There's speculation that the Tawana Brawley rape hoax began as a way for Tawana and her mother to explain her absence from her physically abusive, domineering step father. Her step father had a history of domestic violence and was a convicted killer.
The Tawana Brawley case and the hype that quickly followed and quickly spiraled out of control has to be looked at in context. It took place a year after black Michael Griffith was hit and killed by a car after being chased by a white, baseball-bat-carrying mob in Howard Beach. It took place a year after black Jimmy Lee Bruce was killed by a white off duty police officer. Some of the more reactionary leaders in the black community were looking for the next atrocity to make an example of and they thought they had it in the supposed rape of Tawana Brawley.
While Tawana's chief advisors/legal counsel, the Reverend Al Sharpton, activist attorney Alton Maddox, and lawyer C. Vernon Mason lead the "attack", it's interesting to note that Bill Cosby posted a $25,000 reward for information leading to the conviction of the attackers and Mike Tyson got a little photo op giving Tawana a diamond-studded Rolex watch.
The problem with Tawana's case is it lacked any real evidence. Doctors who examined Tawana could find no evidence of physical abuse. No sperm was found in or on her. She suffered no bruises. They could find no trauma to her vagina, anus, and the back of her throat. All would be present during a brutal rape. As well, she claimed to have been raped in a forest but forensic examiners could find no evidence (like plant material) in her hair and clothing that she had been in a forest.
Tawana's actual whereabouts during her four day absence are a mystery. Some people gave initial statements that they had seen her at a party but they later recanted when under oath.
One witness reports shortly before Tawana was found by the police to have seen her actually hop in the garbage bag after looking around a bit to see if she was being observed.
The lack of evidence meant a) the rape/abduction never happened b) there was evidence but a massive conspiracy made it disappear. Tawana's legal counsel decided to pursue the latter theory. Since only someone at the highest level of law enforcement could make this kind of evidence vanish and since the only motivation for making that evidence vanish was because one took part in the rape, Tawana's advisors fingered Steve Pagones, the state's Assistant DA, as one of the participants in the rape.
While Tawana's lawyer, C. Vernon Mason, handled the legal stuff, Sharpton and Maddox handled the media spin when reporters asked why there was, like, no evidence, hey? Maddox responded Attorney General Robert Abrams was helping the cover up because he had masturbated over photos of Tawana. Uh huh. The Reverend Al Sharpton suggested Abrams was a Hitler-like figure in the case. (His words were to the effect that asking Tawana to testify before Abrams was like asking a Jew to talk to Hitler.) Abrams, being Jewish, was less than impressed by this comparison. And what was Governor Mario Cuomo doing about this? Sharpton, Maddox, and Mason all agreed that Cuomo was sitting pat because not only was he involved in organized crime but he was linked with the KKK and the IRA. Sharpton also speculated leaders of a white racist cult were the ultimate puppet masters of the whole sordid affair.
Black New York state assemblyman Roger L. Green, trying to be the voice of reason, suggested Sharpton had crossed the line comparing Abrams to Hitler. Sharpton called Green an Uncle Tom and tool of the white voter.
Fortunately, this never went to trial as a grand jury ruled the rape/abduction a hoax. ("There is no evidence that any sexual assault occurred.")
A decade later Tawana's story was revisited when Pagones sued the Brawley family, Sharpton, Maddox, and Mason. The Brawley family did not even bother to respond to the lawsuit and a default judgment was rendered against them. Tawana herself, while refusing to acknowledge the case, appeared at a rally in Brooklyn before the Sharpton, Maddox, and Mason trial and insisted the rape happened.
Sharpton, Maddox, and Mason's defense faced an initial, severe set back. The judge ruled the Grand Jury report was to be taken as a true statement of the facts of the case. That is, the rape never happened. This precluded the trio's lawyers from the mounting the best possible defense when it comes to libel. In other words, it's not libel if it really really happened. You might not like being called a child rapist but if you raped a child, it ain't libel if someone labels you as such. The judge's ruling also spared New York from having to undergo a repeat of the 1987 spectacle.
On July 13, 1998, a jury found Sharpton, Maddox, and Mason guilty of libel and awarded Pagones just under $350,000. The damages, not excessive by American standards, were considered fair by some. It made them accountable for their libel without looking like the system was trying to sue them out of the civil rights business. It also avoided creating a chilling effect on future civil rights protests.
Post-trial, Maddox was disbarred on an unrelated matter and Mason was temporarily suspended after he refused to participate in an ethics committee convened to review his role in the case.
One would be remiss in reporting this story without noting a high profile case involving whites perpetrating crime hoaxes and fingering blacks. One should remember the case of Susan Smith who, in 1994, claimed a young black man stole her car with her precious little children in the back seat. (Smith, of course, drowned her kids.)