The Decision: Mike Tyson’s Rape Trial, 25 Years Later
It was kind of a big deal. In 1991, Indiana Black Expo was set to host the Miss Black America pageant during its Summer Celebration, and among the celebrities in town to partake in the festivities was one of the most famous athletes in the world: Mike Tyson.
Even if Tyson’s stardom was undisputed, his career and personal life were on the ropes. In a 1988 interview on 20/20, his wife, actress Robin Givens, had alleged that she was the victim of spousal abuse. She filed for divorce a week later. In 1990, Tyson lost his heavyweight boxing title to James “Buster” Douglas, an upset for the ages.
But the knockout blow came in Indianapolis. Early in the morning on July 19, 1991, Tyson invited Desiree Washington, Miss Black Rhode Island, up to his room at the Canterbury Hotel. A day later, she checked into the emergency room at Methodist Hospital and reported that she had been raped.
Tyson stood trial before Judge Patricia Gifford in Indianapolis starting on January 27, 1992, defended by Vincent Fuller and Kathleen Beggs, big-shot attorneys from the Washington, D.C., firm Williams & Connolly, and local lawyer James Voyles. Indianapolis attorney Gregory Garrison signed on as special prosecutor, joined by Barbara Trathen from the Marion County Prosecutor’s office.
The second big legal fight in this modern era of celebrity trials—after the 1991 William Kennedy Smith rape trial in Florida and before the 1995 O.J. Simpson murder trial in California—the Tyson matter had all the attendant hoopla and tabloid twists we’ve come to expect from such affairs. To wit: Shortly after Washington’s allegation, the pageant’s owner filed a civil suit that accused the boxer of being a “serial buttocks fondler of black women.” And partway through the trial, a fire at the Indianapolis Athletic Club, where the jurors were sequestered, killed a hotel guest and two firemen.
The case also provided a ring for a slugfest of societal issues: the inequity faced by black male defendants in America’s criminal justice system, and attitudes toward what constituted consent in cases of “date rape.”
On February 10, the jury returned a guilty verdict on one count of rape and two counts of criminal deviate conduct. An appeal led by “lawyer of last resort” Alan Dershowitz was unsuccessful—“White folks refuse to admit when they make a mistake,” said Black Expo president Rev. Charles Williams—and Tyson served three years with the Indiana Department of Correction.
But for the Indianapolis residents who witnessed—and helped shape—celebrity-trial history, life went on after the main event left town. Here, 25 years later, they tell their side of the story.
“We have a gag rule concerning the court date. But Mike will fight before then.” — boxing promoter Don King at an October 1991 press conference
Jim Voyles: I received a call from Vince Fuller shortly after the allegations surfaced. He asked if I’d be local counsel in Tyson’s case. I agreed.
What prosecutors like to do in these kinds of high-profile cases is present ’em to grand juries, because if the grand jury indicts, it’s not the prosecutor taking on the case, it’s the citizens. It was my recommendation that if Mike got a target subpoena, he should not go to the grand jury. Presenting a target to a grand jury is very problematic. You’re kind of giving a roadmap to the prosecution about your testimony. You’re hoping that whatever the target can say will convince them that there is a lack of probable cause to even bring the charge. But there’s the old adage that the grand jury can indict a ham sandwich.
The first [Evander] Holyfield fight was set to go sometime after the grand jury inquiry in August of ’91. I don’t know whose decision it was, but it was made in Washington, that Mike could give his story, and the grand jury would return a “no bill,” and Mike would then be free to complete the fight with Holyfield, because it was a major fight. If I had to guess, they felt confident Mike could give his explanation, and the grand jury would accept it. That was the assumption, that if a woman is invited to a hotel room at 2 in the morning, there has to be some consent. But I thought, Okay, what if the grand jury doesn’t accept it?
Greg Garrison: I was working for the prosecutor’s office in a civil capacity, doing asset forfeitures and some racketeering work, drug dealers and stuff, no big deal. [Chief counsel] Dave Dreyer said, “Why don’t you come and try Tyson with us?” I laughed at him and said, “When donkeys fly.”
