After tribulation and trial, Neal moves on

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Gary Neal draws stares wherever he goes. They gaze and gawk and still come away with no answers. They can't believe what they've seen and aren't sure they believe what they've heard.

Do you trust your eyes? Or do you trust his words? Do you trust your judgment? Or do you trust the jury's?

Neal has never wavered. "When I looked at the situation, it was always through the eyes of an innocent man," he says.

He's flashy on a basketball court, a bright star who has returned from banishment. Anyone who ever questioned his abilities has been silenced over the past month. Neal is a walk-on junior at Towson University. Through eight games, he had the third-highest scoring average in the country.

Yet from the stands, they still stare. He's used to it. It's a part of his life. Neal was formally acquitted of those heinous charges in November, but a part of him knows he's still being judged.

"I can't say what another person says or thinks, but in life, people are always going to judge you," he says. "It could be a job interview, sitting in a classroom, whatever. You're always going to be judged. You just have to get used to it."

Neal, 21, is well-spoken and polite. He was raised in a religious home, graduated from a Catholic high school, attended a Catholic college.

All of that became so muddled when a young woman accused him of rape. When he spent two days alone in a jail cell. When he was tossed out of La Salle. When basketball was taken from him. When his future was suddenly in the hands of 12 strangers.

Neal says he's only looking forward now. The past put him here, but that doesn't mean he wants to dwell on it. But sometimes we have to reflect because it all has played an essential role in determining just who Neal is today. And a warning, it's not all pretty.

It would be easy if character were depicted in black and white, if Neal's wizardry with a basketball and his soft and subtle demeanor translated neatly into a good guy. But the essence is almost always found in that gray area.

It's why a judge could announce Neal's innocence and still deliver harsh words. "This court does not condone your actions, or the lack of respect you showed," she said, pointing out that Neal failed his family and his school and his team. "I hope in the future you will consider those responsibilities and the consequences of your actions."

The Neal you see today just doesn't match up with the portrait presented by police reports and courtroom testimony. A lot of time has passed. It was 1 1/2 years ago, and Neal was helping coach a youth basketball camp at La Salle.

On the night of June 23, 2004, after the campers were in bed, a few counselors started drinking from a bottle of highly potent schnapps called 99 Apples.

A young woman, a fellow college basketball player, reportedly slammed six shots in quick succession. According to police records and the victim's subsequent testimony, at about 1 a.m., she asked Neal for some pretzels, and they went into the kitchen.

"I was going to throw up," she testified in court, according to the Philadelphia Daily News. "So the closest thing to me was the sink. So, I leaned over the sink and started throwing up, like, profusely. In the meantime, as this is transpiring, Gary came behind me and started undoing my pants while I'm throwing up. I'm barely, like, standing."

She testified that Neal raped her, and then another La Salle player, Michael Cleaves, had intercourse with her, too. She vomited again before passing out, she told the courtroom.

This wasn't the Neal that Baltimore knew. This wasn't the one raised in the church, who attended Aberdeen High before graduating from the esteemed Calvert Hall.

Facing charges that could put him into prison for up to 10 years, Neal disappeared. He turned off his cell phone. He didn't pick up a basketball for four months. He sat in his home, playing "March Madness" on his Xbox by himself.

"It's hard to explain, but you go through this withdrawal process," he says now. "You don't want to go out in public, you don't want to play basketball or do anything, really. You just want to avoid having a conversation about it. Everywhere you go, people want to know what happened and it's the last thing you want to talk about."

He says today that during the nearly 18-month period he awaited trial, he thought about the words his mother had often repeated. Janet Neal was just 53 when she died three years ago from breast cancer. "God won't put nothing in front of you that you can't handle," she'd told Neal when he was younger.

Wendy Goldstein is the Philadelphia assistant public defender who handled Neal's case. She talked daily with Neal and says today that he isn't like other clients. He was kind, respectful and had a strong support system. He didn't seem to harbor anger, which is perhaps most surprising.

Goldstein never doubted Neal's innocence and never believed a word that came from the accuser's mouth. As the trial unfolded, the graphic details cast a dark light on all of the parties involved.

Two members of the La Salle women's basketball team said the accuser is the one who suggested they get alcohol and that she even had her own souvenir shot glass.

The two players testified the accuser had looked over a photograph of the men's team earlier in the day and said she wanted to meet the men's players. Both of the La Salle women's players who testified said they thought the accuser was trying to hook up with Neal and Cleaves.

When the accuser took the witness stand, though, her memory was hazy and her tone combative. She wore tight-fitting clothes, smirked and argued with attorneys, Goldstein said.

At the closing arguments, an assistant district attorney told the jury that the victim was too drunk to agree to consensual sex. "When she vomits in that sink, that's the line. ... That vomit says, 'No, no, no,'" he said, according to The Philadelphia Inquirer.

