How Rape Victims Cope When Their Alleged Attackers Are Exonerated

Debbie Jones spent decades coming to grips with the fact Thomas McGowan raped her. Then she found out he didn't.

Jones ran down the stairs, out the door and across the apartment complex, bloodied and naked except for her bra, past a crew of repairmen, who stared at her in bewilderment. She made it to the front office, where she called 911 herself. Detective Mike Corley was one of the responding officers. He barely left her side that day, starting with when she went to Parkland Hospital for a rape exam.

Later, Jones would realize something: From where the rapist had been hiding in the living room, he could have, had he been interested only in looting her belongings, easily run out the front door as she chatted with her sister on the couch.

"He could've been out the door and I would've never seen him," she says today. "He chose to stay and hurt me instead." She remembers standing in that hospital bathroom that day, holding the sink and screaming. "I felt like my life was over."


Thomas McGowan was 26 years old that May. He lived in Richardson, too, where his family had moved a few years before. He'd never been in any real trouble as an adult, just a little mischief in Wichita Falls, his hometown, when he was 16 or 17.

"I loved cassette players," he remembers, some 40 years later, sounding both amused and exasperated by his younger self. "So I picked up a rock and chucked it through this Sears building window and got me some cassette players."

McGowan got six years probation for that. He'd just finished that time when his family moved to Richardson in 1979. His only run-in after that was when a cop pulled him over for making an illegal turn and discovered he didn't have a license. That one sent him to jail for the night.

It was Jim Hammond, the DA investigator, who first suggested McGowan as a potential suspect in Debbie Jones' rape, Corley says. McGowan's car was similar to the one she saw her attacker driving away in that day.

A few days after the attack, Jones was taken to the police station to look at a live lineup: three possible suspects and three "fillers." McGowan was not among them. She wasn't able to identify a suspect. Ten days later she saw a photo lineup. In that one, McGowan was pictured, along with six others.

But the photo lineup was "highly unusual," according to the New York-based Innocence Project, a nonprofit that does legal work for potentially innocent prisoners. Some of the photos were in color and some were black-and-white mug shots. McGowan was one of the men in the mug shots. They used the one from when he got picked up by Richardson Police for driving without a license.

As Jones stared into the photos, McGowan jumped out at her right away. The Innocence Project has suggested she was led by the fact that it was a mug shot — and a mug shot from the police department in the same city where she was raped. But she says it was more than that.

"The picture I had in my mind looked just like the picture of Thomas that was handed to me," she explains. "Here was this guy who — it just looked exactly like him. It was just the exact person who I sat and stared at, which makes it even harder now. I never questioned that that was him. It was his face."

But that day, Jones told Corley she "thought" the picture of McGowan looked right, according to court testimony reviewed by the Innocence Project. "You have to be sure," he told her. The nonprofit implies that Jones was pressured into making a positive ID. "Decades of scientific research show that instructions or feedback from an officer administering a live or photo lineup can significantly impact whether a witness identifies the wrong person," the group wrote about the case. Barry Scheck, co-director of the Innocence Project, said that Corley "forced the victim into certainty."

Jones remembers it differently.

"As the victim, I took that as, 'Debbie, this is serious. We don't want the wrong person going to jail. You need to be sure, because it'll affect this person's life for the rest of his life.' That's how I took it. ... Everybody wants to blame somebody."

Corley, too, bristles at the suggestion that the lineup was deliberately misleading. "Some of the photos were black and white and some of them were color," he says, "but that didn't concern me." It was what he had available, he says. "Most spread arrays, I only put six [photos in]. This one I had seven, so at the time I thought I was going above and beyond."

Besides, Corley says, a judge ruled in pretrial hearings that the lineup had been conducted properly. In fact, there were two such rulings, since McGowan was tried twice: once for burglary and once for sexual assault.

"It's easy to look back now and say 25 years ago, I'd do a lot different," Corley says. "But that's the way I was trained to do it. Plus, I took pride in my work. I took great pride in being fair."

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23 comments
Asdf
Asdf like.author.displayName 1 Like

How has this entire article gone with only as much as a paragraph discussing the fact that REAL people got falsely accused of rape?! The entire thing treats the Rape victim as the true and only victims, refusing to use the word "victim" for the people that spent their lives and died in prison for a crime they didn't commit. The fact of the matter remains that a rape accusation is basically a rape conviction, and this is not limited to any of these cases.

Traceyrco
Traceyrco

The worst of it is that the real rapist is out there & should be in prison. They don't stop until they're stopped. Studies shows keeping a rapist in jail for 7 years is cheaper than rehabilitating one victim.

Pedophiles especially need to be locked up for good.

I wonder what role the police played in charging the wrong guy? They probably gave her a list of photos of "suspects" they'd targeted - rightly or wrongly & she just thought one of them had to be the guy.

I'm so sick of lazy cops just there to collect a paycheck until their pension kicks in.

Good cops who do care are few and far between. Seems like all the good, caring guys I know who want to be cops get booted, while the slime balls I've known get the job!!

