Brian Banks lived a nightmare for the past ten years. Convicted and imprisoned for a rape that never happened, Banks was finally exonerated when his accuser recanted her story. And after missing out on the opportunity to play big-time college football, he has been signed by the National Football League’s Atlanta Falcons, and will have the opportunity to resume his dream of playing professional football.
It’s a great story with the potential to have an unbelievably positive ending. But to me, the ethical and legal issues left unresolved are extremely troubling.
A teenaged football star falsely accused of rape
Banks, now 27, was a promising high school football star slated to play in college for the University of Southern California Trojans. But during his senior year in high school, he was accused by a classmate, Wanetta Gibson, of kidnapping and raping her. He continually proclaimed his innocence. But as a 17 year-old facing a possible sentence of 41 years to life, he followed the advice of his lawyer and pled no contest to the charges. That resulted in him spending more than five years behind bars for a crime he didn’t commit.
A false accuser who wants to “friend” the man she sent to prison
Incredibly, after Brian was released on parole, his accuser sent him a Facebook friend request. She said she wanted to “let bygones be bygones.” Hardly able to believe this could really be happening, Banks said he immediately dropped to his knees and “prayed to God to help me play my cards right.”
He didn’t accept the friend request, but arranged for himself and a private investigator to meet with Gibson. During the meeting, Gibson admitted that she had falsely accused Banks, and that no rape had taken place. She said she wanted to help him clear his name, but was afraid she and her mother would be required to pay back the $1.5 million they had received after suing the Long Beach Unified School District for the “lax security” they claimed had allowed the rape to happen.
Gibson, concerned about losing the money, refused to repeat her admission to prosecutors. But her meeting with Banks and the private investigator had been secretly video taped, and provided the evidence that led to Banks being fully exonerated.
A happy ending, but…
It’s great that Brian Banks has finally been cleared of the false charges against him, and after years wasted in prison, has the opportunity to get his life back on track. And there will be at least a measure of restitution for him, since California law provides that a person wrongfully convicted is entitled to receive $100 for every day spent in prison.
But I think this case points out an area where our legal system is in desperate need of some deeper thinking than we have yet done.
Implications for our legal system
No physical evidence of rape was found when Gibson made her accusation. Yet, a young man was faced with possible life imprisonment based only on the unsupported testimony of a 15-year-old female who said, “I was raped.” It seems that a scared teenager was advised by counsel to essentially plead guilty to a false accusation because our legal system, as presently constituted, would have been stacked against him. And that shouldn’t be.
Our society is committed to protecting and vindicating women who really are raped. That is an extremely high priority for our legal system. But it’s not the only one. We must also protect against innocent people being railroaded into prison by the false claims of accusers who have something to gain. We have to find a proper balance.
To me, possibly sending someone to prison for the rest of his life based on nothing more than a “he said, she said” scenario doesn’t seem to be the right balance at all.