Football Player Falsely Imprisoned for Rape, Exonerated, Gets Pro Contract
Brian Banks has already experienced his worst nightmare. Now he’ll have the opportunity to live his dream. Falsely accused and imprisoned for rape, he was miraculously exonerated, then signed a professional football contract with the Atlanta Falcons of the National Football League.
In 2002 Brian was a 16 year-old high school football star with a seemingly unlimited future ahead of him. He was a 6 ft 1 in, 240 lb linebacker who had verbally committed to playing college football at the University of Southern California, one of the biggest of the big-time programs. A student at Polytechnic High School in Long Beach, California, he was on his way to the school office to discuss his college prospects when he made a seemingly innocuous detour. That detour cost him ten years of his life.
According to Britain’s Daily Mail newspaper, as Brian approached the office he ran into a friend he had known since middle school. She was Wanetta Gibson, then 15 years old. The two turned aside to a school stairwell, as they had often done before, for a “make out” session involving consensual sexual contact, but not intercourse. Brian believes he said something that made Gibson angry, and they parted on bad terms. The result was that she later accused him of kidnapping her by dragging her into the stairwell, and raping her there.
From that moment, Brian’s choices ceased to be about which college team he would lead to football glory before going on to a pro career in the NFL. In fact, his lawyer told him, he now had only two options to choose between: he could plead “not guilty” to the charges, and risk a possible sentence of 41 years to life if convicted; or he could plead “no contest” and be sentenced to about five years, probably actually serving no more than 18 months. The lawyer advised the latter course.
By now a terrified 17 year-old, whom prosecutors denied the opportunity to consult with his mother, Brian heeded the advice of his lawyer and pleaded “no contest.” In our legal system that is essentially an admission of guilt. As a result, he spent more than five years in prison. When he finally was released on parole, it was as a convicted sex offender required to wear an electronic ankle bracelet 24 hours a day. Unsurprisingly, he had trouble finding a job.
Then, in 2011, as Brian was still on parole, something astounding happened. He received a Facebook friend request. Unbelievably, it was from Wanetta Gibson, who wanted to “let bygones be bygones.”
Brian says he struggled to keep his emotions under control. He knew this represented a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to clear his name, and getting angry wouldn’t help. Instead, he says, “I stopped what I was doing and got down on my knees and prayed to God to help me play my cards right.”
The card he decided to play was to team up with a private investigator named Freddie Parish. Together they met twice with Wanetta Gibson, and Parish secretly video taped the sessions. During the meetings Gibson frankly admitted that her accusations had been false, and said she would like to help Brian clear his name. However, there was a big obstacle standing in the way of her making her recantation public.
In the wake of the supposed rape, Gibson and her mother, Wanda Rhodes, had sued the Long Beach Unified School District for the “lax security” they claimed allowed the rape to take place. The school district settled the lawsuit by paying the two $1.5 million.
Now, as the video reveals, Gibson had some definite limits on her willingness to help the man she had so egregiously wronged. “I will go through with helping you,” she said, “but it’s like at the same time all that money they gave us, I mean gave me, I don’t want to have to pay it back.” Because of that fear of being required to repay the money she had acquired by her fraudulent claim, Gibson refused so repeat her story to prosecutors so that Brian could be exonerated.
But she didn’t know about the video. Working with the California Innocence Project, Brian presented the video taped recantation to district prosecutors. They immediately understood that an innocent man had been imprisoned. “We do not believe Mr. Banks did the crime he pled guilty to,” said Deputy District Attorney Brentford Ferreira.
Prosecutors moved to have the rape and kidnapping convictions overturned, and Brian Banks was completely exonerated of the charges for which he had spent ten years of his life in prison or on closely supervised parole.
This is a great story, with the potential to have an unbelievably happy ending. Wouldn’t it be great if Brian Banks made it big in professional football? I can already see the movie! At the very least, there will be a small measure of financial restitution, since California law provides that a person who is falsely imprisoned will receive $100 for very day they spent incarcerated. So, Brian Banks will get at least a tiny portion of compensation for all the dashed dreams and daily suffering he experienced for more than ten years.
But what about Wanetta Gibson? She was just 15 at the time she made the accusations against Banks. Tori Richards, writing for thedaily.com, quotes neighbors who maintain that it wasn’t so much Gibson, but her “controlling” mother, Wanda Rhodes, who cooked up the scheme to get a big unearned payday by suing the school district for a rape that never occurred. Should Gibson now be held legally accountable for the fraud she helped perpetrate as a teenager?
Prosecutors say that probably won’t happen – the case would be just too difficult to make. They also say it’s unlikely she’ll be required to pay back the $1.5 million acquired in the settlement of the suit.
Well, what about the mom who is thought to be the real force behind her daughter’s actions? Even one of Brian’s attorneys, Alissa Bjerkhoel of the California Innocence Project, believes that the teenage girl “was put up to this by her mother.” But it seems to me that if the case against Wanetta Gibson would be difficult to make, making one against Wanda Rhodes would be just about impossible, despite her lengthy record of serious criminal offences.
So, they get away with it.
After robbing a young man of ten years of his life, and defrauding a school district of $1.5 million dollars, and showing absolutely no remorse for any of it, it seems our legal system can’t hold this mother and daughter accountable.
But the scales of life do balance. As the Bible says, whatever you sow, you will eventually reap.
According to the neighbors quoted by Tori Richards, Wanetta Gibson needn’t have been concerned about paying back the $1.5 million she and her mother stole – it’s all gone. Once they received their payout, the mother and daughter became big spenders. “The mom was buying cars, big screen TVs and all sorts of things,” remembers one former neighbor. “One time Wanetta came up here with a wad of cash – she had $10,000 in her hand.”
It wasn’t long until all the ill-gotten gains were gone. Now, according to public records, the women are in debt, moving from one place to another to stay ahead of bill collectors. The cars and other big-ticket items they bought have been repossessed or sold.
Tori Richards sums up the two women’s fate this way: “Gibson and Rhodes continue to live in the shadows, untraceable and vilified for robbing a promising athlete of a college education and an NFL career.”
The callousness displayed by Gibson and her mother toward a young man who had his dreams and years of his life ripped away from him is inexcusable and reprehensible in the extreme. I don’t know how to express the disgust their actions merit. But I don’t think that’s the most important feature of this story.
What impresses me most is the kind of man Brian Banks has apparently become through this ordeal. He refuses to be bitter toward the woman who subjected him to such suffering. “For me, I just want to be positive,” he says. “I want to be in a better position than what I was yesterday. The only way that can happen is by eliminating any negative ill will or feelings toward anyone.”
I really hope Brian Banks is able to become a great professional football player. But even if that doesn’t happen, to my mind he is already on track to become a great human being.
In June of 2013 Wanetta Gibson was ordered to pay $2.6 million to Long Beach Unified School District because of the fraudulent claim she had made against it. The amount included repayment of $750,000 she had actually received from the district, plus the district’s court costs, plus $1 million in punitive damages. Gibson did not appear in court to contest the judgment, and her whereabouts were unknown.
In June of 2015 California Gov. Jerry Brown authorized a payment of $142,200 to Brian Banks for his wrongful conviction and imprisonment.
A film about Brian Banks and his ordeal opens in August of 2019.