Goldstein saw something in Neal, something that strengthened her own resolve. There's a point during every trial, it seems, when she's reminded of the stakes -- how she performs her job will determine the direction of someone's life.

"There was this moment in the trial and Gary was late to court," Goldstein says. "I don't know if you've seen a trial in Philadelphia, but there's huge lines down by the elevator. So I had to go down there and pull him out of line. We took the stairs and I watched him ahead of me. He ran up four steps at a time. There was something very buoyant and earnest about him, and it just kind of hit me: He cannot go to prison for this."

After two days of jury deliberations, Neal and Cleaves were acquitted.

Several months before, Neal had taken out a student loan and enrolled in classes at Towson. He visited the basketball office just a few days after the verdict was announced. He sat face-to-face with Towson's Pat Kennedy, a well-traveled coach in his 26th year at the Division I level.

Kennedy had no idea what was falling into his lap. He had heard Neal's name but had no idea what the young player even looked like. Neal was the Atlantic 10 Rookie of the Year during his freshman season at La Salle and averaged 18.3 points per game in two seasons there.

Kennedy listened to Neal's story, found out about his past and talked about the future. He asked Neal to bring in some game tape and then started asking around.

"I asked a couple of our guys who'd been playing ball with him at the rec center," Kennedy says. "I said, 'What do you think of him?' Everyone, they all said the same thing: 'He's a great guy.' Everything we heard was extremely positive."

Neal's case was put before a special administrative committee that recommended school president Robert L. Caret permit him the right to play. Just four weeks after sitting in a Philadelphia courtroom, Neal was back on a basketball court.

He doesn't see it as a second chance, though. It's the continuation of another opportunity.

"I always knew I'd be back playing basketball. It was just a matter of letting the judicial process play itself out," he says. "God put this in my path and in my life to be a more mature man. That all happened when I was a 19-year-old kid.

"Now, today I'm a 21-year-old man. I'm different. I appreciate family, school, basketball, a scholarship, just being able to run and jump. All of this stuff can be taken away in a split-second."

Neal came off the bench Dec. 21 against Virginia Military Institute and scored 28 points. He started the next game. Scoring is so natural for him -- 30 points at Charleston, 25 vs. Old Dominion, 40 at James Madison and 34 against Hofstra. Through eight games, he already had established himself as one of the best players ever to wear a Towson uniform.

"I can't tell you how fortunate we all feel," Kennedy said one afternoon last week. "It's exciting to see something positive like this happen for a kid like Gary."

But still there are the eyes, the stares, the judgments. Neal wasn't convicted, but he was accused. In the court of public opinion, that's enough for a lifetime label. It's too bad.

Sometimes you can't bury the past. The sensational shines brighter than reality.

"I would like to have this positive attitude that he won't face some type of stigma," says Goldstein, the Philadelphia attorney. "It's very unfortunate because it's all so misplaced. This kid was put in this position and there was a rush to judgment by so many people -- by everyone at La Salle -- without any thought or consideration of the evidence.

"He has the type of personality, though, that will sustain him. And he'll rise above it. I hope he can outrun the stigma."

Neal doesn't even acknowledge pending judgments. The stares and the questions and the intrigue don't affect him. The judgment he cared about has been handed down.

Now, he just looks forward. He'll graduate either in May or over the summer with a degree in history. He hopes to return to Towson next fall on scholarship.

Neal says he doesn't think about his time away from basketball and doesn't see the point in discussing how things might be different today. The way he sees it -- the way his mother always explained it -- he's on the path he's supposed to be on.

"I don't play the 'what-if' game," he says. "I play the 'now-I-know' game. I had 18 months of my life taken away from me. I don't want to be in a situation where my life depends on what 12 people think. It shouldn't matter what other people think. I can't worry about that. I can't worry about what-if. Now I know. That's what I got." rick.maese@baltsun.com

Read Rick Maese's blog at baltimoresun.com/maeseblog

Points after -- Rick Maese

Flip flop: Maryland men's basketball coach Gary Williams just can't make up his mind. You'll recall that he suspended senior Travis Garrison for one game, initially saying that punishment was because Garrison visited a bar, a violation of team rules. Williams specifically said the suspension had nothing to do with the two misdemeanor charges the Terps' forward currently faces. But that didn't make sense because police also put Chris McCray at the bar as a witness, and McCray escaped discipline. (McCray, you might recall, is the reason for the no-bar rule in the first place.) On Friday, Williams finally explained the discrepancy: Garrison faced a suspension because he faced charges, which doesn't match his original reasoning at all. It's not easy delivering punishment to a player who has been charged but not convicted. But a coach has to be consistent, otherwise mixed messages are sent. Is it OK to be a in bar? OK as long as you don't get slapped with charges? OK as long as a conference game isn't in the immediate future and your team's already short-handed?

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad
46°