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ON TRIAL
William Nack
January 20, 1992
An unprecedented legal drama will unfold later this month in Indianapolis as Mike Tyson goes before a jury on rape charges
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January 20, 1992

On Trial

An unprecedented legal drama will unfold later this month in Indianapolis as Mike Tyson goes before a jury on rape charges

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On the morning of Jan. 27, former heavyweight champion Mike Tyson will begin standing trial on charges that, last July 19, in suite 606 of the Canterbury Hotel in Indianapolis, he raped an 18-year-old contestant in the Miss Black America beauty pageant. A conviction would almost certainly spell the end of Tyson's remarkable boxing career, but whatever the outcome, one thing is clear: The trial will constitute an event so extraordinary as to be virtually without precedent.

Historically, of course, American athletes have made their share of appearances in courtrooms. In 1921, in the so-called Black Sox Scandal, eight baseball players were tried and acquitted on charges that they had accepted bribes to throw the 1919 World Series. In recent years, many athletes have stood before the bar to answer charges ranging from drunken driving to assault to involvement with illegal drugs. And, of course, Pete Rose recently served five months in prison for tax fraud.

But no athlete of Tyson's celebrity and stature has ever faced criminal charges of such gravity as those confronting him in Judge Patricia J. Gifford's courtroom: one count of confinement (for restraining the victim on a bed), two counts of deviate sexual conduct (for digital penetration and cunnilingus) and one count of rape. Not since 1943, when actor Errol Flynn was tried on charges of statutory rape of two teenage girls, has an American entertainer of such magnitude been accused of so repugnant a crime. Flynn was acquitted.

Interest in the Tyson trial will be heightened by the fact that it will unfold during a time of heated national debate over how men treat women. That issue was raised last year from movie theaters to the floor of the U.S. Senate to an interview room at the L.A. Forum to a county courthouse in Florida. Not long after Thelma fled with Louise on the big screen, Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas squared off on the little screen at home. In the ensuing months, Magic Johnson's acknowledgment that he had tested positive for HIV prompted questions about athletes' promiscuity, and television broadcast virtually the entire Palm Beach rape trial of William Kennedy Smith, right down to the moment when the jury foreman announced Smith's acquittal. Meanwhile, Tyson was indicted by a special grand jury. At a Sept. 11 press conference following Tyson's arraignment, his promoter, Don King, bitterly attacked the alleged victim and while repeatedly using her name, declared in a classic malaprop: "There's nothing sanctimonious about [the young woman]!"

King was right. In fact, according to friends and acquaintances, nothing about Tyson's accuser suggests pious affectation of any sort. Raised in a middle-class New England suburb, she appears no less than the quintessential girl next door. Her voice is chirpy, her cadence brisk when she speaks, and she has a toothy, engaging smile that is without guile. She is a freshman at a prestigious Catholic college, and she arrived there with an exemplary record: member of the National Junior Honor Society, coach of a youth Softball team, competitor in varsity track and Softball, volunteer worker assisting the mentally retarded, Sunday School teacher and church usher. In the summer of 1990 she was one of 34 students chosen to visit the Soviet Union as part of a cultural exchange program. At the Miss Black America pageant, says fellow contestant Noemi McKenzie, the accuser, a 5'4", 95-pound jazz dancer, was the most popular contestant among the competitors.

"She was the youngest," McKenzie says. "We considered her the baby of the group. When she was around, you knew it. She was spunky. She had a presence. A lot of girls in the pageant were streetwise; she wasn't like that, and you could see it. Just a real sweet person."

The young woman's testimony as to how and why she ended up at 2 a.m. in suite 606—and precisely what happened when she got there and what she said and did after she left—will form the dramatic centerpiece of a trial that could last three weeks. Along with the accuser, limousine driver Virginia Foster, who chauffeured Tyson during his stay in Indianapolis and who drove the alleged victim to Tyson's hotel and back to her own hotel on the night in question, is regarded as the prosecution's most critical witness.

Tyson's principal defense is that the young woman consented to having sexual intercourse, but Tyson is not expected to articulate that defense himself, because he is unlikely to take the stand. In a daring gamble to head off the indictment, Tyson's lawyers permitted him to appear before the special grand jury investigating the case, hoping that he would persuade a necessary two of the six jurors to kill what is known as a true bill. But he was indicted by a vote of 5-1. If he were to take the stand, with the prosecution armed with his grand jury testimony, Tyson could come under a withering cross-examination of his story.

If Tyson has an edge going into the trial, it is that the alleged victim has already given at least five accounts of what occurred that night—to a police officer, Cynthia Jenkins, while the accuser was being treated at Methodist Hospital, some 24 hours after the alleged incident; to a chaplain, Catherine Newlin, at Methodist; to a tape recorder at police headquarters, shortly after speaking to Jenkins and Newlin; to the grand jury in a three-hour appearance; and to defense lawyers in a deposition that took some six hours. By the time Tyson's lawyer rises to grill her, she will have told the story a sixth time in front of the jury.

No matter how honest a person may be, it is impossible for anyone to give the exact same account of anything six times, much less an account of something as sudden and shocking as this ordeal would have been for her, if, in fact, it happened. According to experts on sex crimes, a rape victim at first cannot believe the rape is happening to her. Then, for hours, she cannot believe it did happen to her. Then she is expected to tell a believable, consistent story about something she cannot believe, over and over again. Of course, there is no mystery about what the defense attorney will try to do with these various accounts. He uses the inevitable inconsistencies as a foundation for this argument: How can you believe her when she keeps changing her story?

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