On Wednesday, The Lovely Bones author Alice Sebold apologized to the innocent man who ended up imprisoned for 16 years for her rape 40 years ago. Her publisher has also announced that it will stop distributing her 1999 memoir, Lucky, which detailed the crime.
Sebold was beaten and raped in 1981 while she was a freshman at Syracuse University. She identified Anthony Broadwater, now 61, as her attacker. Broadwater was convicted and spent 16 years in prison. After his release in 1999, he was placed on New York's sex offender registry.
But he was innocent. Broadwater was a victim of Sebold's misidentification, as well as some sketchy microscopic hair analysis now deemed to be junk science. Broadwater's conviction was officially overturned on November 22 and he will have his name stricken from the sex offender registry.
At the time of Broadwater's exoneration, the Syracuse Post-Standard reached out to Sebold for comment but she didn't respond. On Wednesday, she broke the silence in a Medium post, apologizing for what happened to Broadwater but also acknowledging that "no apology can change what happened to [him] and never will."
She explains that she has spent the days since Broadwater's exoneration reckoning with what happened:
Today, American society is starting to acknowledge and address the systemic issues in our judicial system that too often means that justice for some comes at the expense of others. Unfortunately, this was not a debate, or a conversation, or even a whisper when I reported my rape in 1981.
It has taken me these past eight days to comprehend how this could have happened. I will continue to struggle with the role that I unwittingly played within a system that sent an innocent man to jail. I will also grapple with the fact that my rapist will, in all likelihood, never be known, may have gone on to rape other women, and certainly will never serve the time in prison that Mr. Broadwater did.
Her recognition that her actual rapist was never punished hits at the double-pronged injustice whenever a prisoner is later shown to be innocent. Not only was Broadwater's life ruined, but Sebold also didn't get justice. The prosecution of Broadwater is a microcosm of so many issues with the way the U.S. prosecutes crimes and the zealousness that transforms the drive for justice into a need to hold somebody accountable.
In Sebold's case, she actually identified somebody else as her attacker during a police lineup, highlighting a consistent problem that leads to false convictions. Eyewitness accounts are and remain a central feature of prosecutions, but studies show that they're prone to manipulation and nudging from friendly police. DNA tests have cleared people whom witnesses had previously identified as attackers.
The discredited science behind the use of Broadwater's hair to convict him speaks to the faulty forensics techniques that have led to many, many bad convictions. Broadwater was convicted in 1981 partly on the basis that microscopic analysis of hair at the scene was similar to Broadwater's, though there was a chance it could have been somebody else's. It wasn't until 2015 that the FBI acknowledged that this was junk science. In potentially thousands of cases prior to the year 2000, the FBI's hair forensics experts were giving flawed testimony overwhelmingly intended to help convict defendants.
Neither Sebold nor Broadwater is alone here, and even as Sebold apologizes, she was also let down by a justice system that wanted a frightened young woman to have a better memory than she did and a forensics expert who was more certain than he realistically could have been.