Alice Sebold’s innocent ‘rapist’: ‘She went through an ordeal. I went through one, too’

When lawyers saw the trial transcript, they quickly realised the case had been flawed

The young woman's face was bruised in multiple places, her long brown hair matted with bits of leaves. There was a fresh bump on the back of her head and a cut on the left side of her nose. Her tan cardigan and Calvin Klein jeans were streaked with dirt. Abrasions covered her body. Traces of blood and semen were found inside her vagina as well as on her underwear.

She was just 18, a freshman at Syracuse University in New York, who had arrived at the adjacent Crouse Irving Memorial Hospital in the early morning of May 8th, 1981. Her name was Alice Sebold. And she had been raped. The assailant was a stranger, but Sebold had studied his appearance – his small but muscular build, the way he gestured, his eyes and lips. And so, five months later, when she spotted a man named Anthony Broadwater near a restaurant on Marshall Street, Sebold knew she had solved her case. She reported him to the authorities, saying that Broadwater had said to her, "Don't I know you from somewhere?"

At the trial the following year, Sebold took the stand and described how she had celebrated the last day of the school year at a friend's apartment, then left to head back to her dormitory, following a brick path through Thornden Park. She testified that a man had grabbed her from behind, punched her, threatened to kill her with a knife, dragged her by her hair, then raped her in what she described as a tunnel. "Is there any doubt in your mind, Miss Sebold, that the person that you saw on Marshall Street is the person who attacked you on May 8th in Thornden Park?" the prosecutor asked. "No doubt whatsoever."

Years later, Sebold would recount in a bestselling memoir that she felt confident justice had been served. She had been sweaty and shaky by the end of her testimony but was bolstered by the words of a bailiff. “I’ve been in this business for 30 years,” he said. “You are the best rape witness I’ve ever seen on the stand.”

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Anthony James Broadwater was born in Syracuse, the fourth of six boys, and lived for a while near Syracuse University, where his father worked as a janitor. He rarely set foot on campus, saying he felt like it was "off limits" to him and other young Black locals. Instead, he spent time at a community recreation centre and the local Boys & Girls Club.

When he was about five years old, his mother died of pneumonia. He and his brother Wade discovered her body on the couch in their living room. Known as Tony, Anthony Broadwater was outgoing and rambunctious, often tussling with his siblings. Wade Broadwater recalled how his brother could get caught up in entertaining a crowd and was once stopped for letting kids ride on the roof of his car. While police who patrolled the neighbourhood were familiar with the brothers, Anthony Broadwater had never been accused of anything serious.

A skilled wrestler at Henninger High School, he dropped out around 17 and was intrigued when a Marine Corps recruiter said he could be on a flight to California within days. "I wanted to see the world and try to better myself," he says. Stationed at 29 Palms and Camp Pendleton, he ended up with a cyst on his wrist. He was discharged and received disability for the injury. He returned to Syracuse, where his father was ill with stomach cancer, and eventually took a job installing phones for a telecommunications company.

On October 5th, 1981, he and a friend drove over to Marshall Street, a stretch of restaurants and shops that had long served as a gathering place for college students. While his friend was inside a store, Broadwater recognised a police officer from his younger days. Later, in court, the officer and Broadwater would each remember calling out to the other, “Don’t I know you?”

The two made small talk, unaware that Sebold had passed Broadwater on the street and was watching their exchange. Days later, Broadwater was taken into custody. Sebold had identified him as her rapist. But when it came time for the police lineup, Sebold, who is white, looked at the Black men before her and indicated that her attacker was the last person in the row, Number Five. Broadwater was Number Four. She would insist an hour later that the two men had looked identical to her.

Studies would later show that misidentification by eyewitnesses, especially those that are cross-racial, make up a large percentage of erroneous convictions. Broadwater was charged with eight felony counts, including rape and sodomy. He was 20 years old.

In 1981, Syracuse was a city of 170,000 with a dwindling manufacturing industry. Located in Central New York at the edge of the Finger Lakes region, its economy had grown increasingly dependent on Syracuse University, although a disconnect loomed between students and their surroundings.

Locals, often called "townies", were discouraged from going near the campus in the University Hill neighbourhood in the centre of the city. Black residents made up about 16 per cent of the city's population and tended to live in its poorer areas. Onondaga County did not have a public defender's division, so it relied on a list of volunteers in private practice who worked for a small hourly rate. The Broadwater case was assigned to Steven Paquette, a defence attorney two years into his career who had already represented dozens of clients.

