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A ‘Lucky’ Exoneration in Syracuse

by Jayson Hawkins

Before Alice Sebold wrote her New York Times Bestseller, The Lovely Bones, she published a haunting memoir recounting her rape in 1981 when she was a freshman at Syracuse University. The book, Lucky, details not only the experience but also how she saw her attacker on the street months later, a man later identified as Anthony Broadwater. She testified against him in court, and Broadwater was convicted and sentenced to 18 years. The whole tale was intended to convey courage, perseverance, and the capacity to overcome.

There was only one problem: Anthony Broadwater was innocent. Every aspect of the case against Broadwater seemed questionable. The trouble began after police picked him up and arranged a lineup.

Broadwater’s attorney asked police to switch one of the other men in the lineup because none of them resembled Broadwater, except that all of them were Black. When Sebold looked at the men in the lineup, she picked the man added by Broadwater’s attorney.

The story should have ended there, but in her memoir, Sebold describes how the detective and prosecutor “coached her into rehabilitating her misidentification.” The case went ahead, and during the trial, she pointed out Broadwater as the man who attacked her, and even though he was obviously at the defense table and also the only Black man in the courtroom, her identification outweighed the previous lineup failure.

Aside from Sebold’s identification, prosecutors relied on hair analysis to tie Broadwater to the crime. This type of analysis, however, was recognized as somewhat inexact even at the time. All the analyst could testify to at trial was that the hair was “consistent” with Broadwater’s, and during the trial, the testifying chemist could not say how many other people might have similar hair.

Broadwater had opted for a trial in front of only a judge, and after two days of testimony, the judge found him guilty despite the clear existence of reasonable doubt outlined above. Four appeals spanning over 20 years were denied.

Broadwater served his whole sentence behind bars. He was denied parole five times because he refused to “take responsibility” for the crime. After his release in 1999, he was placed on the New York sex offender registry. He struggled to rent an apartment or find a job because of his record.

“I did what I could do, and that was just, you know, creating work for myself doing landscaping, tree removal, cleanouts,” he said.

While Broadwater was struggling to get by, Alice Sebold’s career took off. Lucky was published the same year Broadwater was released.

The Lovely Bones topped bestseller lists a few years later, eventually becoming a blockbuster movie. The trajectory of her career and Broadwater’s continued attempts to clear his name would eventually cross paths and bring about an unexpected result.

Lucky was slated to become a movie, but in 2019, executive producer Tim Mucciante became suspicious about discrepancies in the story.

He started researching the background, eventually finding the real person behind the pseudonym used for Broadwater in the book and getting a look at the original trial transcripts. What he learned convinced him to drop out of the project and take the case to attorneys David Hammond and Melissa Swartz. After talking to Broadwater and getting a financial commitment from Mucciante, these lawyers decided to take the case.

Their effort to clear Broadwater hinged on significant changes in the reputation of hair evidence like that used to convict him.

In 2016, then-FBI Director James Comey wrote a letter to governors across the country about the problems linked to this type of evidence.

“In many cases, we have discovered that the examiners made statements that went beyond the limits of science…. Hair is not like fingerprints,” Comey wrote.

The letter led to the re-examination of cases across the country, including in Onondaga County, which includes Syracuse. When the case was brought to Onondaga County District Attorney William Fitzpatrick by Broadwater’s new attorneys, the prosecutor immediately recognized the injustice of the case. When the lawyers filed in the New York State Supreme Court to vacate the conviction, Fitzpatrick joined in the motion. “We know now that the testimony of the forensic chemist stemmed from a largely debunked forensic approach to hair microscopy,” the district attorney’s motion stated.

In November 2021, the court exonerated Anthony Broadwater, citing the junk-science forensics and the fact that the jury never heard how Sebold was coached to change her mis-identification in the lineup.

“I won’t sully these proceedings by saying I’m sorry,” District Attorney Fitzpatrick said in the courtroom. “That doesn’t cut it. This should never have happened.”

A week later, Sebold issued a public apology. “I will continue to struggle with the role that I unwittingly played within a system that sent an innocent man to jail. I will also grapple with the fact that my rapist will, in all likelihood, never be known, may have gone on to rape other women, and certainly will never serve the time in prison that Mr. Broadwater did.”

Sebold went on to express relief at Broadwater’s exoneration and criticize the justice system she put her faith in. In the weeks following the exoneration, the movie plans for Lucky were shelved, and the book has been flooded with angry reviews on Amazon.

The exoneration led to Broadwater’s name being removed from the New York Sex Offender Registry, and the case has drawn some attention to how these registries function as a type of second punishment.

Broadwater has described in interviews how he was denied access to vocational classes and other job opportunities because he was on the registry. His story is familiar to any of the one million Americans on such registries, including people convicted as minors, those convicted of statutory or non-contact offenses, and people with developmental disabilities. Registered sex offenders have their photo, crime, and address posted, making a successful reentry into society nearly impossible.

In Broadwater’s home state of New York, a pending Clean Slate Bill would automatically expunge criminal records for misdemeanors and some felonies, which would improve prospects for housing and jobs. Sex offenses, however, are specifically excluded.

Broadwater got married after his release, but he refused to have children because of the weight his false conviction placed on his life. He recalled in interviews the “years of stigma and isolation” he faced.

The rules that add collateral consequences to the lives of sex offenders after they are released are fueled by the visceral fear these offenses inspire and the overblown perception of recidivism by sex offenders. Sex offenders are, according to research by Reason.com, nearly 25 percent less likely to reoffend than the average for other types of offenses. This fact, coupled with the reality that nearly a third of documented exonerations since 1989 have involved sex offenses even though sex offenders make up about 13% of prisoners, should be enough to counter the fear and emotion generated by sex crimes. But Broadwater’s life is evidence they do not. 

Source: syracuse.com, cnn.com, theguardian.com, newsweek.com, reason.com

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