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On a March night in 1983, 21-year-old Cheryl Araujo was brutally raped by multiple attackers at a local bar not far from her New Bedford, Massachusetts home, while onlookers offered no help. She escaped, but her ordeal didn't stop there. During the ensuing trial, which garnered national attention, she was subjected to victim-blaming questions from the defense and became ostracized from her community. A few short years later, she tragically died and her story went on to inspire an Oscar-winning film.
It's also featured in Netflix’s new docuseries ”Trial By Media” — which focuses on a number highly publicized trials, how they were covered in the media, and how, particularly in Araujo's case, they still resonate today.
Araujo went to Big Dan's Tavern on March 6, 1983 to buy a pack of cigarettes. While there, she was attacked by multiple men who took turns raping her on the bar’s pool table. She later told police that she heard bar patrons laughing and cheering as the assault went on. She ended up running out of the bar half-naked to flag down a vehicle full of college students for help.
The case became widely known as the "Big Dan's rape" case.
She reported the incident and four suspects — Joseph Vieira, Daniel Silva, Victor Raposo, and John Cordeiro, — were charged with aggravated rape. Two other men — brothers Virgilio Medeiros and Jose Medeiros — were charged with encouraging the act. Araujo bravely testified about what happened to her during a trial, which became the first ever "gavel-to-gavel" trial broadcast live on television. Millions of viewers tuned in to CNN as she was grilled on the stand, the New York Times reported in 1984.
As the docuseries points out, Araujo was vilified by defense attorneys who insinuated that she may have invited the attack. Furthermore, even though her identity was initially kept secret, her name was accidentally broadcast when it was stated in court. This led several newspapers to print her name.
The incident prompted national debate over privacy protection for rape survivors. Since then, laws have been passed to prevent court personnel from revealing the identity of sexual assault victims.
As the docuseries pointed out, feminists and women's rights activists were present at her trial and criticized how Araujo was treated.
"It was very unsettling to hear the way she was talked to and she had to speak about probably the most horrendous experience of her life," Darlene Wheeler, an activist who was with the Coalition Against Sexist Violence, told the docuseries. "It made me angry."
Her treatment appeared to have chilling consequences, with the ratio of rape victims coming forward to report those attacks declining in Massachusetts following the trial, the docuseries noted.
Debra Robbin, the co-director of the New Bedford Women's Center told "Trial by Media" that "in a trial that is so highly publicized and so visible, what happens in that trial sends a powerful message for other victims who may be considering pressing charges, bringing their case forward."
Despite the victim-blaming in the courtroom, four of the six defendants — Raposo, Cordeiro, Vieira and Silva — were found guilty of aggravated rape. The two men accused of encouraging the act were acquitted. Despite the convictions, Araujo continued to be vilified. Her lawyer Scott Charnas told the Associated Press in 1986 that hostility from her hometown pushed her to leave. Marches were even held in the community to support her rapists, as the docuseries pointed out. Because the rapists were Portuguese immigrants, some in the community contended they had been scapegoated — despite the fact that Araujo was also of Portuguese descent.
Araujo and her two daughters moved down to Florida, where she attended secretarial school. She died just a little more than two years after she took the witness stand. She hit a telephone pole while driving drunk in 1986, though her death was barely covered by television stations, the docuseries said. Jim Phillips, the retired news director for New Bedford radio station WBSM contended that, in the end, “she was forgotten.”
″She was the bravest person I’ve ever met,″ Charnas, her lawyer, said in a 1986 Associated Press report about her death. ″I think this was just the last tragic chapter of her life."
While her death may have been ignored — at least in contrast to her trial — the legacy of her strength following the attack inspired a 1988 film. “The Accused,” starring Jodie Foster, was loosely based on Araujo’s case, the Hollywood Reporter noted in 2016. The movie features a graphic sexual assault scene at a bar, which took place on top of a pinball machine. In that scene, three men gang-rape Foster’s character, Sarah Tobias.
The film’s screenwriter, Tom Topor, told the Hollywood Reporter that he pitched a script based on the Araujo case.
“My original draft had the pool table, but the producers were terrified of being sued, so it was changed to a pinball machine,” he said. In addition to drawing inspiration from the Araujo case, Topor said he interviewed rape victims, rapists, prosecutors, defense attorneys and nurses while writing the screenplay.
The film, which features Foster's character taking the stand just as Araujo did in real life, is still held up as an accurate depiction of what rape survivors go through, including the tendency to blame the victim that is still prevalent today.
Foster received an Oscar for her performance and as she received her award, she stated, "cruelty might be very human and it might be very cultural, but it's not acceptable, which is what this movie's about."
“Trial by Media” is now available to stream on Netflix.
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