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.

It's a common reaction, says Michelle Moore, a public defender who's represented many of Dallas County's exonerated men. "Most of them still believe the guy did it," she says. Unlike Jones, she says, many victims never change their minds.

That day, Jones also asked Chris Jenkins, who was working as a victim witness coordinator at the DA's office, for a current photo of him.

"She pulled out a picture and handed it to me," Jones says. "I've already been told this isn't the right guy, that he's going to get exonerated, and I looked at it and just tossed it off and started bawling. Because that was the guy who raped me. So how are you going to let him out of prison? How?"


On a recent afternoon, Debbie Jones, now in her 40s, sat on the maroon couch in her therapist's office, wearing a black and white flowered sundress and sandals, her brown hair pinned away from her face. She cried often telling her story, taking her tortoiseshell glasses off and wiping her eyes. But she never stopped talking, her words precise and urgent.

After the exoneration, she says, her depression and guilt were so intense she considered suicide. "People don't understand how hard it is going through this, and what a horrible thing it is to find out that you were part of a man going to jail that was wrongly accused," she says."There's a lot of guilt with that."

Over time, the law enforcement community has begun piecing together ways to help the victims in exoneration cases. It's become clear that the exoneration process, while obviously important and just, has a way of re-victimizing the survivors of violent crimes.

Chris Jenkins, now a victim's advocate in Collin County, wrote a series of guidelines that she encourages other law enforcement agencies to use: Be aware that an exoneration can trigger guilt, anger, disbelief and confusion for a victim, she urged. Be prepared for lots of questions. Decide at what point in the DNA-testing process that you'll notify the victim — when the prisoner requests it, when the testing date has been set, afterward or not at all. If the crime is old, as it was in Debbie Jones' case, remember that the victim might never have been given the proper information at the time of the crime, such as her right to attend parole hearings and protest parole.

Jones did just that a year before McGowan was exonerated, and she has high praise for Dallas County prosecutors and the Richardson police. Dallas County seems to be ahead of the curve in its treatment of victims. Nationally, the Innocence Project encourages prosecutors and police agencies to work with victims as exonerations are taking place, spokesman Paul Cates says.

"We always do try to be very cognizant of the fact that the victims are suffering when this happens," he says. "We try to make sure the DA's office at least contacts them and notifies them of what happens. We're very sensitive to it." But there are still no widely used best practices or guidelines for prosecutors and police departments to follow.

Which helps explain why Michele Mallin had an entirely different experience than Jones. Mallin identified Tim Cole as the man who raped her in a parking lot at Texas Tech when she was a 19-year-old student. Cole was later exonerated by DNA evidence — but not before he died of an asthma attack in prison. The Tim Cole Act, passed a few years later, set aside financial compensation for the wrongly convicted.

Mallin, the only other victim in a Texas exoneration case to go public, was never offered counseling or support from the DA's office or the police department in Lubbock. After being informed that Cole was innocent, she says, she never heard from either entity again. "It would've been nice to hear they were sorry about what happened, but they don't seem to be," she says. "I don't know. It was like I didn't even exist."

By contrast, Jones found "a big brother" in Corley, who worked to make sure Jones didn't feel the same way. And his guidance led to a bit of a breakthrough.

A few months after McGowan got out of jail, he sent Jones a letter. She refused to even touch it. She took the envelope by its corner, almost as though it would infect her, and gave it to a friend to keep. She didn't even want it in the house, and she certainly never wanted to meet the man who, she was still certain, had raped her and threatened to kill her.

But Corley did meet with McGowan. When Jones learned of this, she was shocked. But gradually, her stance started to soften. Corley seemed so much more at peace after their meeting, she says. "I wanted that peace."

A year after McGowan was released, Jones told prosecutors she was ready to meet him. A meeting was arranged at the DA's office. Jones brought some family members; McGowan brought his girlfriend. "It was terrifying for me, and it was terrifying for him," Jones says. "I could tell."

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23 comments
Asdf
Asdf

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.

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)

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.

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.

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

"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

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.

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.

Gilbo
Gilbo

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

LOL
LOL

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

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.

 
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