They asked me to come back in and said, “Let us tell you about this case before you tell us ‘no.’” Dreyer really believed in the case. He told me I could have whoever I wanted to try it with me. It took me no time—Barb [Trathen] was the only person I would’ve thought of. We talked about money, and I would make the princely sum of $20,000. I’m sure the guys from Williams & Connolly did somewhat better than that.
Voyles: I liked Mike. I met him when we were taking him through his initial appearance in front of Judge Gifford. He’d been dealing with the other lawyers, and I was the new kid on the block. But we hit it off. I didn’t try to impose myself, because I wasn’t the lead lawyer. He knew I wasn’t in charge. I was there to assist, to answer any questions, to kind of help him through the process.
He always presented his human side to me. We would joke with each other. In person, he was totally opposite of the aggressive personality in the ring. He was always kind. He was gentle. He was polite. I didn’t see any of those tendencies you would think you would see from a bully, someone who had the reputation he had. We were in a fight for his life, so he was intensely interested in the case, and intensely feeling that he was not guilty. He believed any sexual contact was consensual, and does to this day.
Garrison: Barb and I went to Providence to visit with Desiree, and took her statement at length. Then she came here to get ready for trial. She was my guest on a Sunday afternoon. My daughter Betsy went horseback riding with her.
“The Tyson case has all the makings of a television miniseries—sex, crime, and a famous name.” — Audrey Gadzekpo, managing editor, Indianapolis Recorder, January 1992
Garrison: The morning of the first day of trial, I rolled down Alabama Street and turned onto Washington, and I think there were five satellite trucks lined up. Talk about an Oh, my God moment.
Voyles: We were not permitted to walk to the courthouse because of the amount of publicity. So we took a van every day from the Hyatt hotel, where the Fuller team had their offices set up. Every morning, we would walk through a barrage of people. We were protected by the sheriff’s office. They had ropes, so that we would go in the same way every time.
Barb Berggoetz, journalist: I happened to be covering the court system [for The Indianapolis Star]. I had been on the beat for maybe a year. I thought, This is a big story. People called it a media circus. That puts too much of a light perspective on it. It was a serious event. There were many levels of storylines that drew attention. There was, Do celebrities get special attention? And I think, certainly, there was another level of attention on the prosecution of African-American men.
Muhammad Siddeeq, imam: A friend of mine was driving the limo for Don King, and he reached out to me when they came to the city. Ministers had arranged for Mike to get a prayer said for him by Jesse Jackson, at Light of the World Christian Church. After it was over, there were 20 or 30 of us standing around Mike, and I introduced myself. He didn’t pause, just said, “Okay, how are you.” We were just a number there. But Don King reached out for me to try to get the public pulling for Mike. I have a picture in my scrapbook somewhere, where Don is there, and one of the managers, and I was speaking, and we had a big sign about “Free Mike.”
Berggoetz: There was definitely a visible number of supporters for him, with signs and chanting. There were also some high-profile people making comments supporting him. Donald Trump made statements in support of Tyson. You had Charles Williams, who had brought Tyson to the Miss Black America pageant. He was making statements that he shouldn’t be prosecuted.
Siddeeq: Charlie Williams felt that Mike Tyson was railroaded. You couldn’t find a sober mind in the African-American community that didn’t think Tyson was railroaded on those charges. This girl was raped, just like I spent the weekend on the moon. They made an example of Mike, mainly because of his unsophisticated manner, and his loose lips, and his way of conducting himself.
Berggoetz: And then you had others who were sympathetic to Desiree Washington, people who felt strongly about sexual assault. That was definitely a tension and a thread of coverage throughout the trial. It was agreed upon between both sides that there was sex that evening, so the issue was whether it was consensual. I think attitudes were being formed in the public’s eye at that time.
“He said, ‘You’re turning me on.’ I said, ‘I’m not like all those other women. I don’t know what you think I came up here for.” — trial testimony of Desiree Washington
Patricia Gifford: The seats in the courtroom were all full every day. It probably affected witnesses, when they would see all those people sitting there and think, Oh, dear, now what?
Garrison: When we called her [Washington], she walked into the courtroom in a modest Sunday dress. Honest to God, there was a gasp from the audience.
