Crime and Forgiveness

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On our last episode of Sportsball, we discussed Mike Tyson’s awkward and extremely NSFW appearance on the Canadian television show, CP24 Dayside (video courtesy of The Majority Report with Sam Seder.) Tyson was in Toronto earlier this month to promote his stage show, and, while there, met with Rob Ford, the city’s controversial mayor. That prompted CP24’s Nathan Downer to ask:

Some of your critics would say, you know, there’s a race for mayor, and we know you’re a convicted rapist, and this could hurt his campaign. How would you respond to that?

Needless to say, Iron Mike was not pleased. And it was the consensus of the Sportsball crew that the reporter was being, shall we say, a bit of a jerk for bringing up the conviction out of the blue. After all, Tyson was convicted more than 20 years ago, and he served his time. Moreover, Tyson had no idea the question was coming, and it was, of course, completely unrelated to his business in Toronto.

But I had to push back with the Sportsball crew. While I agree, in general, with their critique of the reporter, as I said on the show, I have no sympathy for Tyson. Yes, he did his time, and, by law, has every right to get on with his life. But that doesn’t mean I have to like him.

Let’s review (via the Indianapolis Star):

[On July 18, 1991] Tyson met Desiree Washington at the Omni Severin Hotel [in Indianapolis] where she and other Miss Black America contestants were rehearsing for the pageant. He asked her out on a date and she gave him her hotel phone number.

At about 1:45 a.m. on July 19, Tyson called Washington and convinced her to meet him that night. She was driven to the Canterbury Hotel in a rented limousine. Tyson said he needed to stop at his room and Washington accompanied him to room 606.

According to later testimony, Tyson then sexually assaulted her.

Washington told her parents on July 20, that she had been raped by Tyson. She was taken to Methodist Hospital and at 2:52 a.m. the following morning she reported the assault to Indianapolis Police. On July 22, Washington filed a formal complaint.

Ultimately, a grand jury indicted Tyson after hearing the testimony of some 36 witnesses. He was tried before a jury and found guilty of rape and criminal deviate conduct. He was effectively sentenced to six years in prison, of which he served three. His conviction was upheld on appeal.

Discussing Tyson’s sentencing hearing in March 1992, the New York Times observed that the case “attracted worldwide attention and prompted debate about sexual roles and racial attitudes in the criminal justice system.” It was one of the first prominent “date rape” cases, but, as Judge Patricia J. Gifford correctly stated, “rape is rape.”

“The law of Indiana is pretty clear, and it never mentions whether a defendant or a victim are acquainted,” Judge Gifford said.

Tyson’s case was controversial primarily because most of us were laboring under old, outdated concepts of rape and consent. If the case happened today, it would be far less controversial simply because we know better. Going on a date is not consent to unwanted sex. Period.

But the fact remains, Tyson went to jail, served his sentence, and returned to civilian life. So, why can’t I get over it?

I suppose the answer is, Because I’m not obligated to get over it. Rape is just about the worst crime a person can endure and still come out of alive, and I’m not altogether sure I can forgive somebody who commits a crime like that.

Which is not to say that Tyson should be denied the right to get on with his life. He should be able to work and make a living like anybody else who paid his or her debt to society. But why should “getting on with his life” mean a return to fame and fortune? Why can’t he get a modest job, live in a modest house, and drive a modest car like the rest of us? There are more than a few convicted felons who wish they could get on with their lives like that. So why does Tyson get not only to return to a normal life, but to be rich and famous and, frankly, in our faces?

What does that tell rape victims about how our society values them?

Look, I don’t expect everybody to agree with me here. We all have to figure these things out for ourselves. Personally, I have a very different reaction to, say, Michael Vick, even though I’m a lifelong dog lover. Hell, I like dogs more than most people … for obvious reasons. But like Tyson, Vick was convicted and did his time. And unlike Tyson, Vick admitted his crime – he pled guilty – and worked to raise awareness of it, hopefully to reduce the likelihood that it will happen in the future. As the Humane Society states on its website:

[Vick] served his time in prison, he admitted his wrongdoing, and his regret, and he determined to make amends. His work in reaching out to important audiences now buttresses that of the leading anti-dogfighting group in the nation in its broad efforts to attack the problem.

So, I’m okay with Vick returning to the NFL.

But here’s the thing. Not everybody shares that view, and that’s okay. One of my close relatives, for example, is a veterinarian. She’s dedicated her adult life to taking care of dogs. Although I don’t know she feels about Vick playing in the NFL today, it would be unfair to demand that she feel the same way I do about it.

There simply isn’t a right or wrong answer here. As long as we acknowledge that once a person’s done their time in jail, they have a right to return to normal life, none of us is obligated to embrace that person even after his or her punishment is over. It may depend on the nature of the underlying crime, or it may depend on the extent to which the offender demonstrates genuine remorse and rehabilitation. Or maybe it’s both. But each of us has to decide that for ourselves. In Tyson’s case, I’m not at the point where I can forgive and forget.

Still, that reporter was kind of a jerk.

David von Ebers

Dave von Ebers is a graduate of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (BA ’83, JD ’87), and has practiced business law and litigation in the Chicago metropolitan area for more than a quarter century. After practicing with some of Chicago’s most distinguished law firms, Mr. von Ebers opened his solo practice in Oak Park, Illinois, in 2001. Mr. von Ebers is an established writer and blogger, having written extensively on civil rights, constitutional law, politics, sports and music – and often the intersection of some or all of foregoing – since 2005. Mr. von Ebers joined the award-winning This Week in Blackness team in 2013, and is the co-host of Sportsball with Aaron Rand Freeman and Rachael Parenta.

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