How Rape Victims Cope When Their Alleged Attackers Are Exonerated
Thomas McGowan, center, celebrates his exoneration at the Crowley Courthouse. He spent 23 years in prison for a rape he didn't commit.
When Debbie Jones saw her mother, she knew the news was bad.
For weeks, Jones had been waiting to hear from the Dallas County District Attorney's Office about the results of a DNA test. Now, on a sunny April morning in 2008, one of the DA's investigators, Jim Hammond, had shown up at Jones' office, her mother by his side. With them was Mike Corley, who Jones had met almost three decades before, when he was a young detective. He was an assistant chief of police now, but through the years he'd always remembered Jones' case. He wanted to help cushion the blow.
They led Jones to an empty conference room and sat her down. The DNA results were in, Hammond said. They showed that Thomas McGowan, the man Jones believed had raped her at knife-point 24 years before, was innocent. He would soon become the 16th official exoneree in Dallas County, one of dozens of wrongfully imprisoned men cleared by DNA evidence. Many of them were locked up on charges of rape or sexual assault, and for most, McGowan included, victim testimony played a crucial role in convictions. Jones had IDed McGowan. Now he was going free. They had no idea who raped her.
Sitting in the empty conference room, Jones was still certain that McGowan was guilty. She had stared into his face as he raped her, memorizing each detail. And now, because of some stupid test, he was going to go free, and he would find her, and he would kill her, just as he'd threatened to do in the courtroom during his trial.
McGowan would be released in two days. That left two days to sit her three sons down, tell them for the first time what happened to her, and warn them about the man who did it. All these years later, she was still dealing with the aftermath of the rape. She startled easily. She often bolted awake, frantic and screaming. And now this.
"Great, you're going to let a prisoner out," she told the men, bitterly. "Who lets me out of prison?"
The last thing Debbie Jones had to do that spring was sell her car. It was 1985, and Jones, who's been given a pseudonym for this story, was 19, a few months away from starting college. She was living in a townhouse in Richardson with her sister, working and saving. Soon she'd be joining her boyfriend at the University of North Texas, where she planned to study genetics.
On May 7, Jones took the day off work. She finally had a buyer for her Cutlass Supreme. The buyer, an elderly man, gave her a ride home afterward. They pulled up to her townhouse around 11 a.m. A car was parked in her space, but Jones didn't notice it.
"Do you want me to walk you to the door?" the buyer asked.
"No, thanks," Jones said, a little unsettled. She found the offer strange and got out quickly.
She walked inside, settled onto the couch and called her sister. She wanted to tell her what she'd gotten for the car. After they hung up, her boyfriend called and offered to take her to lunch. They said goodbye, and as Jones walked toward the kitchen, she noticed that her stereo and TV were piled messily onto the floor.
She stared at the pile for several long moments, as she tried to process what it meant. Then, suddenly, she was being hit again and again, so hard she thought there must be at least three people attacking her. As the blows came down on every part of her, she realized it was only one man: a stranger, black, with odd, greased-down hair. He had a knife.
"You better pray to God I don't kill you," he told her.
He kept beating her. He forced her to undress, bound her hands with a belt and raped her, the knife at her throat. Throughout, she prayed silently. God, please keep me alive. Please just keep me alive. She tried to stare at his face, willing herself to remember as many details as she could.
"Stop looking at me," he kept saying. He hit her more, and put clothes over her face so she couldn't see.
After a while they heard knocking at the door. It was Jones' boyfriend. He was there to take her to lunch. Jones and her attacker could see the boyfriend through a window, but because of the light he couldn't see them. He kept knocking, then tried the door. Although it was broken — the rapist had gotten into the house by easily pushing it open — it felt locked. He knocked again.
The rapist lay on Jones' back, the knife still pressed against her throat. He whispered in her ear.
"If you make a noise, I'm gonna kill him and kill you, too."
She lay still. After a moment, she heard her boyfriend leave. A few minutes later, the phone started to ring. It was him, trying to find Debbie. She watched as her rapist ripped both of the downstairs phones out of the wall.
After what felt like days, the rapist lifted himself off her, opened the refrigerator, casually popped the top off a beer bottle and drank it. He warned that he'd kill her if she told anyone, then walked out the front door. After a moment, Jones tore the belt off her hands, ran upstairs and called her sister. "I've been raped. Call 911," she instructed, and put the phone down.
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."
The lineup also wasn't the only thing that led prosecutors to zero in on McGowan, Corley says. McGowan refused at first to give a blood sample, Corley says, and he evaded police when they went looking for him. When they found him, Corley says, he was "in this bad, bad hotel off Harry Hines, one of those you rent by the hour." He says McGowan was with a prostitute at the time. (McGowan says it was actually his girlfriend.)
"He did not want to go," Corley says. "He pretty much told me where I could stick it." Because around six months had passed, McGowan wasn't able to remember exactly where he'd been the day of the crime. "It doesn't matter," Corley recalls him saying. "I didn't do it."
The results from the blood test came back inconclusive. But Corley felt there was enough circumstantial evidence for the case to go to a grand jury. "The car he drove matched exactly as what she'd given as the bad guy having. He fits the description to a T. He's acting very guilty. It's not the best case in the world, but I felt, 'Am I supposed to be the judge and the jury here? Let's give it to a grand jury.'"
Plus, Corley says, he trusted Debbie Jones. "There's nothing wrong with Debbie," he says plainly. "I had an intelligent, articulate, educated witness. I've worked 7-Eleven robberies where the guy comes in for 15 seconds and clerk's scared to death." In those cases, he says, the victim ID isn't as convincing. But here, he says, "Her face was a foot away from his face for a very extended period of time, and she's not — she's a smart person. I felt good with her identification. ... She was sure. She was absolutely positive. That's not the best case that you want, your case from heaven, but it's workable. There was not a red flag somewhere. It fit being him."