Paquette, the son of a UPS driver, was the first in his family to attend college and was idealistic about criminal defence work. He often felt that his Black clients could not get a fair shake in a county where jury pools tended to be mostly white and conservative.

He found Broadwater to be unusual because he was intensely eager about cooperating with the district attorney’s office. “He was emphatic throughout that they got the wrong guy,” recalls Paquette, now 66. “It was a disbelief coupled with a faith that once the facts were out, justice would be done for him.” Paquette was one of more than two dozen people connected to Broadwater, Sebold or the rape case who spoke to the New York Times.

Hair comparison has since been discredited as an unreliable science that can match little beyond a person's race and is responsible for many wrongful convictions

Times reporters also reviewed hundreds of pages of court documents and exhibits, as well as Sebold's memoir, for this article. Paquette encouraged Broadwater to opt for a bench trial. The judge, Walter T Gorman, was considered a thoughtful and competent adjudicator. The state's case was to be presented by William Mastine, a confident prosecutor whose law career would end the following decade after he pleaded guilty to defrauding a client, according to court documents and news reports.

At 6-ft-6, Mastine usually towered over others in the courtroom and enjoyed facing off against another lawyer on a final stage. “It’s not a rush, just a satisfaction that what you’re doing is right,” says Mastine, now 74. He had been handed the Broadwater case only a week before, he says. “Based upon everything we had in front of us, he was the guy,” he says. The trial began on May 17th, 1982, and lasted just two days. DNA analysis was unavailable at the time, but a forensic chemist testified that a pubic hair from a Black person that had been recovered from the rape kit was “consistent” with the hair sample Broadwater had submitted. Hair comparison has since been discredited as an unreliable science that can match little beyond a person’s race and is responsible for many wrongful convictions.

Sebold held firm to her account. “I could not have identified him as the man who raped me unless he was the man who raped me,” she testified. Broadwater was the last to take the stand, the only witness to testify for the defence. His lawyer asked him to discuss his unique facial markings – features Sebold had never reported, although she had described being a centimetre away from her rapist.

“I have a scar underneath my chin, and I had an operation in ‘74 on my eye,” Broadwater testified. “Also, I have a chipped tooth.” In his closing argument, Mastine, the prosecutor, reminded the court that Sebold had been a virgin, a detail brought up more than once throughout the case. Afterward, the defence was startled when Gorman immediately announced he was ready to rule. He declared simply and with no insight into his decision that Broadwater was guilty of rape in the first degree. Broadwater was taken into custody, departing from a courtroom devoid of any friends or family members. He had not asked anyone to attend the trial, certain that he would walk free.

Sebold would go on to write The Lovely Bones, a novel about a 14-year-old girl who is raped and murdered. Published in 2002, it reached the top of the New York Times bestseller list, selling more than 10 million copies before eventually being adapted into a film.

Its success led readers to discover Lucky, the 1999 memoir Sebold had written about her own rape, in which she had changed the name of her attacker to Gregory Madison. The raw, personal account of her trauma served as inspiration for many sexual assault victims and impressed those who had already acknowledged her writing talent.

"She was a considered person, a deeply honest-to-the-core writer, unstinting and tenaciously unwilling to offer anything but her best," says poet Tess Gallagher, one of Sebold's professors at Syracuse, in an email to the New York Times. Gallagher had also accompanied Sebold to the preliminary hearing for the assault case.

"I was beside her then and remember how terrified she was in that courtroom," Gallagher says. The memoir follows Sebold's entire journey through the criminal justice system. In one scene, she recounts how a prosecutor she trusted, named Gail Uebelhoer, told her that the man she identified in the lineup was a friend of Broadwater and had tricked her by staring menacingly. According to the book, Uebelhoer then coached her into explaining away the misidentification in front of the grand jury. When reached by the New York Times, Uebelhoer declined to comment.

Even slight or inadvertent nudges during lineups have been shown to influence a victim's memory. According to the Innocence Project, a non-profit legal organisation in the United States, lineups should be conducted in a double-blind manner, where the administrator does not know which person is the suspect and the witness is not assured the suspect is present.

