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 immediately brought up an incident seared into her memory. During his trial, as she and Corley were returning from recess, they passed a few feet behind his chair. According to Jones, McGowan leaned back a little, looked right at her, and said, "I'm gonna kill you, bitch."

"The threat was so obvious," Jones says. "You could see by his body language and his face. I had no doubt if he didn't have handcuffs on that day, I'd be dead. I shook for the rest of the trial."

"Nah. That didn't actually happen," McGowan says. "My mother was in the courtroom, right there." He would have never talked like that with her present, he says. "I was so traumatized going through that stuff, I was in shock. It would've looked even worse if I'd said that, 'I'm gonna kill you bitch.' No, man, I didn't say that. If I had said that, I would've remembered that. I know I didn't say that. Even though I was going through a hell of a situation."

All those years later, Jones brought this up at their meeting for reasons more practical than emotional. "I need to know you're not going to hurt my family," she recalls saying.

McGowan looked at her in disbelief. "He just looked very confused," she remembers. "He was like, 'What are you talking about? Of course I wouldn't hurt you or your family.'"

"You said right there you were going to kill me," Jones replied. She remembers McGowan looking at his girlfriend then, and her looking back, "like, 'You didn't tell me this part.'" Jones started to cry. McGowan told her he was sure he'd never said such a thing.

"Thomas, I was right there," Mike Corley said gently. "I heard it."

They never resolved what was or wasn't said. Regardless, Jones says, it's irrelevant now.

"I had to come to a point to forgive him about this. He's a young black man being accused by a young white woman. I don't think we were hugely racially tense at that point, but I can see how he probably viewed that, was like, 'I'm going down no matter what and there's nothing I can do about it.' How upset would I be? How sad would I be?"

After their conversation, Craig Watkins, the Dallas County district attorney who's made his name aggressively pursuing exoneration cases, came in to talk with her and McGowan. "He commended both of us for our bravery," Jones says. "Then he looked right at me and he said, 'I don't want to ever hear you say you feel guilty about this, because it's not your fault.''

Guilt and remorse follow everyone associated with exonerations, not just victims. Corley, who's now chief of police in Brownswood, Texas, is still trying to figure out how he and the Richardson Police Department could have made such a serious mistake.

"This is a negative for me, in my career, my life and everything else," he says. Dallas County has since instituted a double-blind system for showing photos of suspects; the officer showing them has no idea who the suspect is, so he can't inadvertently give any hints.

But even if these guidelines are followed, some variables in exonerations are hard to control. Jennifer Thompson is another rape victim whose alleged rapist was set free. She's spoken publicly about her experience, and even co-wrote a book with the man she wrongly accused. Both Mallin and Thompson say that the public reaction to their stories is often hostile, even violent.

Someone runs a website calling for Mallin to be arrested and incarcerated for murder, since Cole died in prison based on her testimony. Thompson has heard more horrible things than she can count, she says. A recent comment on an article about her case opined that she should be raped again and left for dead in a ditch. An Observer story about McGowan's exoneration brought similarly vicious comments about Jones.

"Looking back on it, honestly I understand why women don't come forward," Thompson says. "It's scary and then people judge you as a bad human being, not as a victim who made an honest mistake."

That type of vitriol is one reason why Jones uses a pseudonym when she talks about her case, which is often. She wants people to know what victims go through, she says. In many ways, the crime is never really over for them.

"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. There are people who say you're a piece of crap because this happened. It's a totally different phenomenon with a rape victim than an exoneree. You do get victimized again. Quite frankly, I think the second time's almost worse than the first time, because you have that much more to deal with."

A month or so after she met McGowan, Jones was notified by the DA's office that they'd found a possible DNA match for her rapist. His name was Kenneth Wayne Woodson, alias Kenneth Bell, and he was already locked up on a burglary charge. After first denying that he had anything to do with the rape, he eventually confessed to everything.

« Previous Page
Next Page »
My Voice Nation Help
Asdf 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.


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.


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..


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)


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


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.


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.


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


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?


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


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


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.


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!"


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).


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 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.'


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

Russp 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.