The grand jury agreed. McGowan was tried and convicted of burglary and rape. He got two consecutive life sentences. "I didn't think I was gonna ever get out," he says. Neither did Jones.
In early 2007, McGowan wrote a letter to the Innocence Project, begging them to look into his case. He didn't hear back for a long while. His hope started to wane. He feared he would die in prison. He feared his mother, who was in bad health, would die before he saw her face again.
"One night I was in my cell, and I started praying," he remembers. "I said, 'God, look, I don't know where else to turn. Get me out this prison where I can be with my mother before she goes to her grave. I don't wanna die in this prison. God, you get me out of this prison and I'll tell people the goodness you've done.'"
Three months later a letter arrived from the Innocence Project. They would take his case, they told him, and not a moment too soon. Under state law at that time, evidence was destroyed 25 years after a conviction. He'd been locked up for 23.
The Innocence Project contacted Dallas County prosecutors, who found Jones' rape kit and agreed to re-test it. Jones and her husband, who had since divorced, were asked to submit DNA samples. The DA's office assured her that it was a common request from convicts. But just days later, the results came back: the DNA evidence had excluded McGowan. He was innocent.
When she found out McGowan was getting out, Jones was convinced there had been a mix-up at the lab. "It's not something your mind can process," she says. In the decades since McGowan went to prison, Jones had moved on as best she could. But she'd gone to counseling at Parkland's rape crisis center exactly once, soon after the rape, and found that the counselor didn't seem particularly interested in talking about it, asking a lot of questions about her childhood instead. Jones never went back.
She had wanted badly to leave Texas. Her sister had left the state shortly after Jones' rape, not able to handle staying in the house they'd shared. Her church helped pay for the move. But no one bothered to tell Jones that the state had set up a victim compensation fund in 1979, which would have paid for her to move, plus counseling and medication. She and her husband did leave the state for about seven years, she says, but were eventually forced to move back for his job.
So when Corley and Hammond broke the news, Jones says, "It was like I was in the Twilight Zone. I seriously thought they were kidding, playing a joke on me. I could not process what they were saying. No way could they let Thomas out, because we all knew he did it."
Corley and Hammond showed Jones a piece of paper with the DNA results. She looked back at them, repeating over and over, "That's wrong. He did it. That's wrong."
"I know it's hard to believe," Corley told her. "I didn't believe it myself. But we have to believe it, because that's what the DNA shows."
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."
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.
Investigators also told Jones something shocking: Woodson had been in the photo lineup along with McGowan.
"I didn't even catch that it was him," she says, shaking her head. For one thing, she says, Woodson was much heavier in the photo. "The hair was way different," she adds. "They did warn me that he could have cut his hair. His hair was real weird. It was all slicked down [during the rape]. They said that they do that so you remember it a different way."
Jones heard the tape of his confession a month or so later. It helped her realize, finally, that McGowan was truly innocent. Woodson knew so much about the attack. "There are things only he and I could know," she says softly. In that confession, Jones says, Woodson told the investigators he's relieved they've finally found him. "That's a load off," he said. "That's been keeping me awake at night."
Since she learned about Woodson, whom she knows by the name Kenneth Bell, one thing has eaten away at Jones more than any other. When she talks about it, she starts to cry so hard she can barely breathe.
A year after he raped her, the DA's office says, he raped another woman in the same way: broke into her house, robbed her, assaulted her with a knife at her throat.
"You know if you'd picked the right person, then you would have prevented somebody else from being raped," she says. "It's a lot to deal with. I've never met her and I don't even know if I can. But because we didn't get Kenneth Bell off the street, he turned around and he raped someone else."
In that, Jones and Mallin have another painful thing in common: Both of their actual rapists have been identified, and both will soon get out of prison without being tried for the rapes because of a statute of limitations. The state changed that rule for cases with DNA evidence in 1997, but that doesn't help Mallin or Jones, whose rapes occurred in the 1980s.
Kenneth Woodson gets out in 2016.
"I want the law changed," Jones says. "I want to be able to hold Kenneth Bell responsible. ... If you made the law, you can change it."
To do that, Jones says, "I need my story to be heard."
She, Corley and McGowan have spoken to various church groups and law enforcement conventions several times. The first was in Denver, not long after McGowan's exoneration. That trip was the start of the healing process for Jones, McGowan and even Corley.
The Innocence Project had paid for McGowan to go, but it hadn't sent anyone to accompany him. He was lost and overwhelmed. Corley and his wife helped McGowan pick up his bags and find his way to his hotel. Later, as Corley prepared to give his portion of the presentation, his wife and sister took McGowan to walk around the convention hall. His sister is a pastor, and she and McGowan immediately hit it off.
"I never ever could have imagined that I would actually be friends with him," Jones says. "That I would sit on a plane with him. That I could speak with him. That I could hug him." Today, they exchange emails and text messages now and then, and speak of each other warmly.
For McGowan, it's as though God has finally set everything right. "God gave me my life back," he says simply. "Whatever he takes from you, he gives back to you with more abundance. Now I just try to be like a man would be at this age in the retirement stage and live it out like that, nice, easy, breezy and sunny."
Things are less breezy for Jones. She's learned a lot about forgiveness, about dealing with the pain of victimization, and she tries to share it with others, she says. She's found that she can't even be as angry at Kenneth Woodson as she was at McGowan for so many years. But it's been a long process.
"The pain is like standing in front of a brick wall a million feet tall," she says. "How do you get through? You just start chipping through it, little by little."
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