FORMER NEW YORK Gov. Mario Cuomo, sadly, was probably correct in his observation that a jury's verdict that found three African-American activists guilty of defaming a former county prosecutor they accused of rape will change few minds.
But some minds need to change if this country's dialogue on racial justice isn't to remain mired in hurling accusations, without regard to the truth.
A Poughkeepsie, N.Y., jury is now trying to determine how much in damages the Rev. Al Sharpton, Alton Maddox and C. Vernon Mason owe Stephen Pagones, the former prosecutor who brought the lawsuit seeking $395 million.
The civil suit arises from the celebrated Tawana Brawley incident, in which a black teen-ager was found lying in a trash bag, her body smeared with excrement and scratched with racial epithets.
Ms. Brawley said she had been kidnapped by white law enforcement officers and raped.
Mr. Sharpton, Mr. Maddux and Mr. Mason became her advisers -- and the defenders of her allegations -- even after a grand jury found Ms. Brawley's charges were a hoax.
The whole incident split the public along racial lines, with some rejecting the grand jury's finding because, Mr. Cuomo noted, they "saw Tawana Brawley as a kind of symbol: 'Even if this confused child wasn't telling the truth, let's face it, they've been doing this to our women for years.' "
In light of the racial tensions generated by the 1987 Brawley incident and, especially, the flamboyant Mr. Sharpton's political aspirations -- he ran last year for New York City mayor, narrowly losing the Democratic primary, and says he'll run again in 2001 -- the recent trial received national attention.
If after this jury's findings, Mr. Sharpton proceeds with another campaign based on falsehoods, the voters of New York would do well to reject him once again.
New Yorkers, and other Americans, don't need his kind of grandstanding and reckless disregard for the truth.
Pub Date: 7/18/98