Emily Horowitz’s take on the wrongful rape conviction in the Alice Sebold case

Originally published at Reason 11/29/21.

Reprinted in full with permission.

By Emily Horowitz . . . Alice Sebold’s bestselling 1999 memoir Lucky tells the story of a young woman raped by a stranger while attending Syracuse University. In the book, the rapist is caught and convicted. After writing about the experience, Sebold went on to write the bestseller The Lovely Bones, a fictional account of a teenage girl raped and killed. But last week Anthony Broadwater, the man who served 16 years in prison for raping Sebold, was exonerated.

Timothy Mucciante, a producer working on a film adaptation of Lucky, was fired after raising questions about inconsistencies in Sebold’s story. Mucciante, who has a legal background, started reviewing the police files; he became even more troubled by discrepancies between the memoir and the facts of the case, to the point where he “couldn’t sleep.” Mucciante ended up hiring a private investigator to investigate further, and the P.I. broke the case. Broadwater’s conviction turns out to have rested on shaky evidence: Sebold had had trouble identifying her assailant—she had initially picked a different man out of a lineup—and the only forensic evidence was a form of hair analysis that the government now considers junk science. Even at the time, the expert witness could only say that the attacker’s hair was “consistent” with Broadwater’s, not that it definitively was his hair.

Broadwater was placed on the New York Sex Offender Registry after his 1999 release, and he remained on it until a few days ago. His case starkly highlights the needless cruelty of sex offense registries.

Broadwater married after prison, but he never had children; he recently told the Syracuse Post-Standard that this was because he didn’t want them growing up with a father with a rape conviction. Meanwhile, the newspaper notes, he was “turned away from countless jobs and educational opportunities over the years for one simple fact: he’s a convicted rapist on the sex offender registry.” This story is familiar to the nearly one million Americans on such registries, who are well-aware that the stigma extends beyond them to their families and all those close to them. Every registrant’s photo, address, and crime are publicly posted, creating inescapable infamy and extremely limited job opportunities.

So Broadwater essentially served two sentences: one in prison, and one on the registry after his release. In New York, where Broadwater was convicted and still resides, a pending Clean Slate bill would automatically expunge criminal records after three years for misdemeanors and seven for felonies, to help those with prior convictions pass background checks to access more housing and employment opportunities. Yet it excludes sex offenses, a fact the literature promoting the bill prominently highlights.

But even the guilty don’t deserve this treatment. The consequences of these registries, detailed painfully by Broadwater and so many others, all kick in after those convicted have completed their sentences. The registries also include people convicted as minors, people convicted of statutory and noncontact offenses, and people with developmental disabilities, mental health struggles, or substance use disorders.

In his Syracuse.com interview, Broadwater said that he tried to take vocational classes after his release but was kicked off campus when administrators learned he was on the registry. Broadwater happened to be innocent, but even if he wasn’t, shouldn’t continuing education be available to those seeking stability and employment after being incarcerated?

Inside Higher Ed recently reported that increasing interest in racial justice has led to colleges “ramping up efforts to serve students currently or formerly in prison.” There is bipartisan agreement that this is a smart and ethical investment. I founded and co-direct such a program at St. Francis College. But these efforts, like New York’s Clean Slate bill, often exclude people on registries. And even when states or individual institutions do not query potential participants about their criminal histories, federal law requires that those on registries (unlike those convicted of nonsexual offenses) give notice to the state about their enrollment, often prompting a predictable administrative backlash.

One reason for sex offense “carve-outs” is due to myths about recidivism and who winds up on registries. Contrary to popular belief, those with sex offense convictions actually have lower recidivism rates than those convicted of most other offenses (a belief unfortunately fortified by the Supreme Court, which once mistakenly declared the sex offense recidivism rate “frightening and high“). It’s worth noting that about a third of the nearly 3,000 documented exonerations since 1989 involve sex crimes, even though only about 13 percent of people in prison are there for a sexual offense.

But data are no match for fear and emotion. These are reinforced by a cultural fixation on statistically rare but terrifying cases of stranger danger (even though the vast majority of sexual violence against both children and adults involves nonstrangers). And this, in turn, is reinforced by books like Sebold’s.

Reports have surfaced that Broadwater has been living in “windowless squalor,” unaware of his key role in Sebold’s memoir or the windfall and fame it brought to her. In The New York Times, Broadwater recalled “the years of stigma and isolation” he faced as a registrant. This post-prison treatment is not a recipe for safety or success. In fact, studies have shown that sex offense registries have not made America’s children any safer. The data also show a consistent, decades-long decline in child sex offenses that started prior to the implementation of registries.

It is time for things to change.

Colleges should continue to lead criminal justice reform efforts, but with new offense-blind admissions welcoming all who want to learn. And our country should no longer brand anyone who has served their time as unworthy of forgiveness or a second chance.