Sebold also described being given a short break while testifying, during which she received a visit from Gorman, the judge, who warmly asked about her family. “His tone was more gentle than the one he used in court,” Sebold wrote. Gorman died in 2009.

These passages would help illustrate the flaws in Broadwater’s case. But not for two more decades.

While in prison, Broadwater obtained his General Educational Development and studied the law, trying repeatedly to get his case revisited. At one point he hoped to retain Johnnie Cochran, sending $1,000 saved from his disability payments and custodial job. But the lawyer's firm returned the money, informing him it did not handle post-conviction matters.

Broadwater’s father, who believed in his innocence, wanted to help but was undergoing chemotherapy. He died in 1983. At each parole hearing, Broadwater refused to admit guilt, despite knowing he would fare better if he expressed responsibility for the crime. He wondered if he would die in prison like the inmate he watched get fatally stabbed during a fight.

Sixteen years crept by. He was finally released on the last day of 1998. But freedom came with a cage. A sex offender on parole, he had to abide by a curfew and was prohibited from most workplaces. He relied on temporary gigs, taking a job at a metal plating factory, bagging potatoes, doing yardwork and roofing, mopping floors, scavenging for scrap metal. Night jobs were helpful, because they gave him the alibi he had lacked when police questioned him about Sebold. He believed he had been home at the time but had no proof.

Anthony Broadwater learned of Alice Sebold's memoir around 2006, but he had no interest in reading what he considered his own horror story

Whispers that he was a rapist were deafening. Friends were scarce. Broadwater’s computer use had to be monitored after he was released, so he found it easier just to never learn how to work one. Still, he continued to reach out to lawyers. One disappeared with $1,400. Another failed to obtain Broadwater’s file, which had been sealed. When a car accident left Broadwater with a neck injury, he set aside most of the $30,000 payout, hoping he could find a lawyer to take his case.

He began dating Elizabeth a year after his release. She was Baptist like him, had a sincere way about her and was a homebody. He wasted no time handing her a file with information about his past. “If you’re going to be in a relationship with me, this is what I’m going to be fighting all my life,” he said. She pored over the papers in tears. “I don’t know how they did this to you,” she said. “I’m going to be with you.” They moved into the dilapidated house his father had left behind. She wanted children, but Broadwater felt it would be unfair to bring kids into his difficult world. He learned of Sebold’s memoir around 2006, but he had no interest in reading what he considered his own horror story.

It was in the hands of another felon that the case against Broadwater began to unravel. Timothy Mucciante was a disbarred lawyer from Michigan who had gone to prison multiple times for fraud. His most wild scheme was one in which he convinced investors he would buy condoms and latex gloves and trade them in Russia for chickens that would be sold in Saudi Arabia. He pocketed the money instead.

After his last prison stint ended in 2010, Mucciante hoped to reform himself, he said. "I certainly have a lot to make up for in terms of what I owe the world," he said in an interview. Earlier this year, Mucciante was forging ahead in a new career, having started his own film production company. He had joined other producers who were adapting Sebold's memoir and planning to film it in Toronto. He offered to cover the film's entire budget of 6.5 million Canadian dollars.

As Mucciante read the script and the book, he was struck by how little evidence was presented at trial. He said he began to doubt the memoir’s veracity and withheld funding until he was dismissed from the project, which never got off the ground.

But three people who worked on the film said Mucciante did not raise questions about the memoir and that his contract was terminated in early June because he failed to deliver the money he had promised, claims Mucciante disputes. Court documents show Mucciante, who is 62, has filed for bankruptcy on at least a dozen occasions, but he tells the New York Times that he is currently financially stable.

In late June, Mucciante decided to take a deeper look at Sebold's trial. He found and hired Dan Myers, a retired detective who had spent 20 years with the Onondaga County Sheriff's Office and was working as a private investigator. Myers learned that Gregory Madison from the book was in fact Anthony Broadwater. He tells the New York Times that a police officer who worked on the case had offered him a stunning admission: he did not believe the right man had been caught.

Myers connected Broadwater with David Hammond, a criminal defence lawyer he worked with who had served as a judge advocate in the Army. Hammond also helped represent Chelsea Manning as she appealed her conviction for espionage. Intrigued, Hammond reached out to Melissa Swartz, a lawyer at a different firm known for her forensic expertise. The two were friends and liked to team up. One of their cases was taking years to put together. But as they separately combed through Broadwater's files, they began feverishly texting each other.

