New Bedford Rape Trial: 1984

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New Bedford Rape Trial: 1984

Defendants: John Cordeiro, Jose M. Medeiros, Virgilio Medeiros, Victor Raposo, Daniel Silva, and Joseph Vieira
Crime Charged: Aggravated Rape
Chief Defense Lawyers: Edward F. Harrington, Judith Lindahl, Kenneth Sullivan, and David Waxier
Chief Prosecutors: Ronald A. Pina and Raymond P. Veary
Judge: William G. Young
Place: Fall River, Massachusetts
Dates: February 23-March 21, 1984
Verdicts: Cordeiro, Raposo, Silva, and Vieira, Guilty; Jose Medeiros and Virgilio Medeiros, Not guilty
Sentence: 6-12 years imprisonment

SIGNIFICANCE: Reports of the crime spurred a national debate as to whether a woman's independent or (as some saw it) compromising behavior made her partially responsible for sexual crimes committed against her; the conviction of four of the men was widely hailed by feminists, who insisted that rapists, and not the character of their victims, should be tried in court.

Agang rape that took place March 6, 1983, in Big Dan's tavern, New Bedford, Massachusetts, quickly became national news. The first reports were of a 21-year-old mother of two raped by a half-dozen men over the course of two hours, while the bar's 15 other patrons cheered. Later investigation of the evidence reduced the size of the cheering squad, but confirmed the other details of the crime. According to eyewitness testimony, two men tried to force the woman to perform oral sex; two others threw her on a pool table and raped her; the bartender was physically restrained from going to a phone; and another nonparticipating manwho first ignored the bartender's instructions to call the policedialed a wrong number and then didn't bother to try again.

Amid the outrage of women's groups and many of New Bedford's citizens, Big Dan's tavern was closed and its bar cut up with a chain saw. But many members of the town's Portuguese community just as quickly rallied behind the accused rapists, claiming, as one woman put it, "There was guilt by national origin." Throughout the trial and for years afterward, they would express resentment against the woman. "She should have been home in the first place," the New York Times quoted one Portuguese-American woman shouting on the day of sentencing. The paper aptly summed up the sentiment:

By their lights she wasn't raped. Rather she got herself raped, a very different crime for which they think the victim must take the blame. She did, after all, enter a bar, drink, flirtbehavior which offends a conservative community like theirs. Those demonstrators may not condone her rapists' behavior, but they are more ashamed of hers.

The New Bedford gang rape trial served as a benchmark for the feminist community characterized by Susan Brownmiller, author of the landmark book Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape, as a "public morality play," the trial was broadcast live on CNN, discussed on op-ed pages and homes across America, and monitored daily by both the Coalition Against Sexist Violence and the Committee for Justice (founded to support the accused).

Who's on Trial?

Originally, David Silva (26), John Cordeiro (23), Joseph Vieira (26), and Victor Raposo (23) were charged with aggravated rape, while Jose Medeiros (22) and Virgilio Medeiros (23)who were not relatedwere charged as accessories. By the time the trial began in Fall River, Massachusetts on February 23, 1984, Jose Medeiros and Virgilio Medeiros also were charged with aggravated rape. (As alleged participants in a "joint venture" crime, they could be guilty of aggravated rape if they were found to have aided in or encouraged the crime.) Because some of the men were expected to incriminate the others, the trial was split into separate morning and afternoon sessions: Silva and Vieira in the afternoon, the others in the morning. All six of the defendants and one of the witnesses, Carlos Machado, spoke in Portuguese through interpreters.

Assistant District Attorney Raymond Veary outlined the case against Silva and Vieira for Judge William Young and the jury. The rape of the young woman, he said, took place while bystanders "were cheering like at a baseball game." Defendant Silva, he continued, had pushed the woman onto the pool table, and had held her there and raped her. Then Silva and Vieira "traded places."

The womanwho requested anonymitybegan her own testimony the following morning. "I was screamingI was begging for help. I could hear people laughing and cheering, yelling." She said she had gone out to buy cigarettes after tucking her two young daughters into bed. Two stores were closed, she continued, and she had ended up in Big Dan's. She bought cigarettes from the vending machine and sat beside the only other female patron to order a drink. That woman left. When she herself headed for the door, she said, a man yanked her jacket and she complained: "What the hell do you think you're doing?" Another man took her feet. "They started dragging me across the floor. I started kicking and screaming." She told the court that the men threw her onto the pool table and removed her jeans. She said that one man raped her while another held her down; then the men switched places and she was raped again.

The defense attorneys accused the woman of fabricating a story to make money through the sale of book rights or by suing the bar's owners, charges which the woman denied. The defense lawyers then questioned the woman about her original statement to the police, accusing six men of rape, and her testimony since, which referred to four men. The woman remained calm and said, "It was told when I had not slept and was very upset."

