Thursday, October 29, 2009

Recanting in a rural town

In 2007, CNN and the mass media covered a story of a 20-year-old disabled African American woman, Megan Williams (pictured above), who reported her captivity and abuse at the hands of six white individuals. These offenders consisted of a woman and her son (both pictured below), another woman and her daughter, and two unrelated men. The abuse was shocking. She had been raped, stabbed, forced to eat feces, and subjected to a racial slur. The six defendants pleaded guilty and were sentenced to prison terms of up to 40 years. All defendants remain in prison as of the publication of the story.

Both CNN and the New York Times are now covering the latest development in the story. On October 21, 2009, Megan Williams came forward and recanted her entire story. Williams claims she concocted the story to get even with her boyfriend. The Defendant’s lawyer, Byron Potts described Williams' feelings as “total remorse; that’s why she’s coming forward. She is remorseful for having these people spend time in jail.”

Now the media and local authorities are questioning whether to believe her 2007 claim accusing the six individuals of various crimes or her claim today that she fabricated the story. In either case, there are serious questions as to how ruralism affected and continues to affect the investigation into this crime.

Law enforcement officials are currently considering the possibility that she was lying back in 2007 when she reported the crime. Considering the nature of criminal proceedings, this seems like an impossibility. First, one would think evidence of the crimes was present and collected and the District Attorney used that evidence to negotiate guilty pleas with the defendants. Secondly, the chances six individuals would plead guilty in spite of their innocence is low. One or two guilty pleas seems possible but not six.

If her original story was fabricated, how did the rurality of the area contribute to this lie? Doesn’t her lie perpetuate urban stereotypes of rural people as bigoted and uncivilized? Reverend Jesse Jackson called for these crimes to be charged as hate crimes due to both the racial slur and the fact that six white individuals conspired in an attack on an African American woman. Since 2007, this case has generally been regarded as such.

If her original claims were correct, why lie now? Of course, the woman is disabled which lends itself to discussions of mental infirmity.

However, pressure placed on her by the rural community is also a possibility. But, asked if she was being pressured to recant, her attorney said, “No, she's not being pressured into this.” However, it seems that pressure could be high in a rural area where everyone knows everyone. There is a documented phenomenon that a lack of anonymity can often prevent the accomplishment of justice when the rural community sympathizes with or fraternizes with the offender or offenders in question.

One rural prosecutor explained an occurrence in his hometown of Cottonwood County, Minnesota, population of 11, 283, as measured in the 2008 census. The prosecutor “filed charges against a twenty-two year-old man for the sexual abuse of six children. The man eventually pled guilty to abusing all six of these children. Prior to the sentencing, the court received a petition signed by more than fifty members of the community proclaiming the man's innocence. According to the petitioners, the man ‘plea-bargained to save more stress on his family.’” (See Victor Vieth, In My Neighbor’s House: A Proposal to Address Child Abuse in Rural America, 22 Hamline L. Rev. 143, 151 (1998)). The prosecutor then further expressed great concern that “the tendency of communities to discount allegations of child abuse and accept perpetrators' pseudo-pronouncements of innocence may coerce children revealing abuse to recant.” Thus, rural prosecutors are not strangers to either withdrawals of pleas or witness statements.

Regardless of any hypotheses, it seems that there are serious gaps in this story that need filling in. Hopefully, the truth will be uncovered in the months to come and the accomplishment of justice will occur.

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