Tina Hansford, courtroom artist: She was kind of sweet, and seemed to be terrified. Some of the girls who testified were very made up, very flashy outfits, but this little girl was subdued.
Garrison: She sat straight up, and she had her hands folded in her lap. She looked right at me and answered my questions. I don’t think any of us can imagine being thrust into the international limelight that way. Think about it. You’ve been raped. Your clothes have been torn off your body. You’ve had your most intimate self violated. And you’ve got to sit there and tell the whole world.
Berggoetz: She seemed like a very naïve young woman who was enthralled by this boxer. She came across as someone who got in over her head, and she knew afterward that she shouldn’t have gone to his room, but at the time thought it might be fun. You could understand how she got herself into that position.
Garrison: Barb and I were crossing Delaware Street at the courthouse, when I had this blinding flash. I remember stopping in the middle of the street going, “Wait a minute. If this was gold-digging, she hit the mother lode. They have sex, and he invites her to stay the night. Instead, what does she do? Grabs her shoes and runs out barefoot.” She didn’t grab the gold. She ran away like a girl that had been raped, and spent the rest of the night in the shower.
Voyles: Two or three women were coming from a concert on the night in question, and they saw [Tyson] and Miss Washington kissing in the back of a limo, which would tend to indicate some kind of romantic interest. That was discovered two or three days into the trial, and the court refused to let the evidence come in.
Gifford: That’s an issue that was raised on appeal, and I was affirmed, so I feel confident the decision was correct.
Voyles: Dr. [Thomas] Richardson, the physician at the hospital who examined [Washington], said there was a small abrasion of the inner vaginal wall. That was all. It was my opinion that we should have used Dr. Richardson to establish that, from the bottom of her feet to the top of her head, he did not find any bruises or press marks—try to dissipate that this contact was so vicious. But Vince tried the case the way Vince wanted to try the case.
David Vahle, juror: Vincent Fuller was like somebody who had no clue what was going on. He had his story mixed up, his presentation was confusing. He couldn’t find two or three pictures he wanted to show, and he was fumbling through them. We talked about that quite a bit on the jury, how unprepared he was. One time during the trial, Jim Voyles passed a note over to him. He just pushed it back.
Berggoetz: The lead attorneys had very different styles. Garrison had more of a hometown appeal, a Midwest air. He wore cowboy boots, as I recall.
Hansford: It was lawyer versus hometown boy. Garrison would sit on the edge of things and talk to people and joke around, and Fuller was rather stiff. That’s my impression, that the jury was warmed up more to Garrison than they were to Fuller, who was a bit pompous. He would say to the jury, “Would it give you pause?” I thought, Huh? It was such an old-fashioned way of speaking.
Voyles: He wanted to bring a podium in to speak from, that I think made it even more stiff for him.
Hansford: The front seats formed an ‘L’ right next to the defense table, so the courtroom artists were lined up next to Tyson. My son had said, “Mom, why don’t you get him to autograph your drawings?” So during a break in the trial, I asked Tyson, “Would you sign these?” He said, “Okay.” Because I was close by, he just signed them. He seemed kind of intrigued watching all of us draw. He was doing stick figures.
Berggoetz: He was such a big, bulky, muscular man, and he had that tiny little squeaky voice. I was in the front row, not far from where he was sitting, and a couple times I kind of met eyes with him. He was startling to look at. He just seemed—I don’t want to say “scary,” but his whole demeanor was a little bit intimidating.
Garrison: He was a real issue for me on the stand, because with guys like that, you don’t know what you’re going to get. You’re standing inches away from one of the most physically powerful men on the planet. You don’t know if you’re going to get somebody that’s polished. You don’t know if he’s going to flip out.
Hansford: He mumbled. He was difficult to understand. He had to repeat frequently the questions that were asked. He seemed to be confused. You could read the jury’s body language. Their arms were folded, with frowns on their faces, looking angry, kind of.
Garrison: The garment was lying there in evidence, because we’d put it in through Desiree. He had jerked it down to her hips, and when he did so, he pulled a bunch of beadwork loose. I wanted the jury to see his flash point. I gave it to him and said, “What happened here?” He said something—I don’t know what—and threw it at the court reporter. Not like a fastball, but he chucked it back in that direction. I thought, Okay, they’ve seen bad Mike.
