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KADNER: Sexual assault, Gary Dotson and trial by public opinion

Gary Dotson and Cathleen Crowell Webb on the Today show in 1985.

Not every allegation of sexual assault is ignored. Some are taken very seriously and send people to prison. Innocent people.

In 1977, a 16-year-old student at Homewood-Flossmoor High School told police she had been abducted in a parking lot on her way home from her job at a fast-food restaurant. She said she had been tossed in a car and raped.

She was taken to a hospital where her semen-stained underwear was removed and preserved as evidence.


A few days later, she gave a description of her attacker to a police artist who drew a sketch. Police came to her home with a mug book and Cathleen Crowell picked out the photograph of Gary Dotson, 22, a high school dropout, as her attacker.

Cowell lied. Dotson was sentenced to 25 years in prison. The case became a national media sensation when Gov. Jim Thompson agreed to preside over a televised clemency hearing.

In 1989, DNA evidence would be used to prove that the semen on the underwear did not belong to Dotson.

The exoneration of Dotson actually began in 1985 when the alleged victim, later Cathy Crowell Webb, married a devout Christian and confided to her minister that she had invented a phony rape allegation that sent an innocent man to prison.

She had had sex with her boyfriend — who was not Dotson — was afraid she would become pregnant, and concocted the rape story.

When notified that Webb had recanted, Cook County prosecutors did nothing to set Dotson free. They were happy with their jury conviction.

Following a TV report and Chicago Sun-Times front-page story about Webb’s change of heart, petitions were circulated demanding a clemency hearing and Thompson, a former federal prosecutor and media darling, decided to hold a three-day Prisoner Review Board hearing that was televised live in the new State of Illinois Building (which would become the Thompson Center).

The Prisoner Review Board voted unanimously to deny clemency and Thompson announced that in his opinion Dotson’s trial had been fair.

Nevertheless, he said he would reduce Dotson’s sentence to time served.

So, while Dotson was free, he still was considered a rapist and lived under the conditions of a parolee.

Webb felt so guilty that she gave Dotson $17,500 from an advance she had received from a publisher to tell her story in a book.

Dotson eloped with a girlfriend to Vegas, where he got married, started drinking heavily and got into one bizarre altercation after another and ended up back in prison for violating the conditions of his parole.

He became one of the first beneficiaries of DNA testing when it revealed that the semen on Webb’s underwear did not match Dotson. He was released from prison in 1989.

Webb died of cancer in 2008.

Why remind people of that story now?

Stories about men who allegedly have sexually assaulted women and children seem to be in the news daily. Often, there is no independent evidence provided, simply an accumulation of accusations.

I find this troubling. Yet, there is little doubt that in the public’s mind and in the view of many of this country’s leading newspaper editors, such tactics are justified.

After all, for decades women who legitimately accused men of sexual assault were humiliated and shamed in efforts by defense attorneys to undermine their credibility. Maybe men ought to realize how that feels?

A warning flag is needed. A sign to proceed with caution because the road ahead is dangerous. But I doubt any of us would take notice. Our foot is planted on the accelerator and it seems we’re all enjoying the ride.

Email: philkadner@gmail.com

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