SYRACUSE, N.Y. – “I kept fighting for the court to do the right thing,” Anthony Broadwater says, sitting in his lawyer’s office Wednesday, a box of tissues set before him. His life has been marked by prolonged stretches of misery. Broadwater spent more than 16 years in prison after being falsely convicted of author Alice Sebold’s rape, the subject of her memoir “Lucky.” After his release in 1999, the same year the book was published, Broadwater became a registered violent sex offender, a purgatory that diminished his income, movement and quality of life, but not his hope that he would be exonerated.
His case encompasses inequities in the criminal justice system, of a White victim misidentifying a Black man whose life will never fully recover. And it raises the question of who gets to own a story – and what is owed when that story turns out to be inaccurate.
Sebold, who is White, saw her memoir top the bestseller list and wrote the wildly successful 2002 novel “The Lovely Bones” about a teenage girl’s rape and murder. She became a sought-after guest on top talk shows and speaker on the trauma of rape.
Broadwater, who is Black, spent those same years impoverished. He had no prior adult criminal record, and was denied release five times because he refused to admit any guilt. He sought to overturn his conviction on at least five occasions, and even wrote to famed attorney Johnnie Cochran, who returned Broadwater’s check.
Justice arrived like a meteor, originating from an unlikely source: Timothy Mucciante, who nursed grave doubts about the veracity of Sebold’s story when he was the executive producer of the film version of “Lucky.” He suspected that the man called “Gregory Madison” in the book might not be the actual perpetrator, and in late June hired private investigator Dan Myers to look into the matter. “After a conversation of over an hour with Anthony Broadwater, I knew this guy was innocent,” says Myers, a 20-year police veteran.
Five months later, on Nov. 22, four decades after Broadwater’s misfortune began, the conviction was vacated in a courtroom where the judge and prosecutor agreed that the case was profoundly flawed.
“It was professionally sickening,” Onondaga County District Attorney William Fitzpatrick says days later of how the original case was handled. “This was not Alabama in 1950. This was Syracuse, New York, in 1982.”
The speed with which his case was overturned stunned the lawyers. “These proceedings usually take years. No one agrees on anything,” says J. David Hammond, one of Broadwater’s attorneys.
As Broadwater, 61, recounts his ordeal in his lawyer’s office, he is often moved to tears, a development of the past month, according to his wife, Elizabeth.
“I can count on two hands the number of people who invited me into their home,” he says. He has been with Elizabeth since 1999, their first date 11 months after his release from prison, and told her it would be wrong to start a family. “I couldn’t do that to them, living with that stigma.”
Broadwater speaks in quiet, measured tones, attired in a blue dress shirt, black slacks and double strap dress shoes, his thick gray hair pulled back in braids. He answers every question in detail. After so long, it’s time for him to tell his story.
Sebold testified that the rape took place under the Thornden Park Amphitheater when she was a Syracuse University freshman. The case, Broadwater’s lawyers Hammond and Melissa Swartz argued, rested on hair analysis that has since been largely discredited as “junk science,” and “prosecutorial misconduct” involving the police lineup where Sebold identified a different man as her assailant months after the rape. Prosecutors later “deliberately coached her into rehabilitating her misidentification,” the lawyers wrote. They argued that “single-witness cross-racial identification” can be unreliable. They wrote that the judge’s familiar disposition toward Sebold was “highly improper and reinforces the lack of due process.”
Broadwater was the only Black man in the courtroom during his trial. “I didn’t realize that no matter what I did, I was probably going to be convicted,” he told the Syracuse Post Standard.
“It was a very unusual case from the very beginning,” says William Mastine, the prosecutor who tried the case but wasn’t originally assigned to it, and is now retired. He disputes the new arguments of prosecutorial misconduct. “I don’t know what they’re talking about. I don’t have any opinion on his case being vacated.” The other prosecutor did not return a call for comment, and the judge is deceased.
Eight days after Broadwater’s conviction was overturned, Sebold posted an apology on the platform Medium: “I am sorry most of all for the fact that the life you could have led was unjustly robbed from you, and I know that no apology can change what happened to you and never will.”
Sebold’s memoir describes her assailant in unsparing detail, and alleges that he played a role in arranging the police lineup. She wrote that Broadwater and the man whom she originally misidentified “looked like identical twins,” which Fitzpatrick and defense attorneys rebutted in court filings. She alleged that her assailant helped orchestrate the subsequent rape of her Syracuse roommate by another man. She noted that a bailiff with 30 years experience told her, “You are the best rape witness I’ve ever seen on the stand.”
On Tuesday, Sebold’s publisher announced that it would cease distribution of the memoir “while Sebold and Scribner together consider how the work might be revised.” Variety reported that the movie has been scrapped and lost financing months ago.
Broadwater cried when he read his accuser’s apology that day. He holds little rancor toward Sebold. He would like to meet with her in person. He sees a common bond in the aftermath of her rape and his conviction.