“Mike, we’re not here for that.” —Jesse Jackson to Tyson in July 1991, when he noticed the boxer and pageant contestants eyeing one another in Indianapolis
Garrison: The arguments were on a Monday. We spent the weekend getting ready. I practiced and rehearsed, and then realized it was just done—I typically believe you can lose an argument, but you really can’t win. In the end, you just want to gather it up and, as one of my old mentors said, “Give them a reason to convict.”
Gifford: The jurors came in a bus, and I believe they were let out at the front door. Deputy sheriffs just moved them right on in and upstairs.
Vahle: We were getting tired from being sequestered and staying away from our families for so long, and then the fire.
Garrison: We finally got to the time we go sit down and do it, and Desiree was in the front row. I turned around, patted her on the leg, and said, “You’ve done your part, honey. You kicked his ass. It’s up to us now.” Then away we went.
Berggoetz: The closing arguments were strong on both sides. I was not sure at all that he would be convicted. I was giving it a 50/50 chance. I thought maybe the evidence was weighted in her favor, but I didn’t know that a jury would be able to convict him, how much his being a celebrity would weigh on their minds.
Vahle: When we got to the jury room, I said, “We’ve got to make our decision, right or wrong. It’s going to be very important, because we’re going to make a decision about somebody’s life.” We passed around the first vote, Who’s for “guilty” and who’s for “innocent”? I was for not guilty, because I wasn’t convinced. Two or three hours into it, we took another vote, and the verdict was the same.
Garrison: They deliberated for nine or 10 hours. You know Iaria’s on College? We had made arrangements to stay there, and nobody found us. I think it was 1:30 or 2 o’clock when we got there and had lunch. We fed everybody and had time to get drunk and sober up at least once. Dinnertime came, and we kept waiting.
Voyles: Anytime you wait for a verdict, it’s tense. The pressure was not on me quite as much as it was on the primary lawyer, because he’d presented the case. But I wanted to win just as badly.
Vahle: We had breaks but didn’t leave the room. I think when you’re trying to make a decision for hours on end, you need to leave, go back to the hotel, take a nap, then come back and go again. But to have it constant all that time, over and over and over—I said, “We’re rushing to judgment.” So we decided, Let’s call it a night and just talk through this tomorrow. The bailiff told the judge, and the judge said, “No, you’re going to keep working.”
Garrison: Finally, the pay phone in the bar rang at close to 11 p.m., and I knew at that point nobody was checking to see if I’d had enough to drink or not. So, we loaded up and headed back downtown. I walked into the courtroom, and there was nobody in that room but Mike Tyson and me. We made eye contact, and I started stirring around papers and acting like I had something to do.
He knew. His big old heavy shoulders were stooped a bit. I thought at that moment, Well, Mike, we got you.
Voyles: I walked in, and Mike was sitting alone at the defense table. So I walked in and sat with him until the others arrived. I felt that my job was to be there with him.
Vahle: One guy was very adamant against her [Washington]. A lot of us were leaning towards guilty, but that guy was still saying, “No, he’s not guilty.” It came down to the final vote, and we all came across with guilty. We looked at him and said, “Wait a minute. What changed your mind?” He said, “I was being the devil’s advocate.”
Berggoetz: As soon as the verdict came back, everything happened quickly, reporters rushing to get stories done, and then Tyson couldn’t get bail. I remember him hugging the woman who brought him up, Camille Ewald. That was sad.
Gifford: I remember Dershowitz running out of the courtroom saying something like, We’ll get this reversed immediately. As I understand, he went out the front door of the City-County Building and turned the wrong way trying to rush off to file his appeal.
“I don’t come here begging for mercy … I’m here prepared to expect the worst.” — Tyson at the sentencing hearing
Vahle: Right after the case was over, maybe a week, I was not comfortable with the verdict. Whether she wanted it or not, I don’t know. She was enthralled by Tyson. Like any person with a celebrity, she wanted to get to know him, go out with him. Why would any girl go up to a man’s room at 3 in the morning, or whatever time it was, without knowledge that something could happen?
Voyles: I think the jury made the wrong decision. I would like to have been able to try it with my style.
