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Phillip Martin Headshot

ATM "Beating" Victim: Echo of the Charles Stuart Case

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I don't know about you, but I've heard Ashley Todd's story somewhere before and that somewhere is here in Boston. Twenty year old Todd from Texas is a student volunteer for the McCain campaign in Pittsburgh. Her scarred face turned up all over the internet after alleging that she was mugged at an ATM machine on Wednesday night by a knife-wielding black man. Todd said the 6 foot four assailant also carved the letter "B" in her cheek after he spotted a McCain bumper sticker on her car. Police arrived and offered to take her to the hospital. She declined. Instead, in the hours after the alleged incident, she used her Twitter social networking account to thank fellow GOP supporters "for their thoughts and prayers" and to ask them to work together to get John McCain elected.

Todd has now confessed that she made up the story after failing a lie detector test, and after police failed to turn up a 6 foot four black Obama supporter who drew a "b"--presumably for Barack-- in her cheek like the fictitious mark of Zorro or the anti-hero in the movie "V."

This brings me back to Boston. I was having a conversation with a friend one night in October of 1989, when a local news station reported a story so dreadful that we stopped in mid-sentence: A white couple coming home from a birthing class at a local hospital in Boston had lost their way and had ended up in a "dangerous part of town" near a black housing project. While looking for a way out they were allegedly attacked by a black mugger who came out of nowhere and fatally shot Stuart's pregnant wife, Carol, and injured Stuart.

After ingesting the news, my friend said, something's not right about this story. For one, he grew up not far from that location and said it would take some effort to "get lost" in the area where the shooting took place. To him, the story smelled of fiction.

As a journalist, especially as a journalist specializing in color politics and race relations, I am taught to treat all stories with complexity and with a fair degree of informed skepticism.

That's why Ashley Todd's story did not smell right. From the very beginning it smelled of fiction, but that did not stop Matt Drudge from headlining the incident on his much-read web site, declining to delve into the most obvious questions:

1) Why did she refuse medical treatment after such a physically and emotionally traumatic incident?

2) Did she have a reason for lying? Her story seemed too convenient. Its veracity too problematic. She's a staunch McCain supporter in a battleground state that many fear may be slipping away.

3) In the photo why was there no swelling and the scar did not appear to be a deep slash, which you would expect to result from the actions of an enraged 6 foot four mugger who takes a knife to someone's face.

In the Charles Stuart case tough questions were asked, belatedly. Only after dozens of black men were rounded up and questioned; after hundreds of homes were raided; after an African American man was arrested and jailed on suspicion of murder; after race relations, in an already racially charged city, were set on end by the raw emotions that resulted from the tragic murders of a young woman and her not yet born baby. Charles Stuart, it was later discovered, had pulled the trigger. He jumped to his death from a bridge in 1990.

The Stuart case and the initial lack of media skepticism, continues to serve as a lesson to journalists to probe deeper when confronted with stories that smell of fiction.

But in 1994 the smell apparently was still not strong enough. A story told by Susan Smith, a white South Carolina mother, was greeted with up-turned eyebrows by only a handful of reporters. On October 25th that year, Smith told police that she had been car jacked by a black man who drove off with her two children in the back seat. It took nine days for the story to unravel, and compelled Smith to confess to driving her Mazda into a lake and drowning her children.

The often brutal and tangible dynamics of America's racial history have made it just as easy to fall for the make-believe of alleged black victims of white assailants. That was the case with Tawana Brawley, the black teenager in Duchess Country, New York, who in 1988 falsely claimed she was gang raped by a group of white men. That incident may have fueled more skepticism and investigatory instincts in the years that followed -- but apparently not enough. Let's take Crystal Mangum's tale. She's the North Carolina woman who falsely accused three Duke lacrosse players of rape, and her story, on the surface, seemed plausible, given that it concerned intoxicated male athletes, strippers, a supporting witness (at least initially) and confident assertions by the white district attorney. But this case too should have been put under a microscope before it was allowed to be so heavily promulgated as truth.

Ashley Todd's story came apart at the seams a lot quicker than many, thanks in large measure to a skeptical public, good police work and a local and national press that asked the right questions. But the fact that Ms. Todd felt she could get away with telling yet another false story about a black boogie man, suggests that some in this country have not gotten the memo. Here it is: We've been there before and our noses are getting used to the smell of fiction, especially, it seems, when it's soaked in the sullage of race.