Pagones v. Sharpton, Maddox, & Mason: 1997-98
Pagones v. Sharpton, Maddox, & Mason:
Plaintiff: Steven Pagones
Defendants: Al Sharpton, Alton H. Maddox, Jr., and C. Vernon Mason
Plaintiff Claim: Defamation of character
Chief Defense Lawyers: Sharpton: Michael Hardy; Alton Maddox; Mason: Stephen C. Jackson
Chief Lawyer for Plaintiffs: William Stanton
Judge: S. Barrett Hickman
Place: Poughkeepsie, New York
Dates of Trial: November 18, 1997-July 13, 1998
Verdict: Against all defendants; Pagones awarded $345,000 in damages
SIGNIFICANCE: Ordinarily, public figures have little recourse to libel. This case revealed that, on occasion, accusations can be so egregious that public figures must have the ability to have their name cleared in court.
On the afternoon of November 28, 1987, a black high school student named Tawana Brawley, 15, who had been missing from home for four days, was found outside an apartment complex in Wappingers Falls, New York, wrapped in a plastic bag, with racial epithets scrawled on her chest and feces smeared on her body. In her statement to the police, she claimed to have been kidnapped and raped by six white men, one of whom flashed a badge. A medical examination found no evidence of sexual abuse. On November 30, she made another statement to the police. It would be the last time she ever spoke to anyone in authority.
The unrelated suicide next day of a local police officer, Harry Crist, Jr., was seized upon by Brawley's supporters and family as evidence of a cover-up, sparking a rash of public accusations. In response to community concerns, New York governor Mario Cuomo appointed State Attorney General Robert Abrams as a special prosecutor and, on February 29, 1988, a grand jury was impaneled to investigate the case. At this time, the Reverend Al Sharpton, who had been in close consultation with the Brawley family, accused Dutchess County Assistant District Attorney Steven Pagones of being involved in the attack and demanded his arrest.
On October 6, 1998, the grand jury released its verdict: Tawana Brawley's entire story had been a fabrication. Following this decision, Pagones filed suit against Sharpton and two associates, Alton H. Maddox, Jr., and C. Vernon Mason, alleging defamation of character. Tawana was also named in the original suit, but after defying numerous subpoenas, she was eventually removed from the action in 1991 and Pagones won a default judgment against her.
After almost 10 years, the case finally went to trial on November 18, 1997. Pagones faced a tough task—being a public figure, to win his case he needed to prove that Sharpton, Maddox, and Mason had known their statements were false or that they had recklessly disregarded the truth.
When opening arguments began, Maddox, who represented himself, told the jury he was convinced that Tawana had been telling the truth about what had happened to her in 1987. "If we had thought that Tawana Brawley was lying, we would have taken her to the woodshed and whipped the daylights out of her."
For William Stanton, representing Pagones, the issues were cut and dried. "The evidence will show that each of them defamed and slandered Steve Pagones," he said. "The Brawley family hatched the story. These defendants were the screenwriters."
Fistfights in Court
The trial was long and bitter; often the jury had to be excused from the courtroom as yelling matches and even fistfights broke out among the rival factions. Sharpton used the witness stand as a pulpit, insisting that it was his duty as a civil rights activist and a Brawley family spokesman to call for the arrest of the men the family accused of rape.
Stanton questioned Sharpton, inquiring, "Had she [Tawana] ever told you what happened to her?"
"In terms of details, I would not engage in sex talk with a 15-year-old girl," Sharpton replied. "I would have thought it would have been the height of ignorance to go to Tawana and say, 'Is your mother and father lying?'… That's absolutely ridiculous."
An extraordinary moment came during the cross-examination of Tommy Young, a police officer who had interviewed Tawana after the alleged incident and later concluded it was a hoax: Irked by the trial's slow pace, Judge Hickman asked the attorneys to work late to finish questioning Young. Sharpton's lawyer, Michael Hardy, complained that such a move would prejudice the jurors against himself. "I don't think that's appropriate judicial conduct," he said—whereupon Maddox joined in, "You can't give people respect," he yelled at Hickman, adding that he was not "tolerant."
"I've been as tolerant of you as any judge would be!" Hickman roared back.
When Stephen Jackson, attorney for Mason, also joined in the judge baiting, Hickman rose up, banged his gavel, shouted, "Stop it! Stop it! I've had enough! I've had enough!" and stormed out of the courtroom.
Eventually calm was restored, and the trial continued. And then, finally, Pagones got a chance to tell his side of the story.
A Ten-Year Delay
"Are you ready to testify?" Stanton asked his client as the former assistant district attorney took the stand.
"I've been ready for 10 years," Pagones said.
With a few simple questions, Stanton got down to the nuts and bolts of the case. "Did you rape Tawana Brawley?"
"No," replied Pagones, adding that he had never even met her in person.
"Did you conspire with Robert Abrams to obstruct justice?"
"Did you have Harry Crist [killed]?"
During Pagones' cross-examination, Hardy stressed the precise legal requirements that a public figure must meet in order to prove libel, asking, "Is there a witness that has testified that they knew for a fact that when Reverend Sharpton made those statements, he did not believe them?"
"Indirectly. I believe Sharpton said that himself when he took the stand and lied for days," Pagones answered. "I believe that every witness that has taken the stand has contradicted what Sharpton, Mason, and Maddox said.… Sharpton knew he was lying. Make no mistake about that."
During Pagones' testimony, another outburst from Stephen Jackson resulted in him spending a night in jail for arguing with the judge. Finally, after 24 days of being questioned and cross-examined, Pagones left the witness stand.
In his final summation Stanton got to the crux of the matter, attacking the defendants' motives as well as their character. "These men are dangerous. They're bad. They're evil," he told the jury. "Don't let them get away with this.… They don't care who they stepped on and who they stepped over.… They destroyed lives for their own self-advancement."
Jackson, in a furious counterattack, thundered that Pagones was "lucky he is not in jail" for rape and kidnap, and urged the jurors to "correct history" by dismissing the defamation claim.
Labeling the suit "three judicial lynchings," Maddox sought to portray the defendants as martyrs. "We are here because we stood up for the oppressed.… We have stood up for the poor, and now it's time to be persecuted."
Almost eight contentious months after the trial began, the case finally went to the jury for deliberation on July 9, 1998. Four days later the jury decided that Pagones had been defamed by the defendants, and he was subsequently awarded $345,000 in damages.
Tawana Brawley did not avoid punishment for her roll in the affair. On October 9, 1998, Judge Hickman ordered her to pay Pagones $185,000 in damages resulting from her 1991 default. During his sentencing, he publicly upbraided her, saying she had "… thumbed her nose at the jury by not appearing to testify under oath … in the history of this state, never has a teenager turned the prosecutorial and judicial systems literally upside down with such false claims."
Suggestions for Further Reading
Los Angeles Times: February 11, 1998, A12; February 12, 1998, A22; March 27, 1998, A18; July 9, 1998, A14; July 14, 1998, A12; July 28, 1998, A9; July 30, 1998, All; November 22, 1998, A26.
McFadden, Robert D., ed. Outrage —The Story behind the Tawana Brawley Hoax. New York: Bantam, 1990.
Sharpton, Al and Anthony Walton. Go and Tell Pharaoh. New York: Doubleday, 1996.