Race Hate: Echoes of `Bonfire of the Vanities' in court fury

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The dilapidated courtroom in Poughkeepsie, upstate New York, has never seen a case like it - yelling lawyers, spectators cursing "white justice" and a judge struggling to gain control. It verges on comedy, but, as David Usborne saw from the gallery, it cuts to the heart of America's black-white divide.

The Pagones defamation trial under way in Poughkeepsie, two hours north of New York City, is emerging as the Christmas pantomime to beat all others. The story is about a black woman named Tawana Brawley and about truth. Top of the bill: the Rev Al Sharpton.

There is scant joy in it, however. Its playing-out in this creaking chamber of the State Supreme Court is resurrecting one of the country's darkest and, arguably, most disgraceful episodes of racial confrontation.

For many blacks, it is a chance to advertise what they know about American justice: that, for them, it does not exist. For as many whites, it promises final reckoning for Mr Sharpton, the New York City street-preacher and politician widely thought to have been an inspiration for the scurrilous figure of Rev Reggie Bacon in Tom Wolfe's late-80s novel The Bonfire of the Vanities.

It began 10 years ago, on 28 November 1987, when Tawana Brawley, then 15 years old, was found in a dustbin liner by the side of the road near here, her hair matted with faeces and racial slurs scrawled on her body. She claimed she had been kidnapped by six white men, and raped and sodomised.

In March 1988, Mr Sharpton and two black lawyers, Alton Maddox and Vernon Mason, went before the press to name the man they said was the leader of the gang. He was Steven Pagones, a white assistant district attorney of this county and the son of a local judge. Other prominent blacks, including the comedian Bill Cosby and former world boxing champion Mike Tyson, associated themselves with campaign, .

Challenged by sceptical reporters on that day to provide some proof, Mr Sharpton laid down the gauntlet to Mr Pagones: "If we are lying, then sue us ... sue us - sue us. Sue us right now!"

Ten years on, that is what Mr Pagones is doing. With a defamation lawsuit asking for damages totalling $395m (pounds 243m), Mr Pagones, who is now 36, is setting out to prove that the trio maliciously set out to nail him.

The battle lines are already drawn. The three defendants will contend that the day before their press conference, Ms Brawley had seen a photograph of Mr Pagones in a Poughkeepsie newspaper and identified him to them. They decided to take action, they will argue, because they believed a white-man cover-up was being perpetrated to protect Mr Pagones from prosecution.

Mr Pagones and his lawyer, William Stanton, will try to show that the three made no effort to seek corroboration of her claim and, therefore, that they acted in reckless pursuit of their own self-aggrandisement. An associate of Mr Sharpton later said the minister had told his colleagues that he had taken on the case to make himself the "biggest nigger in New York".

Mr Stanton faces a difficult challenge. However, he has some powerful ammunition. A report from a grand jury empanelled in 1988 to investigate the claims concludes that Ms Brawley was guilty of perpetrating a hoax and that Mr Pagones was innocent. Indeed, there was never a trial, because no formal charges were filed.

Reminding the jury this week of Mr Sharpton's challenge to Mr Pagones to sue, Mr Stanton declared in his opening argument: "Well, here we are. You're going to decide, we called their bluff. The Brawleys hatched this story. These defendants were the screenwriters."

As if to ensure that passions were inflamed to the maximum, Ms Brawley herself broke 10 years of silence about the case by appearing before 600 supporters, almost all black, in a Brooklyn church last Tuesday. To loud cheers and chanting, she stuck by her story, proclaiming: "I'm not a liar, I'm not crazy." So far, she has never testified to it on the Bible. Whether she will appear during these proceedings is one of their greatest elements of suspense.

Judge Barrett Hickman, meanwhile, must keep the trial on the rails. Sharpton supporters arrive daily by bus from the city and are not watching quietly. Yells of "white justice" shook the court when Judge Hickman revealed he had a letter showing Mr Sharpton and the two lawyers had been invited to testify before the grand jury. They never did. As Judge Hickman stalked from the court, the defence lawyers, enraged about the letter, screamed after him, "Judge! Judge!"

A finding for Mr Pagones could spell disaster for Mr Sharpton. He has toned down his rhetoric and is trying to enter the political mainstream. Last month, he won a respectable showing in the New York mayoral race and next year he is expected to run for Congress. Talking to The Independent, he refused point blank to express regret for his words 10 years ago, or back down from his original claims. "This is a vendetta against those of us who had the audacity to challenge a family that is not used to being questioned," he insisted calmly.

Pushed further on what might have motivated Mr Pagones to reopen the wounds that cut so deeply into both the black and white communities, Mr Sharpton declined speculation: "I get sued when I speak in America. I get sued when I think in America. Please, please don't make me think."