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How an innocent Black man served time for the rape of author Alice Sebold

·6-min read
<span>Photograph: Katrina Tulloch/AP</span>
Photograph: Katrina Tulloch/AP

Anthony Broadwater spent 16 years in jail as victim of miscarriage of justice but has accepted author’s apology

On 4 November 1981, five Black men in matching light blue shirts filed into a narrow, well-lit room on the third floor of a police station in Syracuse, New York, and turned to face a one-way mirror. On the other side, a 19-year-old white student stepped towards the glass, and tried to identify which of them was her rapist.

Related: Alice Sebold’s publisher pulls memoir after overturned rape conviction

The student, Alice Sebold, would go on to a storied literary career. She had been the subject of a horrific attack late one night in May of the same year, dragged into a tunnel from a path in a public park and forced to lie down among broken bottles.

More than 40 years later, the events that entirely changed the course of two lives have come back to prominence, and the story of a young woman’s reclamation of her life from her rapist has now been vastly complicated by a court’s decision that he was never caught – and instead an innocent Black man was the victim of an inescapably racist miscarriage of justice. The events that led to that conclusion began when Sebold was walking down the street in Syracuse, five months after her rape, and saw a man from behind who she thought seemed familiar.

Later, in her memoir, Lucky, Sebold wrote of the telltale signs that seemed to show it was her attacker: the same height, the same build, something about his posture. She doubled back, wondering if she had felt “just a more intense version of the fear I had felt around certain black men ever since the rape”.

Then he appeared again, this time walking towards her, and this time, Sebold said, he spoke to her: “Hey, girl. Don’t I know you from somewhere?”

“He smirked at me, remembering,” she wrote. And she thought she knew it was him.

A policeman who had been nearby, and had spoken to the man, identified him as Anthony Broadwater, a 20-year-old who had recently returned to the town after a stint as a marine because his father was very sick. Broadwater was arrested, and now he and four other men stood less than a foot from Sebold, separated only by a pane of glass.

They turned to the side, then faced forward again. She ruled out the first three, noticeably taller, men at once. She considered the fourth, and then came to the fifth: “He was looking at me, looking right at me … the expression in his eyes told me that if we were alone, if there were no wall between us, he would call me by name and then kill me.” The man she had seen in the street, she concluded, was number five. Anthony Broadwater was number four.

In another version of this story, Broadwater would then have been released. Instead Sebold said that she had almost identified him, and that he and number five “looked like identical twins” – although she noted that Broadwater’s features were “broader and flatter”. An assistant district attorney told her that the two men knew each other, and that Broadwater had “had his friend come down and stand next to him” and then “give you a look that’s scary” to trick her. Then a sample of Broadwater’s pubic hair was taken and found to match a hair belonging to the suspect found on Sebold at the time of the attack.

On that basis, he was jailed for 16 years.

Broadwater always said he was innocent – and was denied parole at least five times because he would not reverse his position. In 1999, he finally left prison, and Sebold’s memoir – which established her as a major literary figure, and sold more than 1m copies – was released. They continued on vastly different trajectories: he found himself a social pariah, and struggled to find anything but casual work because he was on the sex offender register; she went on to write The Lovely Bones, which sold 8m copies and was adapted into an Oscar-nominated film, before a movie version of Lucky was announced in 2019.

Alice Sebold.
Alice Sebold. Photograph: Leonardo Cendamo/Getty

But last week, their lives collided again. In a Syracuse courtroom, Broadwater was exonerated after two defence attorneys, David Hammond and Melissa Swartz, argued that his conviction was hopelessly flawed. The assistant district attorney had misled Sebold about the relationship between Broadwater and the other man in the lineup: in fact, they had never met before arriving at the police station that day.

The lawyers also pointed to research finding that identifications made across racial lines are far more likely to be mistaken – and that the basis of the technique used to match the two hairs has been entirely discredited. With that, the only evidence against Broadwater had turned to dust. After the judge overturned the conviction, Broadwater – his head bowed, dabbing a handkerchief to his eyes – sobbed and fell into the arms of his lawyers, his innocence finally and irrefutably established in the eyes of the world.

His vindication only came about because of Sebold’s success. After a deal for the movie version of Lucky was struck, the executive producer Timothy Mucciante came across red flags in the book which caused him serious concern.

Mucciante withdrew from the production and hired a private detective, who interviewed Broadwater and passed the case on to Hammond and Swartz. In the aftermath of the exoneration, many have wondered how many other wrongfully convicted Black men have been denied justice because their cases were too obscure for anybody to look at again.

The film of Lucky has been cancelled, and the book’s US and British publishers have stopped distributing it with a view to a future revision. Sebold, for her part, said nothing immediately after Broadwater was exonerated, taking her time to process such a vast and destabilising reconfiguration of what she believed to be the facts of her life. And the teenage girl bearing the weight of such devastating trauma may seem less culpable to many than the judicial system which nurtured her assumptions and hardened them into a charge sheet, and a verdict.

On Tuesday, she apologised for her part in the ruination of a young man’s future. “I am sorry most of all for the fact that the life you could have led was unjustly robbed from you,” she wrote. She called him “another young Black man brutalised by our flawed legal system”, and added: “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.”

As Sebold also noted, no apology can return what was taken from Broadwater, who is now 61. His father died shortly after he was jailed; he and his wife – one of the few who believed in his innocence – did not have children. “I could never, ever allow kids to come into this world with a stigma on my back,” he said outside court last week.

Somehow, even in the face of so much irretrievable loss, Broadwater accepted Sebold’s apology on Tuesday, saying he was “relieved and grateful”.

“It took a lot of courage, and I guess she’s brave and weathering through the storm like I am,” he told the New York Times. “To make that statement, it’s a strong thing for her to do, understanding that she was a victim, and I was a victim too.”

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