We all suffer as a result.

Refuse
Refuse

I don't see where the police played a role in this one. I bet the "good cops" get sick of hearing garbage like this post from folks with an axe to grind.

tahoira mode
tahoira mode

just imagine the countless times Mcgowans got beaten/raped in prison as pedo's & rapists are hated by the inmates.. they're number one on the "shanking list". Now i dont see him being labelled a "victim". heck i dont even see him painted as a fucking saint for being so forgiving of the situation..

while what happened to the woman was terrible, as rape is terrible, i dont blame the woman for she was not the one who wrongly convicted him. the whole situation was unfortunate. my problem is with the way this article is written. both individuals were victims, but only one was painted as the 'strong survivor' while the other 'should just be thankful he's free now'.

"Things are less breezy for Jones. She's learned a lot about forgiveness,"

I think Mcgowans learned about forgiveness more than she ever will..

SomeGuy
SomeGuy

For the people who are saying that Jones should be punished: Jones had no interest in or benefit from the wrongful conviction of an innocent man. She did the best that she could to identify the man who assaulted her. She seems to have been as convinced as anyone reasonably could have been that she was identifying the correct person. Should no stranger rapes have been prosecuted without hard evidence? I don't have the answer to that question. Jones, however, wasn't out to ruin someone's life. Her own life has been greatly damaged as well. The one who should be blamed for the wrongful conviction is the same as the one who should be blamed for the rape.

There may be cases where people failed to properly weigh their own doubt against the gravity of their accusations. There may be cases where racism led to bias or fabricated memories. There may be cases where people just wanted so badly for a conviction to grant them closure that they lied to themselves or others. I can't say what played into Jones' accusations, but the attitude that every victim who makes a mistake in identifying a stranger that they met once under traumatic circumstances deserves to be stoned is wrong.

Praise Christ for the overturning of wrongful convictions and for his loving mercy that he's willing to give to the raped, the wrongfully accused, those of the legal system, and to the rapist. By his scourging we are healed. (Isaiah 53:5) (NASB)

Gilbo
Gilbo

No I'd rather praise science and good-hearted people for the overturning of the conviction.

ghebert
ghebert

The fact that women get away with a slap on the wrist if anything when falsely accusing someone of rape not only destroys the life of an innocent man but it also hurts the real victims as they are less likely to be believed. If these women knew there were severe consequences to face, they wouldn't be so quick to point the finger.

Confuscan
Confuscan

Rape victim mistakenly identifies innocent man and his life is destroyed. And you're focusing on her? Let's be clear. She sent an innocent man to prison. No apology. Nothing. Even worse, ther real rapist was in the lineup/photos. In fact, her first question to him is wondering if he's going to hurt her family??? Nothing about him or what she did to his life and family.

twotechs
twotechs

this makes me furious,lifes hard,people go through various horrible things,this woman is selfish and should be locked up for 23 years for know reason

Jmemailbusiness
Jmemailbusiness

This article does not tell the complete story. Three weeks after the assault, the real person was arrested by another suburb on an unrelated charge. In his bookin photo, he resembled McGowan. As for 'Justiceseeker's' comments....are you projecting your own desires into a group of men that have more integrity, forgiveness and class, than you? Are you even permitted to be on a computer?

Justiceseeker
Justiceseeker

I think think someone should tie her up and every exonerated convict should get to fuck her. Bonus pay! What a Bitch.

LOL
LOL

No one volunteered. So why don't you go ahead?

Steve
Steve

The very headline of this piece re-indicts recently freed, wrongly-accused, not guilty men.

Everyone involved in the authorship and publication of this article is a piece of shit.

Shameaka Jones
Shameaka Jones

Why cover this story with the underlying assumption that the man that was DNA tested and released, because of the DNA results, is guilty? That man is innocent. The victim need to receive counseling and then she need to keep it real. She cost an innocent man thirty years of his life that he cannot get back. Did you notice something familiar about this case? I noticed that the victim, was a white female, that accused a black man of raping her. Do you know how many innocent black men have lost their lives, in the last century, because some white female lied and said he raped her? No, because there are too many to name. I am glad that another innocent man is walking free. And I am glad that there are people who work for the criminal justice system, to do justice for all, Like Dallas D.A Craig Wallace.

G_David
G_David

I'm sure the race issue was addressed in the story by the victim pretty eloquently. And I'm even more sure that the D.A. of Dallas County is not Craig Wallace.

Mary Loves Mookie
Mary Loves Mookie

I can't even count the number of tired-ass racial tropes in this piece. An innocent Black man gets a quarter-century of his life STOLEN from him and you choose to focus on the FEELINGS of the white lady who put his innocent butt behind bars? Yeah, that's a real sophisticated understanding of justice. As a rape survivor myself, supporting rape survivors and preventing sexual assault are pretty damn important to me. But even I think this piece is total hackwork.

