Cheryl Ann Araujo (1961–1986) was an American rape survivor whose case became national news. She was gang-raped in 1983 at age 21 by four men in a tavern in New Bedford, Massachusetts, while other patrons watched but did not intervene. During the prosecution, the defendants' attorneys cross-examined Araujo to such an extent about her own life and activities that the case became widely seen as a template for "blaming the victim" in rape cases. Her case was widely known as the "Big Dan's rape," after the name of the bar in which the attack occurred. Ostracized in New Bedford, Araujo moved with her family to Miami, Florida, to make a new life. She died a few years later in a drunk driving car accident.
Her case prompted national debate at the time over broadcasting of the trial, in which her name was released. Some states have passed legislation to protect the names of rape victims, and court cases have attempted to settle issues of newsworthiness, freedom of the press, and state interest, as well as personal privacy. Her case was the basis of the 1988 film The Accused.
On March 6, 1983, after putting her two daughters to sleep following a third birthday party for the older girl, Araujo left her home in New Bedford, Massachusetts, to buy cigarettes. The store she usually purchased from was closed, so she stopped at Big Dan's tavern. Two men approached and asked her to leave with them. When she refused, a third man grabbed her from behind and threw her onto the bar's pool table. She was stripped below the waist, and several men raped her. According to Araujo's original report to police, widely reported in the press, she heard people "laughing, cheering, yelling", but no one responded to her cries for help. Later investigation indicated that only three non-attackers were present in the bar: one was drunk, and two, including the bartender, tried to intervene, but were threatened by the attackers. As Araujo seemingly admitted later, there was no crowd cheering on the rape. Eventually, Araujo fought off her attackers and ran half-naked into the street, screaming that she had been raped. Three college students passing by in a van came upon Araujo in the street and drove her to the nearest hospital.
Six men were originally charged with the rape, though only four, Victor Raposo, John Cordeiro, Joseph Vieira and Daniel Silva, were eventually tried. Two separate trials were conducted to avoid the men testifying against each other during trial. The trials attracted international attention, and people in the Portuguese community felt the case was a catalyst for stirring anti-Portuguese discrimination and sentiment.
In addition, the press coverage and trial cast new light on how victims are treated in rape cases. Defense attorneys questioned the victim about her personal life, suggesting she had invited or somehow deserved the attack. During live TV coverage of the trial in the US, the victim's name was broadcast. Even after allowing TV coverage, the court had the right to edit it to prevent disclosure of the woman's name but did not, although it later admonished the press for releasing her name.
The three college students who drove Araujo to the hospital testified as to her state of terror when they encountered her. The four defendants were convicted of aggravated rape; charges against two additional men were dropped. The most any of the men served was 6½ years.
Issues of media coverage
This case added to the debate of whether rape victims had a right to privacy because of the nature of the crime. The prosecutor said that he believed victims should be protected by having trials be closed, in order to protect their privacy. He felt the publicity might discourage rape victims from trying to get justice. There was considerable controversy at the time over broadcasting the rape trial. The broadcasts received wide ratings. As one study later noted, "Publication of a rape victim's name severely invades the personal privacy interests of the victim and exposes the victim to a variety of social and psychological problems."
There was national debate about the issue of releasing the victim's name, and United States Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania held subcommittee hearings on the issue of televised trials after the conclusion of this case. Supporters of broadcasting criminal trials felt that newscasters should have used their editing capacity to delete Araujo's name. As noted by Peter Kaplan, Specter said, "Some hard thinking has to be done in protecting the rights of witnesses and defendants." He added, "If this could be achieved, it would be highly desirable to televise rape cases, child-abuse cases and other crimes." Other supporters also believed that it was important to show the judicial process.
Other concerns about media coverage of this case related to the press' repetition of the first police report, without adequate attribution. They published Araujo's initial account of a crowd cheering in the bar. It was found that there were fewer men in the tavern than she claimed; during the trial, she said the attack resulted in her being distraught and distorting the number. But the dramatic first account had staying power; it was repeated even after more factually accurate accounts were published and broadcast.
Later life and death
Araujo was essentially ostracized in New Bedford. Shortly after the trial, she moved to Miami, Florida along with her two daughters and their father—Araujo's high school sweetheart—to find anonymity. Araujo had entered school to become a secretary, was making a life for herself, and had found some measure of happiness.
On December 14, 1986, she lost control of her car while taking her daughters to a Christmas show and struck a utility pole. The girls were injured, but survived. Araujo died in the crash. She was 25 years old. At the time of the crash she was 3 times above the legal intoxication limit in Florida. The legal limit is .10 and her blood alcohol level was .29 percent. According to an United Press International article published December 24th, 1986, "The woman who was gang-raped in a New Bedford, Mass., bar two years ago was driving while ``falling-down drunk`` when she was killed in an automobile accident here, a Dade County medical examiner said on Tuesday". According to the same article, "She spent more than half of 1986 in a Miami detoxification center and a residential drug and alcohol abuse treatment program for women, officials said."
The feature film drama, The Accused (1988), was loosely based on this case. It starred Jodie Foster as the woman attacked and Kelly McGillis as an Assistant District Attorney prosecuting the case. In press coverage related to the film, McGillis acknowledged that she had survived an assault and rape herself. She discussed her long struggle to get over the attack, and wanted to talk about it to help other victims.
- Cox Broadcasting Corp. v. Cohn (1975), upholds freedom of the press to publish information (including names of rape victims) obtained from public sources
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