Carlos Machado, the bartender at Big Dan's on the night of March 6, testified that he saw the woman on the floor and heard her screaming while Joseph Vieira and Daniel Silva removed her pants. Jose Medeiros and Virgilio Medeiros, he said, were shouting, "Do it! Do it! That's it! That's it!" One of them, he continued, kept him back from the phone. Victor Raposo and John Cordeiro, then attempted to force the woman to engage in sex. She was then placed on the pool table, Machado concluded, and Daniel Silva "took off his pants and went on top of her."

During cross-examination on March 2, Machado said he'd noticed the woman before the rape occurred. "I had a bad impression of the girl," he said. "She was laughing and talking with the boys, and I wanted to call the police and get her out."

Defense attorney Kenneth Sullivan asked Machado why he wanted the woman to leave. Machado explained: "A group of guys around a girl in such a tight crowd."

Sullivan asked, "That was so unusual that you thought she should be ejected?"

Machado replied, "Yes." He also testified that she had three drinks, not one.

Before resting their case against Silva and Vieira, the prosecution called 19 additional witnesses. Among them was Detective Sandra Grace, who testified about her meeting with the woman shortly after the rape was reported. "She was hysterical and in a state of shock," the officer recalled. Another officer described finding the woman outside of the tavern. She was nude below the waist, he testified, and "said she had been repeatedly raped and abused."

Detective Kenneth Gormley testified that when John Cordeiro arrived at the police station, he "told us that he wanted to tell us what he did." Gormley continued, "He said he was sorry. He said he was drunk, but that was no excuse for what he had done." Cordeiro had admitted that "he and Victor held her legs."

On March 13, 1964, Edward Harrington, defense lawyer for Daniel Silva, offered another version of events. "He was talking to her alone," Harrington claimed. After Silva removed the woman's pants, "both fell on the floor." When Silva placed the woman on the bar, Harrington continued, "His state of mind was that he and she would do something just by themselves. But by then a lot of men came over." Harrington declared that "Whatever he was doing with that girl was between he and she. It was consensual, no screaming, crying or protest."

Harrington called four witnesses on Silva's behalf. One, Lizetta Robida, was a friend of the woman's. She testified that she had "told her she should stay home" and that the woman had consumed two drinks while in her company earlier that evening. Marie Correia was the other woman in Big Dan's on March 6, 1983. She testified that the woman "was bubbly, she was bouncing around the chair. Her pupils were large and her eyes were very glassy." The chief toxicologist for Allegheny County's coroner's office, Charles Winek, then testified that the woman was "clinically poisoned, poisoned with alcohol," according to a blood test taken several hours after the incident.

Silva also testified on his own behalf, saying, "She was, you know, willing." Silva said the woman had asked if he had drugs to share, and that he had said no but offered to "fool around" with her. "She said yes," Silva said. "She looked very happy." He testified that they had kissed and partly undressed when others interrupted them. Contradicting the bartender's testimony, Silva said he had not entered the woman.

Verdicts and Sentencing

On March 17, 1984, Daniel Silva and Joseph Vieira were convicted of aggravated rape by a jury of eight men and four women. Some people in the courtroom cried, "Shame!" When news reached the parking lot, others smashed their fists on cars and shouted obscenities. Women's groups and their supporters sponsored a candlelight march, in which 2,500 people participated.

News of the convictions was kept from the other jury, which convened as scheduled on Monday the 19th. The defense continued to characterize the woman as a drunken liar, and John Cordeiro testified that "she was enjoying herself."

On March 22, the last verdicts were rendered. Virgilio Medeiros and Jose Medeiros were acquitted; John Cordeiro and Raposo were found guilty. There was immediate upheaval in Fall River as 3,000 to 4,000 people attended a candlelight vigil in support of the victim, while 7,000 to 10,000 marchers protested the convictions. Judge Young sentenced the four men to six to 12 years in prison. He also responded to what had become an underlying question. He had not reduced the sentence because the victim had been in a bar, he said, because to do so would "virtually outlaw an entire gender for the style of their dress, the length of their skirts or their choice to enter a place of public refreshment." The four men first asked for retrials and then appealed; all attempts to overturn their convictions were unsuccessful. The woman moved to Miami with her children and was killed in an automobile accident in December 1986.

Kathryn Cullen-DuPont

Suggestions for Further Reading:

Brownmiller, Susan. Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1975.

Faludi, Susan. Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women. New York: Crown Publishers, Inc., 1991.

The New York Times. March 11, 12, 13, 18, 19, 1983; September 1, 3, 4, 1983; February 6, 24, 25, 28, 29, 1984; March 1, 3, 4, 6, 7, 8, 9, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 20, 22, 23, 24, 27, 28, 1984; April 11, 25, 1984; May 7, 1985; October 7, 1986; and December 18, 1986.

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New Bedford Rape Trial: 1984

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