THE STATUTE of limitations had long run out on the 1994 rape of a 27-year-old aspiring actress in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park when authorities announced that the woman’s attacker had finally been identified. The man, currently serving a life sentence for a series of other rapes, won’t face criminal charges. But that doesn’t diminish — indeed, it only heightens — the importance of solving the case and bringing a measure of justice to a woman who had been cruelly revictimized with slander that she concocted her attack. And hopefully that will serve as a lesson in how police departments should — and should not — investigate rape cases and treat victims.
The New York Police Department announced last week that newly developed enhanced technology — not available in 1994 — had allowed it to match DNA recovered from the crime scene with serial rapist James Edward Webb, incarcerated in the state’s Sing Sing prison for raping four women — and attempting to rape a fifth — in 1995. The Prospect Park victim, now 51 and known only as Jane Doe, cried with detectives when told the news. She had been portrayed as a liar by Daily News columnist Mike McAlary, since deceased, who had relied on police sources and even doubled down when questions were raised about his accounts.
“To see in print that police sources had called me a liar had a silencing effect on me, to say the least,” the woman said in a statement. “I paid a terrible, terrible price.” So did the four women subsequently raped by Mr. Webb whose attacks might have been prevented if the police investigation and public opinion had not been clouded with doubts about the Prospect Park attack. “Tragedy” was the description of lawyer Martin Garbus, who represented the victim in her unsuccessful libel suit against McAlary. He posed the question of whether she would have been treated differently had she been white instead of black and straight instead of a lesbian.
It was apparently a New York Times op-ed by Mr. Garbus in 2013 about the case that prompted a team of cold-case detectives that focuses on sex crimes to take renewed interest. Their tenacity should be applauded and recognized as a visible sign of the department’s progress in handling sexual assault cases. Good also that a senior police official offered a public apology to the woman, a contrast to the cheesy non-apology from the Daily News about lessons for law enforcement and journalism.
In her statement, Jane Doe pointed to the work that still needs to be done. To the thousands of cold cases, rape kits from the 1990s and beyond that have gone untested, victims getting substandard treatment, and schools and workplaces that deal with sexual assaults as internal disciplinary matters and not the crimes that they are. She was silenced 24 years ago. She should be listened to today.