Gary Dotson, who slammed his fist on the table and cried Thursday as his rape conviction was reaffirmed, said today he was "not surprised" and still bore no ill will toward Cathleen Crowell Webb, the woman who recanted her testimony six years after he went to prison.
Webb, looking stunned in television interviews after the ruling, said she could only conclude that "I lied too convincingly then for the judge to believe me now."
Now 23 and the mother of two, Webb invited shame and a perjury charge as she confessed to her husband, minister, lawyer, millions of television viewers and finally a court that she had fabricated the 1977 rape charge that put Dotson in prison for 20 to 25 years.
Cook County Circuit Court Judge Richard Samuels, who presided over Dotson's trial and heard Webb's testimony when she was 16, said Thursday he did not believe that he and the jury had been mistaken. He ordered Dotson, 28, to serve out the sentence.
The law, unlike an emotional public, looks on recanted testimony as unreliable. The legal burden was on Dotson to prove that there was new evidence beyond, as one state legal official put it today, "naked recantation."
Meanwhile, women's rights groups, prosecutors and others have said the case will make it much harder for rape victims to make themselves believed.
Barbara Engel, director of Women Against Rape here, said that, despite its outcome, the case "certainly has given momentum to some of the myths we've been trying to debunk for years. The headlines all over the country have been 'Woman Lied' . . . ," she said. "Doubt of their stories is one of the most painful aspects of recovery for rape victims."
The system's failing, she added, is not that an innocent man may be in prison but "that there are so few men being convicted and serving time for rapes they have committed."
Webb said she changed her story because she could no longer live with the lie. After hardening her conscience against Dotson for years, she said, she was driven by new religious conviction to tell the truth.
Back in custody after a brief taste of freedom on bail, Dotson spoke to reporters by phone and called the outcome a "tragedy." His distraught mother called on Gov. James R. Thompson to pardon him, but the governor said he would consider it only after prison review procedures had been followed.
Dotson's lawyer, Warren Lupel, said he was "devastated" by the ruling: "I feel I failed him. And I feel the system failed him." Lupel said he would not abandon Dotson but added that he was unsure whether he would appeal to a higher court or through the executive branch.
Dotson could take his case to the Illinois Appellate Court, petition the Circuit Court or the state Supreme Court for a different judge to rule on a writ of habeas corpus, contending that he is wrongly imprisoned based on false testimony. The governor could grant him a pardon, removing the conviction, or executive clemency, releasing him on grounds that he has been punished enough.
The one uncontested fact in the case is that Webb is a talented liar. The question remains, was it then or now? Was she the victim, or he?
The mystery began one Saturday night in July 1977, when police in a southern suburb of Chicago picked up a girl wandering, bruised and shaken, with her clothes in disarray. That night, she convinced those officers, her mother and a hospital doctor that she had been raped.
At Dotson's trial in 1979, she testified that three youths had abducted her as she left her job at a restaurant and that one had held her leg while another raped her and then carved words into her belly with a broken beer bottle.
Her story was filled with persuasive detail: the abductors' car, she said, tried to sideswipe her, and a voice from inside called out, "Two points!" as she jumped aside and tried to run away. Recanting, Webb said she had never intended to go to the police but only wanted to convince her foster parents that she had been raped.
She had had sex with her boyfriend a few days before, she said, and was afraid she was pregnant.
In sworn testimony Thursday, she said that a police artist made a sketch based on her description of the assailant and that when she was pressed to identify him from police mug books, she felt she had to pick Dotson's picture because it resembled the sketch so closely.
She testified that she had torn her own clothes and inflicted the injuries on herself. The same emergency room physician who testified at the trial told the court Thursday that her injuries were superficial and that he prescribed only an icepack and aspirin.
Laboratory analysis done for the state's attorney's office of blood and saliva samples taken from Webb and Dotson for the 1979 trial and again in recent weeks, proved largely inconclusive, according to testimony.
But the state's forensic expert said Thursday that one pubic hair found on Webb after the attack could not have come from Webb or her boyfriend, but could have come from Dotson. He also acknowledged that it could have come from a bar of soap or some other source.
Webb's mother testified Thursday that the day after the attack, Webb went shopping with a girlfriend and was dating boys again the next month.
At the 1979 trial, Dotson's version of that July Saturday was of a lost day of, as the state's attorney put it, "drinking, shooting pool and screwing around."
Four friends testified that he was with them at the time of the alleged attack, driving between their suburban houses or attending a couple of parties, and finally passed out in the car.
The mother of one of the friends added her testimony Thursday. She remembered that she had phoned her home from out of town that night and Dotson had answered.
Dotson, a high school drop-out, sounded unsure of what had happened on that day when he testified Thursday.
His testimony conflicted with that of a fifth friend who said Dotson had been with him. But Dotson's supporters argue that they were the kind of discrepencies that can arise when people try to recall events and have not compared their stories to falsify them.
Dotson has served six months more than the average convicted rapist in this state, and the Chicago Sun-Times has reported that the original sentence was notably higher than the average rape sentence in Cook County that year. He is eligible for parole on April 13, 1988.
It would be politically popular for the governor to grant him executive clemency, some political observers said.
Some, including Rob Warden, editor of Chicago Lawyer, saw Samuels' decision as an example of the system's protecting itself.
But Samuels, 58 and a 17-year veteran of the bench, told The Chicago Tribune after the ruling, "I guess once in a while a judge gets that situation where there's a whole storm going around the case, and you just have to brace yourself and just go straight ahead and consider what's presented in court and never mind the storm."
Webb said she would continue to pray for Dotson.