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Winner in Brawley suit says victory is bittersweet


In this story:

July 14, 1998
Web posted at: 12:20 a.m. EDT (0420 GMT)

POUGHKEEPSIE, New York (CNN) -- Former prosecutor Steven Pagones said Monday that his victory over the Rev. Al Sharpton and two other advisers to Tawana Brawley in his racially charged, $395 million lawsuit was bittersweet.

Speaking outside the Dutchess County Courthouse after the jury's decision, Pagones said Sharpton, Alton Maddox Jr. and C. Vernon Mason had "hurt a lot of people."

The jury found Sharpton liable for making seven defamatory statements about Pagones, Maddox for two and Mason for one. Pagones, a former assistant county prosecutor, is white; the defendants are black.

"They hurt race relations," Pagones said. "We have enough problems in society. We don't need people like Mason and Maddox and Sharpton screaming out false allegations and creating further hatred."

A jury of four whites and two blacks ruled that Sharpton, Maddox and Mason defamed Pagones in accusing him of raping black teen-ager Tawana Brawley in 1987.

Sharpton and Maddox said they would appeal; Mason could not be reached for comment.

The jury had deadlocked on four of the 22 statements Pagones had sued over and eight statements were found non-defamatory. All of the statements in question -- many of which included the advisers calling Pagones a rapist -- were made at news conferences, in speeches and in interviews with reporters.

The jury is return Tuesday to begin deciding on how much to award Pagones in damages.

A racially inflamed case

The racially inflamed case began in 1987, when Brawley, then 15, was found four days after disappearing from her home. She was found in a garbage bag with dog feces smeared on her body and racial epithets scrawled on her. She claimed a gang of white law enforcement officers had abducted and raped her.

Brawley in 1987
Brawley in 1987  

Eventually, a grand jury pronounced her story a hoax, exonerating Pagones.

But during the furor that preceded the investigation, Sharpton, Maddox and Mason leveled repeated, unsubstantiated charges that Pagones was among those who abducted and raped Brawley.

The trial in Pagones' damage suit, which began last December, revived many of the racial tensions that marked the Brawley case a decade ago.

Charges of racism from defense lawyers, courtroom shouting matches and a trial judge who once walked off the bench in disgust led to a widespread perception that the trial was out of control.

Sharpton visited the trial only rarely, such as when he was on the stand.

After the verdict was read, Pagones leaned over to kiss his wife, Niki, as tears welled in his eyes.

"I'm hoping the jury comes back tomorrow and helps me gain some accountability from them," he said outside the courthouse.

'It's all been horrible'

"To tell you the truth, it's all been horrible," said Niki Pagones. "At least now they have to pay for it to a certain extent. It was a matter of principle, not a matter of money. Do I think we'll ever collect any money from them? I don't know, but we will pursue that."

Maddox, who insisted to the end that Pagones was responsible for raping Brawley, said they were exonerated because the jury did not find them liable for all the statements listed in Pagones' lawsuit.

"The main thing here is that this was not a hoax," Maddox said. "If it had been a hoax, then the jury would have found against all the defendants on all the actions.... We had a major victory here."

Sharpton was not in court Monday to hear the verdict, but his lawyer Michael Hardy said, "This is a battle that's obviously not over yet."

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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