After talking at length with Broadwater and reading Sebold’s memoir, the lawyers discovered that the arguments they could make for exoneration were astonishingly obvious: the flawed hair comparison testimony. The heavy reliance on Sebold spotting her rapist five months afterward. The misidentification during the police lineup. The fact that Broadwater had passed two polygraph tests.

All of it illustrated what, Hammond says, was a travesty hiding in plain sight. “Forty years, yet all it took was someone to pick up the trial transcript and, frankly, talk to Anthony and read Lucky.”

Soon the same revelations were had by William Fitzpatrick, the Onondaga County district attorney who joined Broadwater's lawyers in their motion to overturn the conviction. A handful of years ago, he says, he had instructed his staff to review cases that used hair comparison. Broadwater's name never came up.

Fitzpatrick says he emailed with Sebold and asked her about conversations that, as depicted in the memoir, were improper. Sebold, he says, told him that a long time had passed by the time she wrote the memoir and that she had written scenes as she remembered them.

On November 22nd, Broadwater arrived at a courthouse a block away from the one that had entombed him in a false narrative. He was 61 years old, with gray in his braids and a forehead creased with age. When the judge announced his exoneration, he let out a gasp, leaned forward and cried.

Sebold says she had learned a few weeks before Broadwater’s exoneration that the district attorney was reevaluating the case. “It’s hard to unravel a truth I now know to be false and that has been part of my life for 40 years and my work for 20, without my whole understanding of truth and justice falling apart,” she says through a spokesperson in an email to the New York Times, adding that she hadn’t been able to think about much else.

To go from thinking he was the man who raped me to believing he was an innocent victim is an earth-shattering change

“Every word I’ve read that Anthony Broadwater has said has made me see him as a man who, though brutalised, somehow came through it with a generous heart,” she says. “To go from thinking he was the man who raped me to believing he was an innocent victim is an earth-shattering change.”

In an earlier statement posted to Medium, Sebold said that her “goal in 1982 was justice – not to perpetuate injustice” and that she was now wrestling with the realisation that her rapist went free. She said that Broadwater had become “another young Black man brutalised by our flawed legal system”. She added, “I am sorry most of all for the fact that the life you could have led was unjustly robbed from you.”

Scribner, which published Lucky, has ceased its distribution and will consider along with Sebold how it might be revised. “To do justice to the new reality and all the ramifications of the past would be a huge undertaking,” Sebold says in her email. “It might also be amazing.”

Fans of the author now find themselves grappling with the news that Broadwater had been a victim, too. "I bought her books," wrote one woman who contributed to a GoFundMe set up for Broadwater by a friend of Mucciante. "I owed him." Sebold, who lives in San Francisco, also has supporters who empathise with her complicated story. "That that thing should have so defined her life and her art, and now it comes back into her life yet again – my heart really goes out to her," says author Tobias Wolff, who had been Sebold's professor at Syracuse, and who said she had come to him, distressed, after seeing the man she thought had raped her.

Among those expressing empathy is Broadwater. "That was very strong and courageous of her to do that, I know that was weighing on her mind," he says of her statement. "She went through an ordeal, and I went through one, too." He plans to seek financial restitution from the state and is considering filing a federal civil rights lawsuit. A documentary about him, spearheaded by Mucciante, is in the works with the film production company Red Hawk Films, according to Mucciante and two other producers involved in the project.

Broadwater recently got help setting up his first email address, as well as an online bank account. He hopes he and Elizabeth can one day take a vacation, see some relatives. And if they could settle into a farmhouse with a swath of land, that would be a nice way to live.

For now, the exterior of Broadwater’s life has not changed much since being exonerated. He walks with a cane, in need of surgeries for hip and knee injuries from football games played in prison. His physical limitations have made it hard to find a steady job. He cleans out houses, tows debris with his truck and looks for discarded appliances to sell, recently scoring a refrigerator left on the side of the road.

"I'm just grateful, man, that I have the normalcy now of being a decent person to people's eyes," he says. The last few weeks have been thrilling, he says. But it has been strange to receive so much public support. The villain in someone else's story, it is not lost on him that he was, for most of his life, the only champion of his own. – This article originally appeared in The New York Times