Cleared Of Rape Conviction, California Man Aims To 'Move On Strong'

May 25, 2012
Originally published on May 25, 2012 4:24 pm

Five years in prison. Then five years of probation and wearing an electronic monitoring device. The shame of being a registered sex offender. Not being able to get a job. His dream of playing in the NFL destroyed, possibly forever.

Brian Banks, now 26, has gone through all that.

Then Thursday, the California man's rape conviction was dismissed. His accuser, who last year sent Banks a message on Facebook suggesting that they "let bygones be bygones," had been videotaped saying she lied about being raped. Wanetta Gibson's previous statements to police about the alleged 2002 incident had been the only evidence against Banks — there was no physical evidence that Banks had raped her. With the change in her story, prosecutors and a judge agreed, there was no case.

Having his name cleared made for "the greatest day of my life," Banks told Southern California Public Radio's Patt Morrison. Not only does the conviction come off his record, but the electronic monitor comes off his ankle and he no longer has to register as a sex offender.

The former high school football star, who once seemed to be on the way to playing for the University of Southern California, says he now wants to pursue that lifelong dream of playing in the NFL.

Banks' story, which he's scheduled to talk about later today with All Things Considered, raises anew questions about the U.S. legal system. After his arrest, as KPCC reports, Banks' lawyer "urged him to plead no contest rather than risk a sentence of 41 years to life in prison if convicted."

Justin Brooks of the California Innocence Project, who handled Banks' case after the accuser recanted, told Patt Morrison that racism surely played a part in what happened. Banks' original lawyer, he said, basically told the then-teenager that because he was a large, black, young man it would be his word against hers and that he should take the deal.

As for Banks' accuser, she hasn't been willing to repeat to authorities what she said on the videotape (made by a private investigator) about the accusation. In fact, the Los Angeles Times says, she "recanted her video statement." Her family had been granted a $1.5 million legal judgment from the Long Beach, Calif., public school system because she had claimed the rape happened on school property. Now, Brooks told the Times, she doesn't want to put that money at risk.

Banks is looking ahead. He told KPCC that, "I remained unbroken throughout this situation and I know that if I can get through this and get my life back, I'll be able to get through the rest."

Update at 2:30 p.m. ET. You Have To Move On "And Move On Strong":

In his conversation with Banks, NPR's Robert Siegel just noted that people who have spent time in prison for crimes they are later cleared of having done are often not outwardly angry. Banks is another example. Why is that?

"You have to realize that myself and others that have been wrongfully convicted of crimes, we've dealt with the situation," Banks said. And, "you realize that you're not going to survive in prison or progress as a human being if you allow yourself to continue to hold on to this negative energy. You keep the truth within you and understand what has taken place, but you also want to move on and move on strong."

Banks also told Robert that he took the original plea deal in part because his attorney had told him he would likely only serve another 18 months or so in prison (he had been in jail about a year by that time). "I was pretty much sold this dream," he said. Instead, the judge issued a harsher sentence.

Much more from Robert's conversation with Banks will be All Things Considered later, and we'll add the as-broadcast version of that conversation to the top of this post. Click here to find an NPR station that broadcasts or streams the show.

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Yesterday, a judge in Long Beach, California, threw out the rape conviction of 26-year-old Brian Banks. It came more than a little late. In high school, Banks was a football star, and he was set. There was a scholarship to USC, and even talk about a future in the National Football League.

Then, at 16, he was accused of rape by Wanetta Gibson, a fellow student at Long Beach Polytechnic High School. And at 17, Banks pleaded no contest to a crime that he didn't commit. He spent more than five years in prison and when he came out, he was a registered sex offender. His exoneration became possible when Gibson, his accuser, contacted him after he got out of prison.

Brian Banks joins us now from San Diego. Welcome to the program, and congratulations on your case.

BRIAN BANKS: Thank you so much. Thanks for having me.

