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Racism wasn't argued at trial, but it could have been

Interestingly, perhaps ironically, the color of Stephanie Austin's skin was not an issue in her successful civil damage suit against Paramount's Kings Dominion. A jury awarded her $80,000 for false arrest and malicious prosecution without ever hearing Austin's attorney suggest that the appalling treatment of a young black woman in a Virginia amusement park three years ago might have been racially motivated.

Austin, too, was spared such contemplations, and almost, it seems, glad of it - even though her original complaints against Paramount included "corporate arrogance and racism."

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"I think that, unfortunately, race was a factor in my arrest," she said yesterday afternoon. "We found instances where they let white people accused of the same things [writing bad checks] go. But it's scary for me to ingest the idea that all this can happen simply because I'm black."

That's too sinister a thought to entertain when you're still young and idealistic.

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"I mean, this is almost the year 2000 I ", she said.

Hardest of all for Austin to understand is why the security force at Kings Dominion would target her - an award-winning student at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, on track for a career in business, a hard-working and involved woman who wasn't even in Kings Dominion on the day she was alleged to have written a bad check for $360.

"I feel I lost my early 20s because of this and will never get them back," says Austin, now 26 and a teller for NationsBank. "I became obsessed with wanting to know why. The maliciousness is what amazed me. It doesn't jibe I "

Doesn't jibe with what any reasonable person would consider fair or decent.

The experiences of Stephanie Austin, along with those of Octavia Eaton, a 47-year-old Baltimore woman, also black, were detailed in this column last fall (TJI, Oct. 23 and Oct. 25). To recap:

The women went separately - Austin with a group of college friends, Eaton with her children and a church group - to Kings Dominion in Hanover, Va., on May 15, 1994.

Before the day was done, they both were accused by the park security force of having passed bad checks to buy discounted "Scooby Bucks" a week earlier. (Eaton was accused of being the "leader" of a gang of bad-check artists.) Both had their pleas of innocence rejected and their verifiable alibis ignored. Both were handcuffed - Eaton in front of her crying 4-year-old son - and fingerprinted. And searched. Both were detained in a trailer for several hours while park employees gawked at them. Both went to jail until someone posted bail.

Here's the kicker: Kings Dominion cops arrested the real check forgers the next day.

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But they didn't tell Austin, Eaton or their lawyers this for almost a year. Eleven months later, the charges against both women were dismissed.

This week a federal jury in Greenbelt agreed with Austin that such treatment constituted malicious prosecution.

Though race was not a factor at the trial, it did rear its head during the discovery phase of the case. Austin's Baltimore attorney, Niccolo Donzella, was able to gather a considerable amount of information about Kings Dominion security practices. His filings in the case demonstrated that, in at least four instances in 1994, white customers suspected of writing several bad checks were treated differently than black customers suspected of the same. None of the white customers was jailed. Two simply had their season passes revoked. Kings Dominion took legal action against the other two only after they failed to compensate the park for the bad checks.

Makes you wonder why, before trial this summer, a federal judge dismissed the allegations of racism. "The ruling said we didn't have enough evidence to prove racial motivation" in Austin's arrest, says Donzella.

Turns out, he did not need that argument to win the case.

Second case pending

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Donzella now will be consulting the Virginia attorneys representing Octavia Eaton.

The widowed day care provider from Northwest Baltimore is awaiting the outcome of an appeal of the dismissal last year of her malicious-prosecution case in federal court in Richmond, Va. (A judge had ruled that, under Virginia law, merchants are generally exempt from civil liability when they detain, question or accuse customers who are suspected of committing crimes on their properties.)

In light of the trial and eventual jury award in the Stephanie Austin case, it's unclear why Octavia Eaton was not able to get her day in federal court. Maybe now, with a strong appeal, she will.

Eaton suffered a lot of humiliation and unnecessary stress as the result of her experience at Kings Dominion. She's a modest woman, and religious, a Jehovah's Witness still terribly self-conscious of having been accused of a crime. Like Austin, Eaton became completely distracted from her life back in Baltimore to fight the bad-check charges in Virginia. Her day care business suffered so much she lost most of her clients. To pay legal and household bills, she tapped into the savings her husband had left her. It's gone now.

If there was such a thing as corporate shame, the powers at Paramount, which is owned by Viacom, which is a multibillion-dollar communications and entertainment conglomerate, would stop all the fussing and write Octavia Eaton a check.

But I wouldn't wager a Scooby Buck that it happens.

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Pub Date: 8/01/97


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