don't think she intended to get anything out of saying she was abducted and raped, other than to keep from being punished. Her elaborate cover-up seems to point to a troubled home life. That she went so far as to cut her hair — not to be funny, but you know how black women are about hair length — smear her body with dog feces and cry rape to avoid punishment makes me wonder what worse horror was waiting for her if she'd crossed her family threshold after missing curfew.
It shouldn't be overlooked that a girl who created an elaborate cover-up seemingly to avoid her stepfather's wrath suddenly had teams of grown men willing to protect and defend her. Would they still protect her if she admitted her charade? She feared the consequences of going home after she ran away. What would her stepfather do if he found out that she'd made all this up?
It would have been nice if she'd fessed up when the bottom fell out of the story, but she didn't. That 1988 grand jury found that there were no signs of genital trauma and no semen. The feces on her body was from the neighbor's dog. The traces of charcoal under her fingernails indicated that Brawley had written the epithets on herself. One witness even said she had seen Brawley climbing into the garbage bag.
Ten years later Brawley was 25 — i.e., old enough to take full responsibility for her actions. Yet she was sticking to her story. "I am not a liar; nor am I crazy," she told an 800-person church audience in 1997. "For 10 years they were lying to you," she added. "You should feel that the hoax was pulled on you."
That's when Pagones launched that defamation lawsuit, asking for a whopping $325 million.
In 2013 the chickens have come home to roost, and Brawley is losing by remaining silent. It's time for her to confess. It's not as if most reasonable people think she told the truth anyway. And like Pagones — but for different reasons — we want to hear her say it, and hear the explanation for why she lied.
By finally telling the truth, Brawley would maintain her full wages, and she wouldn't be likely to face additional prosecution or lawsuits. She never testified, so there's no perjury charge. And even her false statements to police, a misdemeanor, can't be prosecuted because the statute of limitations has expired.
If the courts were going to demand restitution for her waste of taxpayer money, they likely would have done so in the 10 years between the grand jury's finding of no evidence and Brawley's disappearance. Additionally, her privacy isn't at stake, since she's been in the headlines three times in the last eight months.
It may even be financially beneficial for her to talk about the case now. It's not a far stretch to think that a confession, which would be well-publicized for sure, could lead to a lucrative book deal, in which she tells all. Maybe she could land a Lifetime movie. I'd certainly read and watch.