In 1982, Anthony Broadwater was sentenced to 16 years in prison for a rape he did not commit. Even after his release in 1999, he was not free. His wrongful conviction prevented him from having jobs, friendships, fatherhood, a full life.
That weight was lifted last month when a Syracuse judge exonerated Broadwater, now 61, and cleared his case after finding the main evidence against him was unreliable.
It was a remarkable turn of events, not least because of the extraordinary grace Broadwater showed to the woman who had helped him put him behind bars – bestselling author Alice Sebold. In her memoir “Lucky”, she recounted the story of a 1981 rape while a student at Syracuse University and the trial that convicted Broadwater of the crime.
“She was a victim and I was a victim,” said Broadwater, after accepting Sebold’s apologies for what he went through.
One can only marvel at such generosity of spirit. But we also burn with rage at the injustice that has robbed the youth of Broadwater and limited their lives. We wonder how many wrongly convicted people are still out there, waiting for someone to believe in their innocence.
Broadwater has never ceased to proclaim his own. Appeal courts and parole boards have repeatedly rejected it. It wasn’t until film producers began to adapt Sebold’s memoir that doubts arose over Broadwater’s guilt.
Producer Tim Mucciante has hired a private investigator to find Broadwater and search the court files. Two Syracuse lawyers, David Hammond and Melissa Swartz, took on the Broadwater case. They argued that Sebold’s misidentification of another man in a police queue should have caused prosecutors to dismiss the charges against Broadwater. When asked to identify her rapist in court, she pointed to Broadwater, but he was the only black man in the room. The hair evidence used against him has since been discredited as unwanted science. Last month, Judge Gordon Cuffy agreed and cleared his name.
Onondaga County District Attorney William Fitzpatrick concurred with the result. He promises that such a thing will never happen again. The prosecutor said his office looked at cases based on outdated forensic science, but failed to find this one. How many Anthony Broadwaters are still in prison, or handcuffed for life by their criminal convictions?
Without the “Lucky” film project, Broadwater would still be a convicted felon and a registered sex offender. Likewise, Muhammad A. Aziz and Khalil Islam, the two men wrongly convicted in the assassination of civil rights activist Malcolm X, were exonerated on the same day as Broadwater because of evidence uncovered in the Netflix documentary series “Who Has killed Malcolm X? “
Wrongful convictions are more common than you might think. University studies have put the wrongful conviction rate at 4%, and almost three times that of sexual assault cases. But only a lucky few get the attention of a crime filmmaker, journalist, or podcaster. If that’s what it takes to clear his name, the system is really broken.
This case raises many questions about the actions of police, prosecutors and the judge 40 years ago who arrested and convicted Broadwater on the basis of fragile evidence. But it is clear that an injustice has been committed here, and in many other cases of wrongful convictions. It is time for creative minds to set clear standards for the re-examination of old cases, establish a process open to the public, and hold police, prosecutors and judges to account who got it wrong. The good intentions of prosecutors like Fitzpatrick are not enough.
The Broadwater case also highlights a Catch-22 in the parole system. He was denied parole five times before being released. Broadwater says it was because he refused to admit his guilt. Parole boards are reluctant to release inmates who do not express remorse – but expressing remorse for a crime they did not commit is a lie, and that lie can prevent them from reaffirming their innocence.
As for Sebold, have compassion. The trauma of her rape is now compounded by the trauma of identifying the wrong man as her abuser. The foundation of his origin story as a writer has collapsed. The publisher has withdrawn the book. The movie “Lucky” appears to be canceled.
Yet his apologies are strangely passive. Sebold blames forces beyond his control for what happened to Broadwater, saying: ââ¦ he has become another young black man brutalized by our faulty legal system. I will always be sorry for what was done to him. Does his eighteen-year-old self bear any responsibility? Did the police and prosecutors misplace it? What can or should she do about it 40 years later? There are no easy answers.
Sebold is right about this: âToday American society is beginning to recognize and address the systemic problems in our justice system that too often mean that justice for some comes at the expense of others. “
Police, prosecutors and judges must redress past wrongful convictions and work diligently to prevent them from happening now.
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