Garrison: Six months or so after the trial, I was in D.C. I met with Vince Fuller, and we had a glass of wine. He was a giant of a lawyer and a wonderful, fine man. He was just in the wrong spot. I know he took responsibility for the way that case went. I’m going to guess that King and Tyson were pressing hard for him to testify. They were probably thinking, We’ve got a chance to blunt some of this stuff, if he does a good job. Which he didn’t.
I said, “Why didn’t you use Jim?” He said, “If the case was going to get lost, it had to get lost by me.”
Voyles: Greg had once been my intern, years before. We’ve been adversaries over the years, but Greg and I have always had a very fine working relationship.
Garrison: The joke between Jim and me is, I’d have had a different result. I always say, “No, the same result. It just would have taken five days instead of 15.”
Voyles: I was flattered that somebody would ask me to be involved in that case. On the other hand, when you’re associated with it, some people would say, You represented Mike Tyson, and he got convicted. Which is the other kind of painful part, because I didn’t get to try the case. I’m stuck with the fact that people think if I had tried it, I’d have won. Well, nobody knows that. I would like to have been more involved, but that’s because I’m a trial lawyer. I like to go in and have the fight. I want to go in and kick some ass.
Berggoetz: I think the most important aspect of the case was the definition of “date rape” and how it was proven. It boiled down to almost a he-said-she-said. This case showed that you could win a date-rape case without a huge amount of physical evidence. I don’t know if you’d call it a landmark case, but to me it was significant at that time.
Garrison: The fact that we got a conviction of a famous person was unique. When O.J. [allegedly] killed his wife, everybody was all at once searching for somebody to talk about these cases. They could go find a bunch of people that lost them, but they couldn’t find anybody that won one.
Berggoetz: The next thing everyone wondered is how much time he was going to serve. I remember the tense atmosphere and a lot of strong feelings one way or the other. That’s when more of the people in the community and his supporters came out, saying, What a travesty.
Voyles: We showed up at sentencing with Judge Gifford, and she gave him a 10-year sentence, six executed, four suspended, which meant he had to do three years in the Indiana Department of Correction. I rode with him to the Indiana Reception Diagnostic Center in Plainfield. I was the only lawyer that went with him. Everybody else left, back to Washington. I chose to go with him, because it was the right thing to do. He was devastated. He was confused. When we were in the car, he said, “Well, country boy, I guess we’re going to the prison.”
Siddeeq: In prison, his spiritual advisor was Charles Williams. I went in and spoke to the Muslim population. We were sort of sharing a common area, one at one end and one at the other end, and Mike heard me speaking. He said, “I want to go over there.” So he came over, and he was enthusiastically involved in the discussion. Then he told me, “Look, I want you to be my spiritual advisor.” After that, I was visiting Mike every day.
With me, he was very insightful. He was anxious to learn. Betty Shabazz, the wife of Malcom X, when she came to visit him, she was so impressed. She was interviewed about it, and she said it almost brought tears to her eyes, the kind of spirituality that he demonstrated. When Tupac Shakur came out and wanted to start using some of that old street language, Mike wouldn’t let him. Mike was talking about, “Nah, don’t be cussing, Tupac.”
Voyles: I spent the next 10 years assisting any way I could. He got arrested in Maryland, which caused a violation of his probation. Scott Newman, who was then the Marion County prosecutor, had an opportunity to send him back to prison. I spent 18 trips flying back and forth between Indianapolis and Maryland resolving that case. Finally, Newman and I negotiated that if Mr. Tyson would spend an additional 60 days in the jail in Maryland, he would complete his sentence and spend the remainder on probation.
A few years ago, Mike came to town when he did his one-man show. So he called and invited me. He and I had a private dinner at St. Elmo’s. He had something rolled up, and he walked right up to me and said, “I want to give you this as a gift.” It was an artist’s sketch from the trial that showed he and I and Vince, and he autographed it and gave it to me. It says, “Thanks for all the love over the years.”
Read a blow-by-blow of Mike Tyson’s Indianapolis trial from IM’s July 1992 issue, excerpted from legal expert and courtroom observer Mark Shaw’s book, Down for the Count.