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A Damnable Defense
Sonja Steptoe
February 24, 1992
Not only did Mike Tyson lose his rape case, but his lawyers perpetuated a racial stereotype
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February 24, 1992

A Damnable Defense

Not only did Mike Tyson lose his rape case, but his lawyers perpetuated a racial stereotype

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In the aftermath of Mike Tyson's conviction last week for rape, I am left with a particularly troubling image: Tyson sitting at the defense table, listening impassively as his attorney Vincent Fuller pressed beauty pageant contestants for testimony providing every last unsavory detail of the fighter's marauding behavior during that fateful July weekend in Indianapolis. As I heard the accounts of the boxer's groping, fondling and sexually explicit, expletive-riddled remarks to the women, I shook my head.

Now, I know that even before he raped Desiree Washington, an 18-year-old contestant in the Miss Black America pageant, Tyson had a well-deserved reputation for horrific behavior. And the press reports of his coarse conduct toward other contestants in the pageant only reinforced that image. But a court of law is a very different forum from your morning newspaper. One would have expected the prosecution to cast a harsh light on Tyson's most objectionable actions, and the defense to try to put the best face on them. After all, anybody charged with a crime is entitled to a vigorous defense, which ordinarily involves an effort by his counsel to find the humanity that lies in even the worst of us.

Instead, quite the opposite happened in the Marion County courthouse. In prosecutor Greg Garrison's successful presentation of the facts, Tyson was a deceiver, a slick operator who used his wiles to lure Washington into his hotel room, where he proceeded to rape her. Yes, Garrison developed the idea that Tyson had engaged in brutality, but he also showed him to be a crafty individual capable of a wicked sort of charm. Consistent with this theory of the case, Garrison portrayed Tyson as being almost playful toward the contestants. The prosecutor did not seem eager to dwell unduly on Tyson's boorishness toward them.

It was left, jarringly, for Fuller to do that. In his opening statement, Fuller told the jury that Tyson "is not a high school graduate. He's never been trained in public speaking. He's never been trained in the skills of projecting himself.... He's been trained to do one thing, to defend himself in a ring and to go to battle in a ring." And so, Fuller said, when Tyson came to Indianapolis after having just won a bout with Razor Ruddock, he was anxious to "relax for the first time in weeks" and went on a sex-crazed rampage at a pageant rehearsal, uttering obscenities and making offensive overtures to the contestants. During the trial Fuller went to great lengths to elicit testimony about that conduct. In effect Fuller was saying to the jury: Tyson is your worst nightmare—a vulgar, socially inept, sex-obsessed black athlete. And any woman who would voluntarily enter a hotel suite with him must have known what she was getting into. In other words, both principals were animals—the black man for the crudity of his sexual demands, the black woman for eagerly acceding to them.

I understand that it was Fuller's job to adopt whatever strategy he felt gave him the best shot at winning the case. But the suspicion is inescapable that in choosing the course he did, he was pandering to bigoted perceptions about blacks, apparently hoping that the jurors would buy into those perceptions and vote to acquit Tyson. In another example of the same mind-set, Fuller's defense team tried unsuccessfully before the trial began to introduce expert testimony about the size of Tyson's genitals as an explanation for the vaginal abrasions Washington suffered, a tack that inevitably became the basis for a spoof on NBC's Saturday Night Live.

That this strategy didn't fly is a credit to the jury of 10 whites and two blacks, who saw it for the cynical business that it was. What concerns me, though, is that there was a far wider audience for Fuller's presentation: the public at large. And to this audience the defense sent disturbing messages, some of which transcend this trial. One of those messages, the idea that star athletes can play by different rules than the rest of us, was, blessedly, shot down by the jury's verdict. The other message, however, endures. It was bad enough that Tyson had raped a woman. But he was even more than a rapist; he was the stereotypical savage black man run amok, this by the characterization of his own lawyer. The stud defense is a Faustian bargain if ever there was one. In Fuller's effort to win his client an acquittal, the defendant was affixed with a label: BEWARE—DANGEROUS SEXUAL ANIMAL. Which Only reinforced a stereotype of black men in general.

I am baffled as to why Tyson's black supporters overlooked this travesty when they held prayer vigils in Indianapolis for him during which they raged about the perceived racial injustices committed by the prosecution. These apologists for Tyson said the rape charges were racially motivated, even though Washington also is black. Just as many blacks attacked Anita Hill for the allegations she leveled at Clarence Thomas during his Supreme Court nomination process, so did they excoriate Washington for pressing charges that put this black man in a jam. The way they saw it, Tyson now joins Thomas and former Washington, D.C., mayor Marion Barry as high-profile black martyrs persecuted for behavior that white men get away with.

But it wasn't the prosecution that perpetrated an injustice in the Indianapolis ease, and it wasn't Desiree Washington. The wrongdoers were Tyson, for committing rape, and his own legal team, whose misguided and contemptible defense fanned the fires of racism by perpetuating the worst kind of racial stereotypes.

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