Acclaimed novelist Alice Sebold was a first-year student at Syracuse University in upstate New York when she was raped at knifepoint in May 1981.
The terrifying ordeal would come to define her writing career.
Her most famous novel, The Lovely Bones — later turned into a feature film starring Saoirse Ronan — is about a girl who is raped and murdered.
And Sebold’s memoir, Lucky, ploughed the same shocking literary furrow, the cover declaring: ‘In the tunnel where I was raped, a girl had been murdered and dismembered. I was told this story by the police. In comparison, they said, I was lucky.’
Critics rhapsodised about her unflinching description of the rape, her determination to wrest her life back from her attacker, as well as her ‘courage to speak the unspeakable’.
Acclaimed novelist Alice Sebold’s terrifying ordeal would come to define her writing career with her most famous novel, The Lovely Bones, published in 2002
That she should be able to use a tragedy that might have ruined her life as the inspiration for a glittering literary career seemed entirely just.
The only problem, it appears, is that it also ruined another innocent life — that of the man she identified in court as her attacker, who spent 16 years in prison for the crime from which he has now been exonerated.
On Monday, a judge in Syracuse quashed the conviction of Anthony Broadwater at the request of prosecutors, who admitted there had been serious flaws in the original trial.
Broadwater’s lawyers pointed out that Sebold had initially identified a different man in a police identity parade.
They also argued that the prosecution had relied on a type of microscopic hair analysis that has since been debunked by forensic scientists.
Ironically, despite Broadwater fighting for decades to clear his name, the success of his appeal can largely be attributed to the producer of a film version of Sebold’s memoir that was in pre-production. He noticed discrepancies between the film script and her book.
Broadwater, 61, sobbed in court as prosecutor William Fitzpatrick said: ‘I’m not going to sully this proceeding by saying: “I’m sorry”. That doesn’t cut it. This should never have happened.’
Anthony Broadwater (centre), 61, reacts to Judge Gordon Cuffy overturning the 40-year-old rape conviction that wrongfully put him in state prison for Alice Sebold’s rape
Sebold, 58, had no comment on the decision, said her publisher, Scribner. It added that there were no plans to update the contents of the memoir, which covered her alleged attacker’s arrest and conviction.
In a 2003 interview she said: ‘Everybody in my case had said, “Whatever you do, don’t look at the rapist when you go in the court because he will try to intimidate you.” So as soon as they told me that, I knew I would. I looked at him intensely and wouldn’t take my eyes away from him, and he turned away and looked down.’
For his part, Broadwater said he ‘truly and strongly’ sympathised with the author. ‘Something did happen, but I was not the person,’ he said.
‘I just hope and pray that maybe Ms Sebold will come forward and say, “Hey, I made a grave mistake”, and give me an apology.’
Broadwater, who passed two lie detector tests attesting his innocence, said his life had been blighted by his conviction. After his release from prison in 1999 on the completion of his sentence, he remained on a public sex offender register and was ostracised by friends, family and employers.
An emotion Anthony Broadwater pictured hugging a relative in court after a judge overturned his conviction for rape
He was forced to do odd jobs and manual labour to get by, and specifically worked night shifts so that he would have an alibi if there was another attack like the midnight rape of Sebold.
He said his wife, Elizabeth, had wanted to have children but he refused, saying that he didn’t want them to have to live with the stigma of his conviction. And his supposed crime was there for all to see.
In Sebold’s 1999 memoir, his accuser had graphically described what befell her as she was returning home through a park near her university campus.
The 18-year-old was grabbed from behind, beaten, cut and dragged into a bottle-strewn tunnel that was an underground entrance to an amphitheatre.
Sebold, who was a virgin, said the monster who raped her told her: ‘You’re the worst b***h I ever done this to.’
When he was finished with her, he asked Sebold for her name. ‘I couldn’t lie. I didn’t have a name other than my own to say,’ she said.
‘So his parting words were: “Nice knowing you, Alice . . . see you around some time”.’
