Survivor Of 1973 Rape Says She May Have Identified The Wrong Man Due To Racial Bias
LEILA FADEL, HOST:
To Massachusetts now, where a man has spent nearly 50 years in prison - convicted of raping a woman - and it's a crime he's always insisted he did not commit. The accused man is Black, the rape survivor white. And she says she's now no longer sure she identified the right man, citing race as part of the problem. As Jenifer McKim with member station GBH reports, a judge could decide tomorrow whether he goes free.
JENIFER MCKIM, BYLINE: Anne Kane has long tried to put her traumatic 1973 sexual assault behind her, focusing instead on career and family. But when Tyrone Clark's attorney reached out a few years ago to clear his name, Kane welcomed the call.
ANNE KANE: I can see how I might have been wrong.
MCKIM: Kane is now 71 years old and retired. She says at the time of the assault, she trusted the system, but she's learned how African Americans in particular have too long been denied justice. NPR normally doesn't identify victims of sexual assault, but Kane wants to speak out because she's worried that Clark is a victim, too.
KANE: It is a well-proven fact at this point that eyewitness identification is incredibly unreliable.
MCKIM: Cross-racial identifications are considered even more problematic.
KANE: And I had no experience in differentiating Black faces.
MCKIM: Clark was allowed to talk with a reporter recently in a windswept prison yard. Bald and bespectacled, he speaks with a stutter he's had since childhood, a detail never attributed to Kane's attacker. He was 19 when he was sentenced to life in prison.
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TYRONE CLARK: I never raped nobody in my life. That's not my - the kind of person that I am.
MCKIM: Clark grew up poor, struggled in school and dropped out at 16. He says he was misidentified, convicted by an all-white jury at a time of heightened racial tension in Boston. There was no physical evidence connecting him to the crime. For decades, Clark tried without success to obtain new evidence to prove his innocence. He's grateful to Kane for speaking out.
CLARK: I feel sad concerning what happened to her back then. But I feel good that she came forward. You know, it took a lot of years, you know, to come forward, you know?
MCKIM: Kane says she told the detective when she first saw Clark in court that he didn't look like her attacker, but he dismissed her concerns. In recent years, she sent letters to the parole board and the court detailing these doubts. Word of her worries reached prosecutors, who took another look. Suffolk County District Attorney Rachael Rollins says she now supports Clark's request for a new trial. If a judge agrees, she'll drop the rape case.
RACHAEL ROLLINS: I will no longer stand behind this conviction.
MCKIM: This still wouldn't mean Clark is completely exonerated. He was also convicted of robbery and kidnapping and completed those sentences. Rollins is now focused on the rape charge, and she says the state didn't preserve key evidence that would help Clark prove his innocence.
ROLLINS: I think the extraordinary piece that brought it to our attention was this victim.
MCKIM: Nearly 2,900 people across the nation have been exonerated of their crimes since 1989, about 28% involving mistaken identification. That's according to the National Registry of Exonerations that finds Black men are disproportionately misidentified in rape cases involving white women.
SAM GROSS: There is no more incendiary issue in criminal justice in the United States than claims of sexual assault by white women against Black men.
MCKIM: That's Sam Gross, founder of the registry. He says the country's racial history has much responsibility to bear for wrongful convictions, but it doesn't explain everything.
GROSS: The biggest cause is the great difficulty that white Americans have in correctly identifying Black strangers.
MCKIM: For Kane, reopening the case means she has to think about the real possibility that her attacker is still out there. Friends may learn about a part of her past she's tried to forget. But she says supporting Clark is the right thing to do.
KANE: Things are messed up in this country. And somebody needs to start doing something about it.
MCKIM: A judge is expected to consider Clark's motion for a new trial on Thursday. If it goes his way, he could walk out of court a free man. If not, he heads back to prison. For NPR News, this is Jenifer McKim in Boston.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.