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‘Beale Street’ Says: Be Careful

County Road 44 sign in Lake County, Florida
Road sign in Lake County, Fla., where Groveland is located. Photo by Flickr user formulaone.

The film “If Beale Street Could Talk” is an excellent motion picture, one that has already garnered several high-profile awards and nominations. It is also a fictional story that illuminates an all-too-real problem.

Based on James Baldwin’s novel of the same name, “If Beale Street Could Talk” unfolds in 1970s New York City. Directed by Barry Jenkins, whose film “Moonlight” won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 2017, the movie tells the story of a young African-American couple who are torn apart when one is falsely accused of rape. After the young man angers a beat cop, he is identified as the perpetrator, even though the timing and geography of the incident mean he cannot be guilty.

False identifications in sexual assault cases, especially when leveled against black men, have a sadly extensive history in our country – one reflected in our culture. Last year, PBS announced that “To Kill A Mockingbird” was America’s favorite novel. A new theatrical adaptation of the novel also opened on Broadway in December, suggesting that the fictional treatment of this sort of historical injustice still looms large in America’s collective imagination. But real-life cases continue to tear apart communities.

In my home state of Florida, the state’s Clemency Board granted pardons last week to four men accused of kidnapping and raping a young woman nearly 70 years ago. The “Groveland Four” are all deceased, though their accuser, 86-year-old Norma Padgett, attended the hearing and remained firm in her assertion that the four men were the ones who assaulted her. One of those young men, all of whom were black, was shot and killed as he fled an armed posse of approximately 1,000 men after the alleged crime. Two of the others were later shot, one fatally, during a prison transport. Lake County Sheriff Willis McCall claimed the pair was trying to escape, a characterization the survivor, Walter Irvin, flatly disputed. As was all too common at the time, the men faced a press corps and a justice system primed to believe young black men were threats to white women. This despite the fact that the case rested almost entirely on the testimony of Padgett and her husband. Not only was there no other compelling evidence that the men were guilty, but some of the evidence suggested the crime may never have happened at all, including witness statements to FBI agents that undermined Padgett’s testimony.

Of the three men who stood trial – Irvin, Samuel Shepherd and Charles Greenlee – two received the death penalty and one a life sentence from an all-white jury. Irvin and Shepherd appealed their capital convictions to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ordered a retrial. Shepherd never stood trial again, however, as McCall fatally shot him between the Supreme Court decision and the second trial. Irvin was sentenced to death a second time, though that sentence was later commuted to life in prison.

The Clemency Board, in pardoning the Groveland Four, neither affirmed nor rejected Padgett’s accusations directly, but pointed out that the entire handling of the case of was a miscarriage of justice. “I don’t know that there’s any way you can look at this case and think that those ideals of justice were satisfied,” Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said. “Indeed, they were perverted, time and time again.”

From the Scottsboro Boys in the 1930s to the Central Park Five in the 1980s, real-life examples of the damage false accusations can do are easy to find. They are likely to continue to be so long as our justice system continues to treat eyewitness testimony as a reliable source of evidence absent other supporting facts.

The New York City of today is, in many ways, very different from the Jim Crow-era South. But false identifications are still a persistent problem. The New York Times recently reported that the New York Police Department still sometimes uses open-ended photo searches. This technique involves asking a victim or witness to search through dozens or even hundreds of mug shots in hopes that he or she will recognize the perpetrator of the crime. Open-ended photo searches increase the potential that an innocent person will be accused, according to experts in eyewitness identification cited by the Times. Many other large police departments reported that they did not rely on the open-ended photo search – though many of them do create a photo lineup once they already have a suspect in mind, mixing that suspect in with photos of “fillers.” Such an approach offers more of a shield against false identifications, but it is still not foolproof.

This is not to suggest that all, or even most, false identifications are made with ill intent. As DNA evidence became more prominent, beginning in the 1990s, it became increasingly clear that eyewitness testimony is not as reliable as once believed. We now know that memory is imperfect and can alter over time. Witnesses who were under extreme stress at the crime scene – such as victims – can face even greater hurdles to accurate recall. According to The Innocence Project, mistaken identification from witnesses contributed to approximately 70 percent of wrongful convictions that were later overturned with DNA evidence.

Complicating this problem is the fact that many victims of sexual assault historically have not reported the incidents out of fear of being called liars, especially when their assailants are politically or professionally powerful. This, too, is shameful. Yet this history of silence means that, under the banner of supporting those who have less institutional power, some individuals have gone so far as to suggest that we must always believe accusers in cases of sexual assault, regardless of other evidence or the lack thereof.

Most researchers believe that false accusations of sexual assault, whether intentional or mistaken, are relatively rare, even if they do not agree on exactly how rare they are. But even a single false allegation can tear lives apart, as they family members of the Groveland Four can attest.

Despite the Florida Clemency Board’s decision, Norma Padgett still insists she was raped by these four men – one of whom, according to research cited by the Orlando Sentinel, was in police custody at the time of the alleged assault. I am not inside Padgett’s head. I don’t know her beliefs or her motives. But compelling evidence says that these four men did not commit the crime of which she continues to accuse them.

Justice demands that the criminal system test charges; that witness accounts, including those of victims, must be buttressed or challenged by outside evidence and cross-examination; and that the minds that will render judgment remain open. Individuals, not groups, commit crimes. An individual’s color or class or gender does not make him or her more or less credible, or more or less guilty. This has not always been the reality in our justice system in practice, but we must work to make it that way.

There are ways to make eyewitness testimony more useful, including a “double-blind” lineup – one in which the person administering the lineup does not know who is the real suspect, and so cannot unknowingly influence the witness – and recording a statement from the witness about his or her level of confidence in the identification immediately after the lineup procedure. Jurors also should be made aware of the shortcomings inherent to witness testimony, even when those witnesses are themselves very confident.

Victims who come forward must be heard; that does not mean they must be believed absent other evidence. “If Beale Street Could Talk” is a work of fiction, but like all good fiction, it is grounded in reality. If Beale Street could talk, it would tell us to be very careful when we sit in judgment of the lives of others.

Larry M. Elkin is the founder and president of Palisades Hudson, and is based out of Palisades Hudson’s Fort Lauderdale, Florida headquarters. He wrote several of the chapters in the firm’s book, Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55. His contributions include Chapter 1, “Looking Ahead When Youth Is Behind Us” and Chapter 4, “The Family Business."

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