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10 Thoughts to “Emily Horowitz’s take on the wrongful rape conviction in the Alice Sebold case”

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  1. Jann Patterson

    Articles like this certainly highlight the unfairness of the registry. Most of us here believe it should be abolished or at least be limited to violent repeat offenders. It’s great to talk about the problem but it is much more important to do something about it. What is NARSOL doing about sex offender laws, punishments, parole, probation and the registry. The sex offense of possessing illegal pictures can get you 30 years in Idaho including time in prison and probation.

  2. jim

    The whole truth about being blamed for a sex offence is, that if a person claims that they were sexually assaulted then whoever they point their finger at is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt period. If they cant find someone to point their finger at then they will point their finger at anyone just to “catch someone” to make people feel safe. If there is any doubt about the claimed suspect, Its thrown out because it is considered “Revictimizing The Victim”. Also ANYONE who sides with a person being accused of a sex offence is seen as just as bad as a sex offender. So the Judges, Courts, Prosecutors and the attorney general Have To Prosecute to save face and “Look Good” like they are saving the world. Criminals like John Walsh and all the ” victim advocate criminals” Profiting from sex crimes are the ones to blame for what they do to us.

    1. freedomwriter

      wow did you hit the nail on the head!

  3. William Hart

    Why is it that in high profile cases like Jeffrey Epstein and now Ghislane Maxwell, a “victim” can claim sexual abuse when she was 14 and no one questions where her parents were? Who allows their “child” to fly on planes with adults who are almost strangers? I’m certainly not condoning anything Mr. Epstein or Ms. Maxwell did, but don’t the parents share in the culpability?
    On November 30, in the Detroit suburb of Oxford Township, a 15 year old took his father’s newly purchased 9 mm Sig Sauer to school and killed 3 and wounded 8 others. The 15 year old shooter was charged as an “adult”, with 24 crimes, including murder, attempted murder and terrorism.
    So why are these 14 year olds girls called children but a 15year old that takes a parents weapon to school and kills is suddenly an adult.
    I think the parents must be held accountable in both of these instances. They must take some level of responsibility.
    I know this opinion will not be popular, but haven’t you asked yourself the same questions?

    1. mbgodofwar

      I always thought that the criminal justice system was full of it: one minute, a child is a completely innocent victim; the next, he/she is totally culpable. Despite what actually happens during adolescence and how decision making still lags, the CJS insists on some sort of sexual purity going into early adulthood. Society believes that sexual assault*, no matter how light or extreme, is far worse than a violent assault (meaning strictly to harm).
      *I mean it as any sort of touching of the victim’s private parts for the purpose of the assailant’s sexual gratification.

    2. Mike

      I totally agree…in my case the 17-year-old victim was a “student” so my charges were “sexual assault of a student” and not a child because she was over 16. Yet in my plea deal I had to take multiple counts of “mental harm to a child”. In one case they aren’t a child, but in another they are? Insane.

    3. Jeremy from Indiana

      I see your analogy here, but I think that would introduce a very slippery slope. Once one parent gets convicted under your logic, no parent would ever let their child around another adult again, even if they trust them. This would severely hinder child development due to isolation.

      What would be the burden of proof that the parent was neglectful in this case? Maybe Ms. Maxwell was around her and the parents quite frequently and the parents just saw her as an upstanding citizen. She was technically grooming the parents, but how would they know or even suspect that? How would that get proven in court? I think it’s quite a bit different when you give your son a gun vs trusting another adult to supervise your teenager. Non-custodial fathers would never be able to take their kids on trips ever again.

  4. Brandon

    The author needs to write a check with a lot of zeros to the person she misidentified as her rapist. Next they should write a book together on misidentifying someone, what it’s like to be falsely accused and convicted of a crime you were innocent, what life is like on the registry, and bringing it home this can happen to anyone. Lesson learned on accountability and to think twice before pointing a finger.

  5. R.B. Bishop

    In 1971 Nixon declared war on drugs (this included Marijuana). That was fifty years ago and still only seventeen states have decriminalized the use of marijuana. SORNA began in 2006. Going by this I would say that sex offenders may see a notable change sometime around 2056. If you add in the fact that anyone that tries to defend anyone on the SOR they are also considered a sex offender but just in hiding. I would conclude that those of us on the sex offender registry will have to wait a great deal longer than 2056 to see any significant change. I was forced to take a plea bargain in 2013. I took the deal so that my twelve year old son wouldn’t be charged with a crime for watching cartoon porn with his nine year old nephew. Yes the district attorney made that crystal clear. These stories of people finally getting free from the corruption within the legal system give me zero hope and seem to be a distraction of what is continuously going on in the USA legal system.

  6. Tim in WI

    If exoneration rates prove anything, it is certain zero actual
    and verifiable evidence is actually needed to convince a jury of person’s guilt. Then wonder why 95% do not exercise their rights to formal process.
    If states can convict those not present at the crime scene, at the time etc, what remains of viable defense? The “Rules of evidence” already are troublesome issues in sex trials primarily because mens rea (knowledge of bad motive ) need not apply in sex crime prosecutions, where behavior ( action or conduct) alone defines “which act(s) constitute” the crime (as stated per statutes defining degrees).