Maybe my palate is too sensitive, but the case of Gary Dotson and Cathleen Crowell Webb has left me with the most peculiar aftertaste. Not bitter, mind you, just a bit sour.
If Cathleen Webb had recanted an 8-year-old robbery accusation, she would not be known outside her home town. If her story were about a scared 16-year-old who lost all her wages gambling and concocted a lie about being mugged, it would never have made "Donahue," page one, the cover of Newsweek. Nor would we have had a series of dour reports on the "ramifications" -- how this single case may well, harumph, make juries more reluctant to convict future robbers.
But since her rape-and-recant, Webb has become more famous than Potiphar's wife, the Old Testament woman who cried rape against Joseph. Dotson, no Joseph figure, has become something of a tourist attraction in Country Club Hills, Ill., and is hoping for a major motion picture. They have jointly gotten more space and air time than any of the other 186,000 rapes of the last 12 months.
The inconclusive conclusion of the case hasn't sorted things out. At the hearings, Webb's testimony didn't jell with the police reports, the evidence or common sense. She scratched her own stomach with the words "HEHE" and "LOV"? Upside down and backwards? The hearingsproved that Webb was lying, but we don't know when she was lying. The considered opinion of no less a legal expert than Harvard Law School's Charles Nesson was, "I think she's got to be out of her tree."
In the end, Gov. Jim Thompson didn't believe Webb's testimony, but he agreed that shook Gary Dotson's conviction right down to the root meaning of the word. We are no longer "convinced" that Dotson raped Webb. It was appropriate to commute his sentence. But it isn't as easy to mute the concern that we are going to fall back into the old mind-set about women who "cry rape."
"What it raises," says Dr. Carol Nadelson, president of the American Psychiatric Association, "is the whole issue of women's credibility. We had gotten past that, and here we are back there again." The old rape laws were rife with assumptions about women lying. The proof needed to support a rape charge was more stringent than that to support a charge of, say, a mugging. You needed corroborating evidence, witnesses or proof of a struggle.
The police, prosecutor and jury were -- and often still are -- formidable hurdles for any woman who charged rape. Until the rape shield laws were passed in 40 states, the entire sexual history of the victim was up for public airing. For a long time juries received special instructions reminding them that an accusation of rape was easy to make.
In fact, there are no more false charges of rape than false charges of any other crime, but the old belief has died hard. As Susan Estrich, a Harvard law professor says, "One of the accomplishments of the past 10 years has been to eliminate or reduce the special requirements of rape cases which were premised on the notion that the defendant had to be protected against the spurned, lying, fantasizing female. I hate to think that the case is capturing the public imagination because views toward woman haven't change that much."
Under any 10-year-old veneer of change there is ineviably a mass of tradition. It doesn't take much for suspicions and superstitions to show through. They come up as a chorus of "I told you so." Those who always believed that women lie about rape found proof in the tale Webb wove. But the rest of us simply find this case freakish and eccentric.
Several years ago, when the first marital rape case was concluded on the West Coast and Greta actually went back to John Rideout, many groaned that she put "the cause" back a decade. She hadn't. The balance of public understanding had shifted fundamentally. So it is now.
Yes, I'm afraid that the woman who walks into the police station this week may be asked when she last had sex with her boyfriend, and whether she's afraid she's pregnant. The woman who walks into court next week or next month may face a more suspicious jury. Juries always have to decide who is telling the truth.
But, as Prof. Nesson sums it up, "This case isn't a plus, but it isn't a wipeout either."
The way we look at rape cases has already changed, and for the better. We have righted the balance and given most women a fairer chance to be believed. The aftertaste of the Webb-Dotson story may be unpalatable, but it's not poisonous.