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Power Of A False Story Felt

Victims' Rights Advocates: Charging The Woman Would Send Wrong Signal

January 5, 2007
By MATT BURGARD, Courant Staff Writer

One week after a white woman admitted she made up a story about being raped by a heavyset black man in Hartford's Bushnell Park, black community leaders say she should be charged with filing a false police report because she perpetuated a dangerous stereotype.

"The black man has a bad enough reputation as it is," said Eric Crawford, a prominent activist in the largely black neighborhoods of the city's North End. "This woman just made it harder for us. She should face the consequences."

But while Hartford police officials say they empathize with the concerns of the black community, they say they have decided not to pursue charges against the woman because she still says she was sexually assaulted - by another man at a different location - and should not be further traumatized.

Some rape crisis experts applauded the police decision not to prosecute her.

"I think it shows great sensitivity on their part," said Nicole Steward, community relations coordinator for Connecticut Sexual Assault Crisis Services Inc. "Arresting her would certainly send a signal to other rape victims that they can't be confident the police will believe them."

When police announced last week that the woman had recanted her claim that she had been attacked in the park, The Courant received several e-mails from readers expressing concern that it might be a white woman who had perpetuated stereotypes by describing her attacker as a black man. Lt. Scott Sansom, head of the police department's major crimes division, confirmed she is white.

Informed of the woman's race, several members of the black community said the woman inflicted serious damage to the image of the city's minority population by telling police in November that she had been accosted near the park carousel on a weekday afternoon by a black man weighing 250 to 300 pounds.

"This is a terrible exploitation of age-old stereotypes that continue to hang over the black community," said former Hartford Mayor Thirman Milner, the city's first black mayor. He likened the woman's complaint to an infamous case in Boston in 1989 in which Charles Stuart, a white businessman, claimed his pregnant wife had been killed by a black man, only to take his own life when police eventually figured out that he had done it.

"I had doubts about her story from the outset," said Milner, adding that the recanting has been widely discussed in the city's black community. "You hear everyone talking about it, in the restaurants and the churches. You have to wonder why she hasn't been arrested."

The woman's story touched off a wave of fear and anxiety in the downtown area, where residents and business workers became alarmed at the prospect of being attacked. The complaint also prompted Hartford police to divert patrol officers and other resources from other parts of the city to increase their visibility in the park and the surrounding neighborhood.

Last week, under intense questioning from detectives, the woman admitted that she had not been attacked in the park and that she had made up the description of her attacker.

She told police she had been raped somewhere other than the park by a man whom she described as a "friend" of hers, but would not tell police anything more. Because of her unwillingness to provide any further information, police last week announced that the case had been closed for now.

Police have declined to identify the woman, saying only that she is a white, middle-aged woman who lives in Connecticut but not in the Hartford area.

Although police officials expressed frustration over the lost man-hours and resources that had been put into the investigation, they said they decided not to pursue charges against the woman because it was still possible that she had been the victim of a sexual assault, although not in the manner she first described.

The woman's complaint came to light when she went to the hospital after allegedly being attacked on the afternoon of Nov. 14, and hospital officials notified police several hours later.

Because of the possibility that the woman may still be a rape victim, police officials said, they feared that pressing charges against her might discourage other, legitimate victims of sexual assault from coming forward.

"That was the main thing in our decision," department spokeswoman Nancy Mulroy said. "We understand the frustration over this situation as much as anyone, but our main concern is to make sure people are comfortable coming forward to report crimes."

Mulroy said the concerns expressed by the city's black community are "absolutely valid."

"There's absolutely a racial aspect to this, and that's unfortunate," she said. "This woman's complaint victimized the entire city. But at the end of the day, it's still possible that she was the victim of [another] sexual assault, and that's what we need to be focused on."

Mulroy said the department has not been able to tabulate the exact cost of the investigation, based on officers' hours and diverted patrols. She said an exact figure was unlikely to be determined because of the way the department keeps track of staffing hours and other records.

Additionally, she asked, "How do you quantify the damage done to the city's reputation? How do you quantify fear?"

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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