Travis Austin Hoopz
Travis Austin Hoopz

Yeah, what the hell? 20+ years in prison unjustly accused of a crime isn't enough? You have to re-victimize a man after? I understand the rape victim has issues, but what happens if the man you accused was raped in the prison that you sent him? Possibly in an even more violent fashion, maybe multiple times, by multiple attackers? What happens if he'd developed HIV in prison?

Money from the state's nice, but no apology from the person who ruined a life? "Oh, oops!"

Guest
Guest

Corley, too, bristles at the suggestion that the lineup was deliberately misleading. "Some of the photos were black and white and some of them were color," he says, "but that didn't concern me."

This man is not very smart, is he? I mean, he doesn't have the capacity for complex thought, correct?

Why does he think that police have long been trained to find similar-looking people to put in line-ups? Because you want them to recognize the person not pick someone who stands out because they look different.

And if one picture is a mugshot and the others are a mixture of color and black-and-white snapshots, you've failed Line-Up 101. Sure, we know a lot more now about memory and suggestibility, but we knew at the time that you put six similar looking people together so none stand out as different.

I'll take his word that he didn't do it on purpose, but if he had the capacity to think, he'd have known better back then.

It's very sad to me that a person who shouldn't be trusted to assistant manage the night shift at an off-brand McDonald's was for so long entrusted with people's lives as a police officer (and is now a chief).

The state didn't come and give me $2 million and say we're sorry this happened to you.

Well, you know, the only reason exonerees get money is because the state committed the offense against them, and (in the past) it was believed that these various police departments who put the wrong people in prison would be sued and end up having to pay millions out of their own budgets, potentially curtailing their ability to prevent crimes in the future.

Given that Debbie Whatever was complicit in the state's crime against the exoneree (if not for her testimony, they would not have arrested and tried the wrong man), the state's compensation plan is just as much protecting her as it is the police departments and prosecutors who got the wrong guy. She didn't mean to pick the wrong guy, and state didn't mean to send the wrong guy to prison. But that's what they did (drunk drivers don't mean kill people in DWI accidents, but they do).

It's horrible that she got raped, and I'm sure it is very, very tough to deal with. But I imagine having someone lie about you (however unwittingly) and send you to prison for a very long time is probably pretty tough, too. One of the parties who wronged the exoneree is paying him to try to make up for their wrongful prosecution. The person who wronged Debbie Whatever is the man who actually raped her, however. If she thinks $2 million will make her life all better, then she needs to talk to him about it.

I wonder if she feels like she should compensate the additional rape victims that the man who actually raped her was able to commit after she sent the police after the wrong guy? They're going through terrible trauma, too. Trauma that could have been avoided had the police not settled on the wrong guy thanks to her mistaken ID.

(Also, I like that the person who couldn't remember who raped her can somehow remember something that was supposedly said to her a quarter century ago. We're supposed to trust her memory when her faulty memory is what caused the wrongful conviction in the first place).

Larry
Larry

yeah, yeah, but she finally owned up when the real culprit was IDed. It just took that long for her to get past the initial shock. I have sisters and a daughter... can't imagine the pain there. Especially when the eyewitness testimony was given so much weight

but this shows the hole in that type of testimony. Long known to be weakest of all evidence, but cops and prosecutors are lazy, and want convictions, so guess what happens.

Don't the Brownswood citizens feel safe, eh wot?

Flapjack
Flapjack like.author.displayName 1 Like

"Thomas, he's out, he's leading his life," she explains. "But with a rape victim, it just never goes anywhere. The state didn't come and give me $2 million and say we're sorry this happened to you."

What. The. Hell. -obligatory condolences--> I feel super sorry for this lady and i can't even begin to imagine the enormous sense of violation/despair felt by a rape victim. Truly. I hope she can find peace.

--back to that quote--But seriously what the hell? She should never compare her tragedy with Thomas'. EVER. If she simply expounded on her struggles, mental and physical, after the trauma that befell her I wouldn't take umbrage. But saying that quote above is destestable.

Sure, Thomas is out, AFTER 23 years in prison. 23 years in prison changes a man. Even more so an innocent man--loses all faith in 'the system' and society in general. "it just never goes anywhere" applies to both you and him.

And her last statement in that quote, DEAR GOD LADY! No one gave you $2 million dollars for being raped. The state DID say 'we're sorry this happened to you' and the article reads as if that cop was amazing at helping you deal with this terrible trauma. If you think $2 million dollars makes life any easier for the poor man you falsely accused think again.

so disgusting for her to think 'yeah Thomas is fine! Me? Oh I'm still suffering.'

GinoRomano
GinoRomano

jonathan lee riches sued george zimmerman keith judd for $ 3 million dollars..jonathan lee riches was released from prison on april 30th, 2012

Russp
Russp like.author.displayName 1 Like

Very unfortunate for almost all the parties involved (except the actual rapists) but unfortunately eye witness identifications are wrong as often as they are right if not more so, especially from a victim under stress. I just wish the statute of limitation laws would be done away with for all crimes. Right now it's like a contest, go undetected long enough, get away with your crime.

 
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