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Should false rape accusers be sued?

By Roxanne Jones | 12/17/2013, 10:48 a.m.

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Roxanne Jones, founding editor of ESPN The Magazine.

Editor's note: Roxanne Jones is a founding editor of ESPN The Magazine and a former vice president at ESPN. She is a national lecturer on sports, entertainment and women's topics and a recipient of the 2010 Woman of the Year award from Women in Sports and Events. She is the co-author of "Say It Loud: An Illustrated History of the Black Athlete," (Random House) and CEO of Push Media Strategies.

Eighty years -- that's about how long it took the state of Alabama to posthumously pardon the last three of nine men who were falsely accused and wrongly convicted of raping two white women on a train. They infamously were called the Scottsboro Boys, because the nine black men were just 12- to 19-years-old when they were arrested in 1931.

It turned out that the women, Ruby Bates and Victoria Price, had lied to police about the rapes. At one of the trials, Bates recanted her testimony, saying she had made it all up. Still, the all-white jury convicted the boys, one after another.

Forty-three years later, a similar story: This time it was Delbert Tibbs, who died recently of cancer. Tibbs spent nearly three years in prison in Florida after he was convicted in 1974 of a rape and murder that he had nothing to do with, according to the Florida Supreme Court.

Ancient history, you say? We've moved past those shameful days of unequal justice, you insist. Think again.

In 2012, according to the FBI, nearly 87,000 "forcible rapes" were reported. That's down 7 percent from the number of rapes reported in 2008. Law enforcement agencies estimate that the number of false rape accusations ranges from 2 percent to 8 percent annually, or between 2,000 and 7,000 cases each year.

Exact numbers are difficult to track because of the lack of in-depth research on false rape cases and because of the varying definitions of what constitutes an "unfounded" rape claim. It can mean the alleged victim did not try to fight off the suspect or suffer injuries, was not threatened with a weapon or the victim and perpetrator had a previous relationship.

Law enforcement experts agree that rapes are widely underreported, and no one is suggesting that violence against women isn't a serious problem. But experts do not dispute that false rape accusations can and do happen. Many of those innocent men end up in prison or with lives shattered.

One of the unfortunate statistics

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After being exonerated in a rape and kidnapping case where he spent over five years in prison, Brian Banks worked out for the Seattle Seahawks on Thursday and spoke with head coach Pete Carroll. Photo provided by Seattle Seahawks.

In 2002, Brian Banks was one of those unfortunate statistics. He was just 17 when a classmate, Wanetta Gibson, 15, falsely accused him of raping her at school. Banks, then a top football talent, spent more than five years in prison and five years on probation for rape and kidnapping.

He was exonerated after he got his accuser to admit on tape that she lied about the rape. Banks later explained that his attorney had advised him to take a plea bargain and avoid a jury trial because "... I was a big black teenager, and no jury would believe anything I said."