Author Alice Sebold, 58, pictured receiving an Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters Degree atBoston University in 2016
She said she immediately told campus security and went to the police. Broadwater, then a 20-yearold U.S. marine, was arrested five months later, after Sebold passed a man she was certain had been her attacker on the street.
‘He was smiling as he approached. He recognised me,’ she wrote in Lucky.
‘It was a stroll in the park to him; he had met an acquaintance on the street. “Hey, girl,” he said. “Don’t I know you from somewhere?”’
Sebold said she didn’t respond: ‘I looked directly at him. Knew his face had been the face over me in the tunnel.’
She called the police, and Broadwater, who had supposedly been seen in the area, was arrested. However, Sebold then failed to identify him in a police identity parade.
She picked a different man as her attacker because, she wrote, ‘the expression in his eyes told me that if we were alone, if there were no wall between us, he would call me by name and then kill me’.
Broadwater was nevertheless tried the following year. The outcome of the police line-up was mentioned at the trial but, when Sebold took the witness stand, she identified the accused as her rapist.
An expert witness told the court that microscopic hair analysis had tied Broadwater to the crime. He was convicted of rape and sodomy, and sentenced to eight to 25 years in prison.
The film adaptation of the Lovely Bones, directed by Peter Jackson in 2009, made a star out of actress Saoirse Ronan, who played the protagonist Susie Salmon
Sebold, the daughter of a Spanish lecturer, moved to New York and, while working as a waitress as she tried to establish herself as a writer, started taking heroin. She struggled to have romantic relationships, and found sex ‘like gritting your teeth on a frightening carnival ride that those around you appear to enjoy’.
She later decided that she was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and underwent therapy.
The Lovely Bones, her first novel, was published in 2002, three years after her memoir — which had met with little interest — and was an instant hit, selling five million copies.
The story is told from the perspective of a 14-year-old girl, Susie Salmon, who — speaking from Heaven — recounts how she was lured into an underground hideout by a neighbour who then raped and murdered her.
Sebold has acknowledged that, without her experience of rape, she might never have written The Lovely Bones.
Following the success of the novel, Lucky was reissued and became a bestseller. In 2019, it was announced that Lucky would also be made into a feature film, although it was reported yesterday that the project was abandoned several months ago because of funding problems.
In the course of pre-production, Timothy Mucciante, an executive producer, began to question the story behind it. ‘I started having some doubts, not about the story that Alice told about her assault, which was tragic, but about the second part of her book — about the trial, which didn’t hang together,’ he said.
He was so sceptical that he left the production in June and hired a private detective called Dan Myers to look into the case. On the basis of his findings, Mucciante became convinced of Broadwater’s innocence.
Alice Sebold recounted the harrowing experience of rape in 1981 in her memoir Lucky, which was first published in 1998
His concerns were taken up by lawyers hired by Broadwater, who argued at the subsequent appeal hearing that the original trial had hinged on two unreliable pieces of evidence — Sebold’s identification of Broadwater and hair evidence provided by a forensic chemist. Both were flawed, they said.
The fact that the writer had initially picked another man in the identity parade — telling the trial that he and Broadwater looked like twins — was enough to raise reasonable doubt, they said.
As for the hair evidence, the prosecution’s forensic expert said at the trial that the samples of the rapist’s hair found on her body were ‘consistent’ with Broadwater’s hair, but he couldn’t say how many other people might have similar hair.
He even conceded that there was a ‘possibility’ the hair may have belonged to someone other than the accused.
In 2016, no less an authority than the then FBI director James Comey acknowledged that trials in the 1990s and earlier had ‘put more weight on hair comparison than scientifically appropriate’.
He added that ‘hair is not like fingerprints, as there aren’t any studies that show how many people have identical-looking hair fibres’.
David Hammond, Broadwater’s current lawyer, was even more dismissive: ‘Sprinkle some junk science on to a faulty identification and it’s the perfect recipe for a wrongful conviction.’
However, he acknowledged that in the absence of DNA proof — the evidence collected at the time no longer exists — no one will ever know for certain.