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Ex-football player breaks down after rape conviction is dismissed

Former Long Beach Poly athlete Brian Banks hugs his mother Thursday
A Los Angeles County Superior Court judge on Thursday dismissed the rape conviction of a former Long Beach high school football player, ending 10 years of turmoil in a hearing that lasted less than a minute.

Brian Banks, 26, bowed his head and trembled, his eyes flooding with tears. His girlfriend, Pamela Soladar, yelped with joy. They made their way to each other and embraced, Banks too overwhelmed to speak.

“You made it,” she whispered to him.

It had been a long, maddening journey.

In the summer of 2002, Banks was considered a top college football prospect. A 6-foot-4, 225-pound middle linebacker at Long Beach Poly High, Banks had been courted by USC, UCLA and other football powerhouses.

He was attending summer school, and asked his teacher to leave class so he could make a phone call, according to court papers. Then Banks, a senior, ran into Wanetta Gibson, a sophomore.

Banks said they fooled around, but that their sexual contact was consensual. His mother, Leomia Myers, believed him, and said she sold her condo and her car to pay for his defense.

“I knew I didn’t raise my son to do something so horrendous,” she said.

Gibson’s version shifted over the years. She could not be reached Thursday for comment.

Initially, court papers show, she told a classmate, in a note rife with misspellings: “he picked me up and put me in the elevator and he took me down stairs and he pulled my pants down and he rapped me and he didn’t have an condom on and I was a virgin now Im not.” Gibson later told authorities a similar, more detailed story.

But when she testified during Banks’ preliminary hearing, Gibson faced the rigorous questioning typical in sexual assault cases. She changed some details and added others, Banks’ attorneys alleged in court documents.

Banks had a choice: He could take the he said-she said case to trial and, if convicted, risk being sentenced to 41 years to life in prison. Or, as his lawyer advised, he could accept a plea deal.

Banks pleaded no contest to one count of forcible rape, spent five years in prison and, upon his release, was forced to register as a sex offender and wear an electronic monitoring bracelet. At one point, he begged the California Innocence Project in San Diego for help, but he was told that without new evidence, there was nothing its attorneys could do.

Meanwhile Gibson and her family filed a lawsuit against Long Beach schools. They settled the case for $1.5 million. Gibson’s mother, Wanda Rhodes, could not be reached Thursday for comment.

Gibson contacted Banks on Facebook last year.

When Banks heard from her, he recalled, “I stopped what I was doing and got down on my knees and prayed to God to help me play my cards right.”

According to Banks and his private investigator, Gibson refused to tell prosecutors that she’d lied, lest she have to return the money she and her family had won in court. She also said she feared it would affect her relationship with her children, Banks’ attorney alleged in court papers said.

But her taped admission was enough to interest the Innocence Project attorneys, who said they had never before taken the case of someone already released from prison. When they reexamined Banks’ case, said Innocence Project attorney Justin Brooks, investigators also found other evidence to back up his claims.

After the alleged rape, no male DNA had been detected on Gibson’s underwear, court papers said. Also, the classmate Gibson first told about the alleged attack -- via the note -- said Gibson later admitted to making up the story so her mom wouldn’t find out she was sexually active, attorneys said.

More recently, Gibson has backed off her recantation, Brooks said. Nevertheless, when presented with the Innocence Project’s findings, L.A. County prosecutors agreed the case should be thrown out.

“It’s not our job to maintain a conviction at any cost,” said Deputy Dist. Atty. Brentford Ferreira. “It’s our job to do justice.” He said prosecutors had no plans to file charges against Gibson for making false accusations, saying it would be a difficult case to prove.

As for Banks, he walked out of Thursday’s hearing as if in a daze, his eyes red, his face frozen in disbelief. Someone handed him a black hooded sweatshirt with the word "innocent" in bold white letters.

He led a parade of supporters and media outside the Long Beach courthouse where he shared his hopes for restarting his football career. At one point, he grabbed his attorney’s hand and raised both their arms into the air, the pose of an athlete who has just clinched victory.

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-- Ashley Powers in Long Beach

Photo: Former Long Beach high school football star Brian Banks hugs his mother, Leomia Myers, outside the Long Beach courthouse after his rape conviction was overturned. Credit: Bob Chamberlin / Los Angeles Times

 

 
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