Elizabeth Holmes, Ghislaine Maxwell and America's justice system

Compare the cases of Anthony Broadwater with those of two white American women

Elizabeth Holmes walks with her partner Billy Evans and her parents, to the federal court to hear the verdict in her fraud trial in San Jose, California, January 3. AFP
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In the past fortnight week, two women appeared in court in the US on vastly different charges. Ghislaine Maxwell was on trial for sex trafficking – and found guilty; Elizabeth Holmes for fraud – also found guilty, on charges of fraud and conspiracy. Both women come from similar milieus: immense wealth, privilege and access to a glamorous life. Both are white and educated at elite schools. Both were armed to the teeth with the most expensive lawyers money can buy.

Now, consider the case of Anthony J Broadwater, who was recently exonerated for rape charges in 1981 for a crime he never committed. His accuser is another privileged white woman, the author Alice Sebold.

Mr Broadwater spent 16 years in prison after Ms Sebold – who had been raped as a student at Syracuse University in New York – accused him without actually being sure he was the one who attacked her. Supporters of Ms Sebold today say she was only 19 when this happened, and that she was pushed into accusing Mr Broadwater by her over-zealous prosecutor.

Anthony Broadwater breaks down on November 22, in Syracuse, New York, when a judge overturned his 40-year-old rape conviction. AP

I have no doubt that Ms Sebold suffered horribly as a result of the rape at such an early age. Still, the facts remain: Ms Sebold went on to write books using rape as a topic that gained her fame and wealth. Her novel The Lovely Bones was made into a Hollywood film directed by Peter Jackson of the Lord of the Rings fame. Her memoir Lucky, about the rape and details of her trial, sold millions of copies and was about to be made into another film when the case was investigated and Mr Broadwater finally exonerated. Her publishers have ceased to distribute it. In the memoir, she gave Mr Broadwater a fictitious name – but it still meant he was branded a sex offender upon his release in 1998.

Mr Broadwater was only 21 when he was sent to prison. He tried repeatedly to hire lawyers to prove his innocence. Many attorneys turned him down, and he didn’t have the financial means to secure the best defence. Meanwhile, Ms Sebold, who today lives in a $6 million mansion in San Francisco, has been trying to defend herself and has apologised. Mr Broadwater, finally cleared of this heinous miscarriage of justice, is extraordinarily generous towards Ms Sebold’s feckless “mistake”.

“It took a lot of courage,” he said of her apology. “I guess she’s brave and weathering through the storm like I am.”

Anthony Broadwater, after Judge Gordon Cuffy overturned the 40-year-old rape conviction that wrongfully put him in state prison for Alice Sebold's rape. AP

I think it is fair to say that even though Ms Sebold writes extensively about her victimisation and her Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, it is Mr Broadwater’s life that was destroyed. Whatever potential the young man, a former marine, had in front of him was crushed when he was sent to prison. Had he been able to afford the kind of legal representation that Ms Maxwell and Ms Holmes employ – or had he been white – he most likely would have had an entirely different life. He has struggled to work after prison; finding jobs as a janitor and trash collector.

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The track record for Black men getting justice in America is deeply flawed and disproportionate compared to white people

Meanwhile, Maxwell – the daughter of an unscrupulous British publishing magnate – was the longtime lover and enabler of the disgraced financier Jeffrey Epstein who committed suicide in his cell. Maxwell pleaded not guilty to six federal counts, including sex trafficking of a minor, enticing a minor to travel to engage in illegal sex acts, transporting a minor with the intent to engage in criminal sexual activity and three related counts of conspiracy.

Maxwell, 59, is nearly the same age as Mr Broadwater. But unlike him – whose mother died when he was a small boy, and who lived a marginal existence with a loving father and siblings and whose father tried desperately to clear his son’s name before dying – she has lived the high life since the day she was born. Yachts were named after her by her father. She received an Oxford University education. With Epstein, she parachuted to Palm Beach, the Hamptons, the Upper East Side, Paris, London, the Caribbean. For whatever reason, both Holmes and Maxwell followed the creed that the more money people have, the more they feel above the law.

When Maxwell is convicted, she could be sentenced to go to prison for 70 years.

Author Alice Sebold apologised to Anthony Broadwater, 61, the man who was exonerated in the 1981 rape that was the basis for her memoir "Lucky". AP

Meanwhile, Holmes lied and scammed her way through Silicon Valley cheating investors and backers with her “fake it until you make it” approach to life. Her defence is to blame everything on her former partner, saying she was emotionally bullied. Again, clever, and expensive lawyers are working overtime to help her beat the rap.

If I sound bitter, it’s because the track record for black men getting justice in America is deeply flawed and disproportionate compared to white people. Without decent lawyers, they don’t stand a chance.

In October, a report by The Sentencing Project, a Washington-based advocacy group, found that black people in America are incarcerated at nearly five times the rate of whites. The report found – shockingly – that one in 81 black adults per 100,000 people in the US is serving time in a state prison. In Wisconsin, one in every 36 black adult Wisconsinites is in prison.

Many of these men are not given proper legal advice or representation, and some of the crimes include prosecution for low-level amounts of marijuana or loitering. Some “cop a plea”, that is, strike a plea bargain with the prosecutors. This means they often plead guilty to a lesser offence to avoid standing trial for a greater offence. Some plead guilty to a crime they did not do because they are afraid to go on trial – people who go on trial often get convicted and get much heavier sentences than those who plea bargain.

If you want to know about justice in America, and you have the stomach, watch the television miniseries When They See Us by Ava DuVernay about the so-called Central Park Five. This is the true story of five boys who were accused of raping a white jogger in April 1989. Their accusation was based on police-coerced confessions. The five teenagers – some as young as 14 – all claimed their innocence. Yet, they spent between six and 13-plus years in prison for attempted murder, rape and assault. They were only cleared of charges when a serial rapist finally confessed to the crime in 2002. Meanwhile, their youth was spent behind bars.

There are many good people in America committed to changing the system. The Innocence Project is a non-profit legal organisation working towards criminal reform. Founded in 1992, it works using DNA testing to prevent future injustice. Their mission is to free the “staggering number of innocent people who remain incarcerated”.

It is a start, but America needs much more. We need to pass laws and implement policy that prevent wrongful conviction. We need to lessen sentences for first-time offenders and provide support for exonerees so they can rebuild their lives post-release. And we need to ensure that the law is the same for the Maxwells and the Holmeses, despite their wealth and influence, as it is for those who cannot speak or defend themselves.

A version of this article was first published on December 26, 2021

Published: December 26, 2021, 7:00 AM
Updated: January 04, 2022, 12:39 PM