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The Nation | COLUMN ONE

A Good Name Vanishes

A false accusation can sully a reputation in an instant, as a popular principal can attest. Sometimes the stain can never be fully cleansed.

June 28, 2005|David Zucchino | Times Staff Writer

BEAR, Del. — It took a lifetime for Eboni Wilson to build a reputation, and just a few hours to lose it.

The son of drug addicts, Wilson grew up poor and rootless in South Los Angeles. He lived in a garage, stole food and a car, and witnessed killings and robberies.

Wilson, now 28, turned his life around after winning a football scholarship to Washington State University. He played in the Rose Bowl, and earned bachelor's and master's degrees and a doctorate in education.

On April 6, Wilson was four months into his job as a high school principal when a 16-year-old accused him of having sex with her in the auditorium at Chester High School in Chester, Pa. He was handcuffed, hauled before TV cameras and jailed for three hours.

Shocked and embarrassed, Wilson angrily protested his innocence. His wife, several students and a few teachers stood by him.

Then the student recanted. She said she made up the story because she felt pressured by detectives and her grandmother. After an excruciating delay of several weeks, all charges against Wilson were withdrawn May 24.

But the damage had been done. The allegations produced searing front-page headlines and sensational TV coverage. Wilson lost his job. Even worse, he lost his hard-earned reputation as a popular, dynamic educator who had inspired the impoverished students of a troubled inner-city school.

As Wilson sat poolside at his apartment complex in Bear this month, holding hands with his wife, he posed an elemental question:

"Where do you go to get your reputation back?"

The curious case of Dr. Eboni K. Wilson is a stark lesson in the debilitating power of public accusation. Even for defendants eventually cleared of high-profile charges, the stain is sometimes never fully cleansed.

Wilson is fighting to restore his reputation just as a more famous figure, singer Michael Jackson, is struggling to rebuild his career after being cleared of child molestation charges. For celebrities and private citizens tainted by accusations, the withdrawal of charges or a jury's not-guilty verdict is only the beginning of a long journey of redemption.

"To be falsely accused is a universal nightmare. We all worry that it could happen to us," said Eric Dezenhall, a damage-control consultant in Washington who advises corporate clients.

Few Americans are more painfully aware of the toxicity of false accusations than former U.S. Labor Secretary Raymond J. Donovan. A jury in 1987 exonerated Donovan of charges that he and his construction company had defrauded New York City, prompting his iconic lament: "What office do I go to, to get my reputation back?"

"You know, you never do get it all back," Donovan said from his construction company office in Secaucus, N.J., where he continues to rebuild his reputation. "Even after all these years, I'm still dealing with it."

Donovan fought back by suing the federal government and speaking out against prosecutors' reliance on informants, one of whom testified against him but was convicted of perjury in the case. Donovan also speaks to journalism classes, imploring students to be skeptical of prosecutors' allegations. He is active in a New Jersey program that uses DNA and other evidence to free wrongly convicted prisoners.

"I'm neither a saint nor a devil, but I'm not who they said I was," he said.

Dezenhall said a public counterattack is often effective against the media-driven "modern day witch hunt" of false allegations, provided the public sees an everyman burned by injustice, not an opportunistic purveyor of spin.

"As a general rule, if you're guilty, repent. If you're innocent, attack," Dezenhall said.

Many private citizens falsely accused of wrongdoing have counterattacked, often forcing accusers to back down. But in many cases the accusations harden into a stigma that defines their public image.

Richard Jewell, a security guard named by the FBI as a suspect in the 1996 bombing at the Atlanta Summer Olympics, eventually forced the agency to concede that it had the wrong man.

Jewell now works as a police officer in a small town in Georgia, but is still best known as the security guard who was somehow connected to the Atlanta bombing.

Brandon Mayfield, a lawyer and devout Muslim in Portland, Ore., was arrested and jailed by the FBI, which said it found his fingerprint near the site of a train bombing that killed 191 people in Madrid in March 2004. The FBI later admitted that it had misidentified the fingerprint. The agency dropped all charges and apologized in May 2004, but Mayfield is still rebuilding his law practice and his life.

Dr. Steven Hatfield, the former Army biological scientist named by the FBI as a "person of interest" in its investigation of anthrax letters that killed five people in 2001, has not managed to wring a retraction or apology from the FBI. Hatfield held two news conferences in 2002 to berate the agency and proclaim his innocence.

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