SIEGEL: I want you to explain something that people may not understand. And that is, why plead to a crime - to a rape, in this case - that you knew you didn't commit and, in this case, the prosecution had no DNA evidence of?

BANKS: You know, I wouldn't say that this was a decision that I felt comfortable making, or a decision that I made willingly; rather, a decision I was forced into taking without the proper representation - and the only representation that I did have, advising me that the best thing for me to do was to plea. I wish that I had someone who could have given me better alternatives than the one - that were put before me.

SIEGEL: But this was a lawyer whom you told you didn't do it. You said, this isn't true.

BANKS: That's correct, yes.

SIEGEL: And the lawyer said what to you?

BANKS: Well, if I chose to take this to trial and face 41 years to life, I would be viewed as a big, black teenager - when I walked into that courtroom - by the jury, and I would automatically be assumed guilty; and the best thing for me to do would be to take this plea-bargain. And she had promised me that I wouldn't see any more than a three-year sentence, with a year already time served.

SIEGEL: This was the deal that you thought you were agreeing to?

BANKS: That's right. And we were extremely hopeful that, as a 17-year-old boy with a situation where there was no evidence whatsoever, that the judge would be lenient enough to recommend probation. And that didn't happen.

SIEGEL: Was part of your problem here that you didn't express sufficient remorse for something that would have been hard to express remorse for - since you didn't do it?

BANKS: Definitely. That definitely was a part that played into the sentencing.

SIEGEL: Well, you got out, and then begins this strange story. The young woman who accused you - and we should say here that you say the two of you were, in fact, making out on the high school grounds. But it wasn't a question of, was there consensual sex or forced sex. You say it just was not sexual intercourse between the two of you, period.

BANKS: That's correct. We never had sex.

SIEGEL: She friends you on Facebook - is that correct?

BANKS: That's correct. I noticed I had a friend request; saw her picture and name. And I instantly thought it was some - you know, some kind of joke, or somebody playing some insane joke on me.

SIEGEL: As it turned out, you actually had her secretly filmed by a private investigator as she discussed what had happened, and admits on camera - this has been shown on television in California and elsewhere - she admits that there was no rape; that it didn't happen.

BANKS: That's correct. You know, my goal was to just get her to speak freely, and speak honestly, on what actually occurred that day.

SIEGEL: Do you remember the moment when she's asked about the rape and says no, there wasn't any?

BANKS: Oh, yeah. It was a moment that, you know, I've been waiting for, for so long; to finally hear from her mouth the truth that I didn't, in fact, rape her. And once those words came out of her mouth, I knew things were on the verge of changing for the better, for me and my family. I thank God every day.

SIEGEL: She says something stunning in one of these conversations. Her mother had brought suit on her behalf against the school board, for lax security leading to her being assaulted - by you, that is.

BANKS: Right.

SIEGEL: And they'd gotten $1.5 million. She says, I'll help you clear yourself, but I don't want to give back the money - she says.

BANKS: You know, it's funny because all the lies, and all the accusations that were made against me, when she said that she didn't want to have to give this money back, you know, it wasn't really a surprise to me, to hear that.

SIEGEL: When you came out of prison - because this was a rape - you were a registered sex offender.

BANKS: That's correct.

SIEGEL: And you wore a tracking device around your ankle.

BANKS: That's correct.

SIEGEL: Today?

BANKS: As of late last night, we got the call from the Long Beach parole office that I was all clear. So late last night, my attorney - Justin Brooks, from the California Innocence Project at California Western School of Law - he took the first snip. And then my girlfriend, Pam, took the second snip. And then I finished it off, and cut the rest of it off. And it was just a beautiful moment. And I'm just really thankful to finally be free from all bondage.

SIEGEL: You're a free man at that moment.

BANKS: Yes, sir.

SIEGEL: Well, Brian Banks, congratulations on the conviction being thrown out.

BANKS: Thank you.

SIEGEL: Good luck to you, and thanks for talking with us.

BANKS: Thank you so much. Have a good day.


SIEGEL: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.