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Sorting out the truth in politics

PolitiFact: Why Clinton, in '75, defended an accused rapist

Evidence shows there was significant pressure on Clinton to take the case.

Evidence shows there was significant pressure on Clinton to take the case.

How Hillary Clinton at age 27 came to defend an accused rapist in rural Arkansas has suddenly become a contested piece of history in a case otherwise decided 40 years ago.

The case resurfaced in June when the Washington Free Beacon, a conservative news outlet, published a previously unreleased interview with Clinton from the 1980s. Back then, Clinton discussed her early work at a University of Arkansas legal aid clinic, where she took on the case of an indigent man charged with raping a 12-year-old girl.

Clinton, now 66, fielded new questions about the case during a promotional tour for her book Hard Choices. Clinton said she "asked to be relieved of that responsibility, but I was not, and I had a professional duty to represent my client to the best of my ability, which I did."

But in the Free Beacon's newly released recordings, Clinton says she took on the case as a "favor." Is this a contradiction?

Clinton has spoken publicly about the criminal case on only a handful of occasions: the interview from the 1980s, in her 2003 memoir Living History, and earlier this month.

The new audio sparked a harrowing interview with the child victim in the case, now 52, who told the Daily Beast that she blames the former secretary of state for putting her "through hell."

At PolitiFact, we decided to review what's known about the case to see if Clinton accurately portrayed how she came to represent the defendant. Because some of the key players have died, we won't issue a rating on our Truth-O-Meter.

Overall, we did find a few inconsistencies in Clinton's recollection of the nearly 40-year-old events. But we also found significant evidence suggesting she had little choice but to take the case. And the story itself provides insights in the early career of a potential 2016 presidential candidate.

A 'terrible' case

In 1975, Thomas Alfred Taylor was charged with raping a 12-year-old girl in his pickup truck off a highway in Arkansas' Washington County. Details of that night and the subsequent court proceedings were painstakingly reconstructed in 2008 by Glenn Thrush, then a reporter for Newsday and now with Politico.

While the girl willingly went for a ride with Taylor, she said she did not consent to sex and was later admitted to a hospital with injuries consistent with rape. At his court hearing, Taylor asked for a woman to represent him. According to Thrush's report, the county had just a "half-dozen" female attorneys available. A judge appointed Clinton, new to the South and looking to establish the University of Arkansas' fledgling legal aid clinic, to the task.

Clinton mounted a vigorous defense that included discrediting the child victim's story by writing in an affidavit that the girl was "emotionally unstable with a tendency to seek out older men" and had made "false accusations" in the past. The victim told Thrush in 2008 and the Daily Beast that Clinton made that up. But investigators in the case also found inconsistencies in the victim's story, according to Thrush's reporting.

Those details didn't make it into Clinton's 2003 memoir Living History or her recollections of the case in the newly released interview. She does note that the defendant passed a lie-detector test — "which forever destroyed my faith in polygraphs," she said in the 1980s — and she said the prosecution botched one of the most important pieces of evidence, Taylor's blood-stained underwear. She called it a "terrible case." Taylor, charged with first-degree rape, pleaded guilty to unlawful fondling of a minor. He died in 1992.

Clinton's words

The Free Beacon found five hours of previously unpublished audio of Arkansas reporter Roy Reed interviewing Clinton with her husband, then-Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton sometime in the mid 1980s. In them, she discuses her own legal career, including how she came to be assigned to the Taylor case.

"A prosecutor called me years ago, and said that he had a guy who was accused of rape and the guy wanted a woman lawyer," Clinton said. "Would I do it as a favor to him?"

Clinton remembered the case differently in Living History. In it, she wrote that Washington County prosecutor Mahlon Gibson "called to tell me an indigent prisoner accused of raping a 12-year-old girl wanted a woman lawyer. Gibson had recommended that the criminal court judge, Maupin Cummings, appoint me. I told Mahlon I really don't feel comfortable taking on such a client, but Mahlon gently reminded me that I couldn't very well refuse the judge's request."

More recently, as we noted, Clinton said she "asked to be relieved of that responsibility." Clinton did not respond to a request for comment.

In comparing the 1980s interview with case details, we found Clinton misremembered several points about the case. She wrongly recounted the length of the sentence in Taylor's plea deal (she said two months in jail, but it was actually a year in jail and four years' probation) and she couldn't recall the name of the Nobel Prize-winning blood expert from New York, whose promise to testify was critical to her defense.

In that light, her statements that she took the case as a favor and that she couldn't get out of it make more sense. Thrush, who spent weeks in Arkansas critically reviewing Clinton's work on the case, told PolitiFact that the statements may actually go hand-in-hand.

"Every person that I spoke with indicated to me that it was a formal court arrangement, but also that it is a small county, and there were personal relationships between all the lawyers in the county," Thrush said. "And while she was required to do it, I don't see any contradiction in her viewing it as a favor."

Clinton's teaching assistant at the law clinic told Newsday in 2008 that Clinton worked hard on the case "because she wanted to show that she was willing to take court appointments, hoping that the bar would help us in getting established."

Asked to be relieved?

But did she try to get out of it?

Gibson, the Washington County prosecutor and one of the only people still alive with knowledge of the case, has said emphatically over the years that she did. In 2008, Gibson told Newsday that "Hillary told me she didn't want to take that case. She made that very clear." Recently, Gibson made similar comments to CNN. He said Judge Maupin Cummings (now deceased), found Clinton on a list of lawyers who would represent low-income clients. According to Gibson, Clinton called him and said, "I don't want to represent this guy. I just can't stand this. I don't want to get involved. Can you get me off?"

"I told her, 'Well, contact the judge and see what he says about it,' but I also said, 'Don't jump on him and make him mad,' " Gibson said. "She contacted the judge, and the judge didn't remove her, and she stayed on the case."

If there's a record that Clinton formally asked the judge in writing to be "relieved" of the case, we didn't find it. Current Arkansas law says court-appointed attorneys must defend their clients "until relieved for good cause."

Stephanie Harris, communications counsel for the Arkansas Supreme Court, said judges were more informal in assigning lawyers to cases in 1975.

"That was a time when judges just grabbed lawyers from the hall," Harris said. "There wasn't always an actual procedure like there is now. It may have been the case that she didn't want to represent them, but she was told to and that was the end of it."

"If we don't like a defendant, we still have a duty to represent them and advocate on their behalf," she added.

Clinton's handling of the case will certainly undergo scrutiny should she decide to run for president. But on the question of whether she had to take the case, the evidence shows there was significant pressure on Clinton, both from the judge and the Arkansas legal community where she was trying to jump-start a clinic for poor clients. Once assigned to the case, she pursued it aggressively. But that doesn't necessarily contradict how she became involved, nor does characterizing it as a "favor" made 40 years ago.

Contact Steve Contorno at scontorno@tampabay.com. Follow @scontorno.

PolitiFact: Why Clinton, in '75, defended an accused rapist 07/17/14 [Last modified: Friday, July 18, 2014 6:53pm]
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