In the curious case of Brian Banks, the 26-year-old California man recently exonerated for the rape of a young woman in 2001, Facebook can be credited somewhat with helping him not only gain his freedom, but pursue a lifelong dream of playing professional football. While users of the social media site often use the service to connect with friends and locate long-lost acquaintances, Banks utilized it for a greater purpose: to bring his accuser, 24-year-old Wanetta Gibson, to the truth of her false accusations for a crime that never occurred.
In the absence of DNA and other crucial evidence that could free Banks from a decades-long nightmare, a hold-your-breath meeting–arranged by Banks and agreed upon by Gibson–in an investigator’s office would pave the way towards the convicted man’s freedom. Gibson admitted that Banks had not sexually assaulted her, nor had he kidnapped her as had been widely reported. On video and audio tapes that have gone viral on the internet, Gibson can be heard twice, in response to the investigator’s inquiry of the alleged assault, “No he did not [rape me].” There is no coercion, prompting or influence on the investigator’s or Banks’ part. She speaks clearly, forthrightly and without hesitation to all questions posed before her.
The California Innocence Project assumed Banks’ case and assisted in the subsequent legal affairs that would lead to his freedom. He spent five years behind bars and five years on probation, wearing an ankle monitor so that his every move could be tracked. He also wrestled with being labeled a “sex offender.”
Prior to Wanetta Gibson’s accusation and Brian Banks’ subsequent incarceration, he had been highly recruited by a number of prominent colleges across the nation to play football. He was headed to a great collegiate career at USC, playing the sport he loved when his world came to a screeching halt following accusations of the rape. Despite the absence of DNA evidence or other evidence which could tie him to the alleged act, Banks’ defense attorney encouraged him to accept a plea agreement in exchange for a 41-year sentence because, according to published reports, the jury would see, among other “descriptives,” a “muscular black teenager” and not, presumably, an athletically-gifted young man headed to college on a scholarship. Prior to Banks’ incarceration, he had never been in trouble with the law. For Banks, though, a “short” sentence behind bars was a deal worth taking: He was young and would be free in a few years. A “brief” stay in prison was significantly more accepting over the prospect of remaining behind bars until middle age. As a result, he accepted the deal, languishing in prison for five years with, he believed, a career gone as quickly as the myriad collegiate offers that had come earlier.
Enter Wanetta Gibson and Facebook.
Gibson’s Facebook “invitation,” a casual, as though-nothing-had-happened appeal was, by anyone’s measure, a strange befriending. With the taxed-down monetary settlement (awarded by the school district where she was a 15-year-old student at the time of the accusation) exhausted years ago, her motive for appealing to Banks remains suspect. Various news accounts accuse her (and her mother, Wanda Rhodes, 52) of continuing a charade of monetary acquisition by any means necessary in an effort to remain one step ahead of creditors seeking payment for big-ticket purchases made with the approximately $750,000 settlement.
Former neighbors and acquaintances of the pair do not paint a pretty or wholesome picture of the twosome. Wanetta Gibson, now a mother, and her mother, according to social services and legal documents, are well-known throughout the region as they attempt to evade legal and social service officials. They are, to some who know their story as it relates to Brian Banks, joined at the hip, and are always watching their backs.
In an act of desperation, according to case watchers, Wanetta Gibson may have mindlessly befriended Banks on the social media site in an effort to redeem herself for the travesty which she caused years earlier. Others theorize that the accuser may have wanted to wrest whatever finances she believed he may have accumulated in prison, because she was currently unemployed, had exhausted all means of legally obtaining money and believed he would perhaps be grateful for her acquaintance (again!) since he was no longer behind bars. One of her primary concerns seems to have been the possibility of repayment of the settlement based on her false testimony.
Others speculate that the mother/daughter duo was, once again, “up to no good,” that something sinister was resting just below the surface, another scam perhaps. Banks posits the notion that Gibson most likely wanted to resume a relationship, that she believed that he may have in fact forgiven her for the years spent behind bars for the lies she had told, and that they could indeed move forward, together, despite the past. Whatever the motive for Gibson’s sudden appeal on Facebook doesn’t, however, cause him to languish over her intent.
Like many other exonerees who have been falsely accused of crimes they did not commit, Banks is putting the past behind him and moving into a different arena, one that doesn’t have bars, ankle monitors or daily activities ordered by officials who work in state-run facilities.
Major newspapers across the country are reporting on Banks’ slow turn of luck: He is scheduled to try out with the Seattle Seahawks football team on June 7th, and a number of other professional teams have expressed interest in him as well. If, however, he doesn’t make the roster with any of the teams, he has been offered, according to Derrick Hall, CEO of the Arizona Diamondbacks baseball team, a place of employment with the organization. Hall watched Banks in a recent interview and was greatly impressed with the maturity of the young man who appears to harbor no resentment or ill-will toward his accuser or the fact that one-fifth of his life was spent behind bars for a crime he did not commit.
While a number of wrongful incarcerations can be attributed to a myriad of factors, including witness misidentification, poor forensic science, judicial misconduct, “bad” policing, coerced confessions, and ineffective legal counsel (which runs strong in this case), very few cases of exoneration can be attributed to walk-in-the-door, sit-down confessions of truth by an accuser, as in this case. Wanetta Gibson’s liberal entry into the investigator’s office was not only a surprise to Banks–he didn’t believe that she would show up–her confession of truth set in motion a string of events that set the wheels of justice rolling in Banks’ favor. Her conscience or the consciousness of what she’d done are theories up for grab. Only she can make a truthful case of her past and present behavior.
In this socially driven culture of tweets, texts, emails, “breaking news,” and 24/7 news bytes, Facebook has, in this instance, proven to be a savior for Brian Banks. It is reported that he remarked that he “didn’t believe” what he saw on his computer screen when he saw that Gibson had contacted him with the missive to “let bygones be bygones.” While such a casual dispatch may have been easy for her to issue, it will prove for Banks to be one which will indeed direct his path toward new and glorious opportunities and beginnings. Good luck, Brian.