“I’m going to be suffering and traumatized, just like her, for the rest of my life,” he says. “It’s something that’s in there – that’s nothing that is going to come out. I hope I can get a little solace and relief.”
“I’d like to know her as a real-live person,” adds Broadwater, who has never read “Lucky,” though he is familiar with passages about him. He would like to say to her, “Hey, I’m sorry for your tragedy and your trauma that you went through.” He says, “I would hope she would say the same thing to me.”
On social media, response to Sebold has been swift and vicious, with many critics accusing her of racial bias and White privilege, and commenting that she has profited from the case while Broadwater has not.
“The easy and cheap way to do this is to blame the victim,” argues Jennifer Thompson, founder of the Healing Justice Project, which helps survivors, the exonerated and their families in these kinds of cases. “When the exoneration happens, the media and the general public have a thirst for blood.” Thompson’s 1984 rape resulted in an initial wrongful conviction before the actual perpetrator was charged, the subject of the book “Picking Cotton.”
“No crime survivor wants an innocent person to go to prison,” Thompson says. In the Broadwater case, “it’s egregious all the way around. I’m so sad for everybody. There are no winners in these stories except for the perpetrator.”
In her apology, Sebold wrote, “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.”
“We just don’t appreciate how fallible human memory is,” says Anton Robinson, a senior staff attorney with the Innocence Project, which helps exonerate the wrongfully convicted. Mistaken eyewitness identifications have contributed to almost 70 percent of the more than 375 wrongful convictions overturned by DNA evidence in the United States. The DNA evidence in Broadwater’s trial was destroyed around 1989.
“It makes you wonder how many other Anthonys are out there – and we know they’re out there,” Robinson says.
Broadwater’s lawyers will seek financial restitution from the state of New York. They declined to reveal how much.
“There’s no amount of money that’s ever going to compensate him for what he’s lost,” Swartz says. “He can’t get those years back.”
The lawyers’ issues are not with Sebold – and they don’t plan to pursue legal action. “My issue was always with the court, and seeking justice,” Broadwater says.
On Wednesday, Mucciante, the producer, announced that his company is working on a new project about Broadwater’s case: a documentary entitled “Unlucky.”
Before his incarceration, Broadwater installed telephone lines, making the equivalent of $8.42 an hour today. He served in the Marines as a communications operator, and left with an honorable discharge.
The 1982 trial lasted two days. “Two hours the first day, an hour and a half the next,” Broadwater says. The court transcript runs all of 214 pages. “I’ve had hearings that run longer than that,” Hammond says. Broadwater was convicted on seven felony counts.
At age 21, he entered the prison system. Attica. Auburn. Back to Attica. Green Haven. Fishkill.
“I did the New York tour,” Broadwater says. He acquired his GED, as well as some college credits. He had a particular interest in the law, the better to fight for his freedom.
Upon his release as a registered violent sex offender, Broadwater was severely limited in what jobs he could hold. He did janitorial work from 6 p.m. to 2 a.m., when few people were around. He sold scrap metal. He fixed roofs. He’s good at building barbecue pits and grilling on them, too.
Broadwater has never earned more than $10,000 a year, he says, and has no savings. He lives in the green-and-brown clapboard house that he inherited from his father, with a few windows missing and the first- and second-floor porches wrapped in plastic brown tarp. At the end of his block there’s an elementary magnet school, which, since his release, he’s never been permitted to walk past.
Now that his conviction has been vacated, Broadwater will be excised from the registry of sex offenders.
He hopes to travel, and has his eye on an old camper. Broadwater would like to go to Niagara Falls, a 2 ½-hour drive west of Syracuse.
“I’ve never had a vacation,” he says.
He dreams of moving to the country, a farm, nothing big, 10 acres in nearby Madison County, with apple and pear trees. His wife, Elizabeth, nodded in agreement that she would like that, too.
Broadwater’s health is a challenge. All those years in prison didn’t help. “I lost a thyroid and have a left busted patella,” he says. He walks with a cane. He played a lot of football in prison, fullback and halfback. He needs a right hip replacement. His neck hurts constantly from a car accident three years ago. “I don’t get a lot of sleep. I sleep better in a recliner,” he says.
“I don’t know how many years he has left, but we want them to be peaceful, calm and easy,” says Swartz, his lawyer.
Broadwater kept recent celebrations low key. Someone sent him a bottle of champagne.
The day before Thanksgiving, he distributed turkeys and food to the poor. He regularly donates food, helping people whom he views as less fortunate.
Last Thursday, he celebrated with Elizabeth. Fitzpatrick, the DA, sent him this text: “I want you to have the most joyous Thanksgiving ever this year, a free man and an innocent man. I want you to know that I will keep my word and tell your story many times over the coming years to make sure that this never happens again.”
Broadwater gazes at the text frequently. “That’s the most rewarding thing there is,” he says. “All I wanted was my freedom, my freedom and my innocence.”
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