A California high school football star who was exonerated after serving five years in prison for kidnapping and raping a classmate has fulfilled his dream of playing for the NFL, and there are now plans to make a movie about his ordeal. Meanwhile, the woman who falsely accused him has been ordered to pay $2.6 million.
The crowd in the Georgia Dome in Atlanta cheered when Brian Banks, 28, took the field wearing an Atlanta Falcons uniform in the fourth quarter of a pre-season game on August 8, 2013. The 6-foot-2, 250-pound linebacker racked up two tackles during the Falcons’ 34-10 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals.
“It was definitely a good feeling,” Banks said. “It was one of those things where, coming from where you’re coming from, just to have people support you chasing a dream. These guys have been working on this all their life. From Pop Warner [youth football program] to high school to college, this is what they’ve been doing. For them to accept me, and let me be a part of it, and just get out here and play and show what I can do is more than I can ask for.”
Although he was cut from the Falcons’ lineup before the regular season, Banks signed a movie deal with Gidden Media, which intends to tell his story in a full-length feature film. The entertainment website TMZ reported on January 9, 2014 that the movie will portray Banks’ fight to clear his name, and how he went from being a convicted sex offender to an NFL player.
Banks’ saga began in 2002 while he was attending summer school at Long Beach Polytechnic High School with plans to attend the University of Southern California and play linebacker for the Trojans. His dream of college and eventually the NFL was shattered when classmate Wanetta Gibson, a sophomore, accused him of kidnapping and raping her in a school stairwell.
Banks said his attorney urged him to plead no contest to the charges and accept a plea bargain for a little more than five years in prison, followed by probation and registration as a sex offender. Banks, who was 17 at the time, said his lawyer told him he would face 41 years-to-life if he didn’t accept the deal and lost at trial – despite a lack of DNA evidence in the case.
Banks took the plea bargain but never gave up his claim of innocence and continued to fight his wrongful conviction. He contacted the California Innocence Project, which is staffed with students from the California Western School of Law in San Diego, but was told his was an unwinnable “she-said, he-said” case.
“He reached out to us,” said Justin Brooks, director of the California Innocence Project, “[but] there was no evidence that was going to get him out of prison.”
Brooks noted that situations like the one faced by Banks are increasingly common. “Plea bargains have become the 95% solution,” he told CNN.
Banks was released from prison in 2007 and placed on probation. He had to register as a sex offender, wear a GPS monitor, and stay away from schools and parks. Then, in March 2011, Wanetta Gibson contacted him on Facebook. She said she had received a large settlement from the school district years before as a result of the false rape claim. Gibson stated she wanted to “let bygones be bygones” and help Banks clear his name, but was afraid she would lose the settlement money if she told the truth.
“I will go through with helping you, but all that money they gave us, I mean, gave me, I don’t want to have to pay it back, all of it, because that would take a long time,” she said.
Banks contacted private investigator Freddie Parish, whose son had played football with Banks in high school, and Parish used a hidden camera to record a meeting between Banks and Gibson. It was during that meeting that Gibson recanted, acknowledging that Banks had never raped her and that she had made the whole thing up. With the videotape in hand, the Innocence Project decided it could finally get involved.
On May 24, 2012, a Long Beach Superior Court judge threw out the case against Banks after prosecutors moved to have his conviction dismissed due to the recorded conversation in which Gibson admitted he was innocent. “We do not believe Mr. Banks did the crime he pled guilty to,” said Deputy District Attorney Brentford Ferreira. “Justice has been served.”
Apparently, “justice” for Ferreira includes a wrongful conviction, serving five years in prison and registering as a sex offender before being exonerated due to a chance confession by the alleged victim.
“It’s been a struggle. But I’m unbroken and I’m still here today,” Banks, then 26, said outside the courthouse. On August 3, 2013, ten months after the judge dismissed his conviction, Banks signed on with the Atlanta Falcons.
“Talk about coming from the bottom,” he told reporters after the signing ceremony. “I know all too well what that is and what it looks like and what it feels like.”
Banks said he gave up hope of someday playing in the NFL when he was sentenced to prison. “I had to watch my class go on and receive scholarships and play collegiate football on a high level,” he said. “For me I had to let those dreams go for me to focus on what was ahead of me, and that was five years in prison. That was a completely different life of violence and being away from your family.... Football was the last thing on my mind, and it wasn’t until a few months before I was actually being released from prison that I thought about possibly trying to play football again.”
Banks is currently – and appropriately – a free agent after being cut from the Falcons.
On June 14, 2013, a Los Angeles Superior Court ordered Wanetta Gibson to pay a $2.6 million judgment, including $1.5 million from her settlement with the Long Beach Polytechnic School District plus interest, attorney’s fees and $1 million in punitive damages for making a false claim.
Sources: San Diego Union-Tribune, www.utsandiego.com, Community of the Wrongly Accused, www.cnn.com, www.tmz.com, www.nbclosangeles.com, Long Beach Press Telegram
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