By Metyia Phillips
MONTANA – The Montana Innocence Project is working on a #barriers2innocence—the impact of false accusations—to try to combat systematic racism, among many other issues in the criminal justice system.
One of the most well-known stories about false allegations is that of Emmett Till.
In 1955, a white woman named Carolyn Bryant claimed that Emmett whistled at her. As a result, Emmett was lynched and his body was destroyed. On her death bed, Carolyn Bryant admitted that she lied and Emmett never whistled at her.
Due to uncorroborated claims such as this, Black people and BIPOC (Black, indigenous, and people of color) have been targets of false accusations for decades now. Most times, those who are accused are not given the benefit of the doubt and the benefit of being innocent until proved guilty.
Even though it’s 2020, no real progress has been made, it appears, concerning false allegations surrounding BIPOC, and mainly Black people.
“More than half of all wrongful convictions can be traced back to false allegations or testimonies,” and of these wrongful convictions, Black people make up more than half of them,” said the Montana Innocence Project.
Black people are being disproportionately affected by false allegations more than any other race. This causes wrongful convictions and perpetuates a state of mind that makes the accused automatically presumed to be guilty.
A prime example is the case of Christian Cooper, a Black man who was bird watching in Central Park recently.
He saw Amy Cooper, a white woman walking her dog without a leash. He kindly walked over and asked her to put a leash on her dog, which would be in ordinance with the park rules. She accused Christian of threatening her life and she called the police.
Christian made sure to record the entire interaction on social media. Here’s a link to the video. As a result, the eye of the public made sure that the police handled the situation correctly and Amy’s employer even handled the issue correctly.
But the question remains, why was Amy so comfortable telling a blatant lie that a Black man was threatening her life?
The answer is best explained by New York City public defender Eliza Orlins, who said, “When there is no video to refute a 911 call where someone sounds hysterical, the Manhattan DA’s office will use that as evidence and say, ‘Listen to the fear in her voice. You can tell how upset she was. How could she be lying?’”
It’s not always taken into consideration that the person who called 911 could be lying.
There are also numerous other stories that involve false accusations against Black men—a lesser-known one being the story of Brian Banks.
Brian was a high school football star, slated to attend USC with a full-ride scholarship. Brian had a consensual sexual encounter with one of his classmates, Wanetta Gibson. She later told authorities that Banks kidnapped her and raped her under a stairwell. Since Brian was facing up to 41 years in prison, he took a plea deal for six years.
Everyone immediately believed Gibson, and Banks was arrested a few hours after he was accused of kidnapping and raping her. Ten years later, Gibson recanted her accusations and admitted that they were lies, but she had already ruined Bank’s life.
Banks was living as a regular sex offender, but after she recanted her statements he was exonerated by the California Innocence Project in 2012. As a result of his exoneration, Brian was drafted by the Atlanta Falcons in 2013 and he now works in the NFL’s Department of Operations.
Although his story has somewhat of a happy ending, Bank’s life will still be forever changed due to Wanetta Gibson’s false accusations. Brian’s story is available to watch on Netflix, entitled “Brian Banks.”
There are numerous other examples of false accusations against Black people, but what matters is why are these allegations taken so seriously?
Martenzie Johnson explains, “False allegations—particularly about Black men being rapists—have been reinforced over and over again in our history,” meaning that Black men being rapists is a normal standard in American society, so when a Black man is accused it’s taken very seriously and the person who’s accused is assumed to be guilty.
Johnson also cites the movie “A Birth of A Nation” being to blame for this stigma. It was screened in the White House in 1915 and perpetuates the longstanding support for the accuser, and the automatic assumption that the accused is guilty.
Criminal justice reform groups are urging people to break this stigma by still supporting sexual assault survivors, but also speaking out against false accusations. And by assuming everyone is innocent until proven guilty.
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