After spending over 5 years in prison and a further 5 on probation, Brian Banks’ rape conviction was dismissed last Thursday. He was 16 years old and had just accepted a full sports scholarship to the University of Southern California when Wanetta Gibson accused him of assaulting her at their high school in Long Beach. While there was no firm physical evidence that nonconsentual sex had happened, and a variety of inconsistencies in Gibson’s testimony, Banks was advised to plead no contest to the charges to avoid risking a possible 41 years to life sentence.
Then, last year, Gibson sent Banks a facebook friend request and asked that they let bygones be bygones, assuring him that she had matured. They agreed to meet, and Gibson was caught on camera admitting that she had never been raped, and that she had fabricated the whole tale.
At the outset it should be noted that the rate of false accusations of rape and sexual assault are generally accepted to be about the same as that for other crimes. Most people aren’t malicious enough to knowingly make any sort of allegation against an innocent other. And women are no more likely to be in that malicious minority than men.
But the legal system is basically there to do two things – deal with people who do bad things, and deal with other people who make stuff up. If it were the case that people only ever truthfully accused other people of committing crimes, then all cases would be much more straighforward. That we have to be wary of the possible ulterior motives of those who make allegations against others is in no way unique to sexual offences. One of the main functions of the justice system is to weed these accusations out. If it fails to do that, then the system is failing fundamentally.
So the question here is not why Gibson lied (though the motives of 15 year old girls clearly demand much closer cultural attention than they currently receive), but rather why Banks was encouraged to make the no contest plea in the first place. There is surely something wrong with the system when someone who knows he’s innocent can be so easily convinced that there is no hope of vindication, and that the best possible option is to be convicted as a rapist, spend years in prison and forfeit such a bright future.
The issue here really seems to be this whole practice of plea bargaining. According to Justin Brooks of the Innocence Project, about 95% of cases are resolved by plea-bargain in the US, and it is especially prevalent in California. Obviously it’s integral to the justice system as it stands, since it vastly reduces the time and resources expended on each individual case. It’s in the state’s interest (narrowly construed) to avoid going to jury trial where possible and minimise prison terms. An LA Times report on the situation back in 1990 described how this predictably leads to the twin problems of, on the one hand, under-prosecuting guilty parties, where more serious charges are dropped in return for guilty or no contest pleas, and, on the other, wrongful prosecution of innocent parties since the interests of defence attorneys lie in simply getting through cases as quickly as possible, as well as maintaining good relations with prosecutors for future deals.
While this state of affairs might be purely borne of budget concerns initially, it surely contributes to the climate of cynicism which had Gibson’s attorney telling her to shut up and say nothing, after Wanetta suggested that “things were getting blown out of proportion” and that she and Banks had in fact been “just playing,” according to the Innocent Project’s review of the case. If this report is accurate then we have a clear illustration of how it is the inherently unjust culture of the ‘justice’ system that is to blame for Banks’ ordeal in the main, rather than a foolish, but perhaps at least momentarily repentant, 15 year-old girl.
In any case, Banks was placed under huge pressure to submit a no contest plea in exchange for a reduced sentence. By his own account he was told that he would be facing just 18 months instead of 41 years. While it might seem inconceivable that an innocent person would take such a dichotomy seriously, the harsher sentence was made to appear inevitable because of his race - Banks recounts how his lawyer “told me I was a big black teenager and no jury would believe anything I said.” Seemingly he was forced to make this decision at the last minute and without consultation with his parents.
Dan Simon, Professor of Law and Psychology and USC, explained how the psychological pressure placed on a defendant by investigators (sometimes even involving completely fabricated evidence) is intended to overcome the denial of a guilty criminal who has every reason to continue to protest innocence. In this way it should be unsurprising that a truly innocent suspect would equally buckle.
Things are looking up for Banks. This week it was confirmed that he will be trying out for the Seattle Seahawks, and others are lining up to take him on.
While that won’t restore to him the ten years he lost, we can surely look at this case as a prompt for reform in the way justice is carried out in the States. We can’t stop individuals like Gibson from being greedy, confused, or just too dim to understand the consequences of their words. But we can change the way in which those words impact the lives of innocent people.