Mike Tyson’s conviction for the rape of Desiree Washington takes center stage in the final episode of Mike Tyson: The Knockout, a two-part ABC documentary, airing tonight (June 1). Tyson’s defense attorney James Voyles and special prosecutor Greg Garrison are among the interviewees delving into the case, which remains one of the most discussed celebrity trials in U.S. history.
The former heavyweight champion of the world was arrested in July 1991, after Washington accused him of raping her in his room at the Canterbury Hotel in Indianapolis. Washington, who at the time was a college student and the reigning Miss Black Rhode Island, was in town to attend the Miss Black America pageant. She had met Tyson, one of the celebrities invited to the event, when he had attended the show’s rehearsal.
A day later, on July 20, 1991, she checked into the emergency room at Methodist Hospital and reported that she had been raped. Washington told the police and subsequently testified in court that Tyson had invited her over to his room, where he forced himself on her. In February 1992, following a two-week trial that monopolized the attention of the media across the world, Tyson was found guilty of rape.
A month later, Judge Patricia J. Gifford sentenced him to 10 years in jail, but suspended the last four years of the sentence. Tyson was eventually freed in March 1995. “The law of Indiana is pretty clear, and it never mentions whether a defendant or a victim are acquainted,” she said. The former heavyweight champion of the world, however, has always maintained his innocence.
“I did not rape Desiree Washington,” he wrote in his book Undisputed Truth: My Autobiography, released in 2013. “She knows it, God knows it, and the consequences of her actions are something that she’s got to live with for the rest of her life.” Speaking out before his sentencing, Tyson had struck a similar tone.
“I have not raped anyone, tried to rape anyone by any means,” he said. “I’m sorry for Miss Washington as a person. I by no means meant to hurt her or do anything to her. I’m sure she knows that.”
Along with the William Kennedy Smith rape trial in Florida a year earlier and four years before the O.J. Simpson murder trial in California, Tyson’s case was one of the three celebrity trials that dominated newspaper columns and TV shows in the first half of the 1990s.
As Audrey Gadzekpo, managing editor of The Indianapolis Recorder, noted in 1992, the “Tyson case has all the makings of a television miniseries—sex, crime, and a famous name.”
Unlike Kennedy Smith and Simpson, however, Tyson was not acquitted. His defense team—which along with Voyles included high-profile attorneys Vincent Fuller and Kathleen Beggs from the Washington, D.C.-based firm Williams & Connolly—filed an appeal, which the Indiana Court of Appeals turned down in a 2–1 vote.
“I don’t come here begging for mercy, ma’am,” Tyson said in an 11-minute speech before being sentenced. “I can’t see anything good coming from this. I’m here prepared to expect the worst. I’ve been crucified, humiliated worldwide.”
The circumstances of the case only became more dramatic when, halfway through the trial, a blaze swept through the Indianapolis Athletic Club, where the jurors were sequestered. A hotel guest and two firemen were killed in the fire.
The trial also sparked visceral debates about racial attitudes in the criminal justice system and what constituted consent, discussions which in many ways still continue today.
In his book, the boxer said the verdict carried racial undertones. “I knew from the start that I’d get no justice. I wasn’t being tried in New York or Los Angeles; we were in Indianapolis, Indiana, historically one of the strongholds of the Ku Klux Klan. […] I had been found guilty by a jury of my “peers,” only one of whom was Black.
“The other Black jury member had been excused by the judge after a fire in the hotel where the jurors were staying. She dismissed him because of his ‘state of mind.'” Tyson was back in the ring five months following his return to society as a free man, fighting Peter McNeeley.
Controversy would follow Iron Mike in the ring too, as two years later he had his boxing license temporarily revoked by the Nevada State Athletic Commission and faced a legal bill amounting to approximately $3 million for biting off a piece of Evander Holyfield’s ear.