Ron is the founding pastor of a church in Harrisburg, PA, and a graduate of Denver Seminary in Colorado.
A High School Football Star With a Bright Future
In 2002 Brian was a 16-year-old high school football star with a seemingly unlimited future ahead of him. He was a 6 ft 1 in, 240 lb linebacker who had verbally committed to playing college football at the University of Southern California, one of the biggest of the big-time programs. A student at Polytechnic High School in Long Beach, California, he was on his way to the school office to discuss his college prospects when he made a seemingly innocuous detour. That detour cost him ten years of his life.
An Unwise Encounter That Cost a Teenager His Freedom
According to Britain’s Daily Mail newspaper, as Brian approached the office he ran into a friend he had known since middle school. She was Wanetta Gibson, then 15 years old. The two turned aside to a school stairwell, as they had often done before, for a “make out” session involving consensual sexual contact, but not intercourse. Brian believes he said something that made Gibson angry, and they parted on bad terms. The result was that she later accused him of kidnapping her by dragging her into the stairwell and raping her there.
From that moment, Brian’s choices ceased to be about which college team he would lead to football glory before going on to a pro career in the NFL. In fact, his lawyer told him, he now had only two options: he could plead “not guilty” to the charges, and risk a possible sentence of 41 years to life if convicted; or he could plead “no contest” and be sentenced to about five years, probably actually serving no more than 18 months. The lawyer advised the latter course.
By now a terrified 17-year-old, whom prosecutors denied the opportunity to consult with his mother, Brian heeded the advice of his lawyer and pleaded “no contest.” In our legal system that is essentially an admission of guilt. As a result, he spent more than five years in prison. When he finally was released on parole, it was as a convicted sex offender required to wear an electronic ankle bracelet 24 hours a day. Unsurprisingly, he had trouble finding a job.
An Astonishing Facebook Friend Request
Then, in 2011, as Brian was still on parole, something astounding happened. He received a Facebook friend request. Unbelievably, it was from Wanetta Gibson, who wanted to “let bygones be bygones.”
Brian says he struggled to keep his emotions under control. He knew this represented a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to clear his name, and getting angry wouldn’t help. Instead, he says, "I stopped what I was doing and got down on my knees and prayed to God to help me play my cards right."
The card he decided to play was to team up with a private investigator named Freddie Parish. Together they met twice with Wanetta Gibson, and Parish secretly videotaped the sessions. During the meetings, Gibson frankly admitted that her accusations had been false, and said she would like to help Brian clear his name. However, there was a big obstacle standing in the way of her making her recantation public.
In the wake of the supposed rape, Gibson and her mother, Wanda Rhodes, had sued the Long Beach Unified School District for the “lax security” they claimed allowed the rape to take place. The school district settled the lawsuit by paying the two $1.5 million.
Now, as the video reveals, Gibson had some definite limits on her willingness to help the man she had so egregiously wronged. “I will go through with helping you,” she said, “but it’s like at the same time all that money they gave us, I mean gave me, I don’t want to have to pay it back.” Because of that fear of being required to repay the money she had acquired through her fraudulent claim, Gibson refused to repeat her story to prosecutors so that Brian could be exonerated.
Brian Is Completely Exonerated of All Charges
But she didn’t know about the video. Working with the California Innocence Project, Brian presented the videotaped recantation to district prosecutors. They immediately understood that an innocent man had been imprisoned. “We do not believe Mr. Banks did the crime he pled guilty to,” said Deputy District Attorney Brentford Ferreira.
Prosecutors moved to have the rape and kidnapping convictions overturned, and Brian Banks was completely exonerated of the charges for which he had spent ten years of his life in prison or on closely supervised parole.
This is a great story, with the potential to have an unbelievably happy ending. Wouldn’t it be great if Brian Banks made it big in professional football? I can already see the movie! At the very least, there will be a small measure of financial restitution, since California law provides that a person who is falsely imprisoned will receive $100 for every day they spent incarcerated. So, Brian Banks will get at least a tiny portion of compensation for all the dashed dreams and daily suffering he experienced for more than ten years.
Will the Woman Who Falsely Accused Him Get Away With It?
But what about Wanetta Gibson? She was just 15 at the time she made the accusations against Banks. Tori Richards, writing for thedaily.com, quotes neighbors who maintain that it wasn’t so much Gibson, but her “controlling” mother, Wanda Rhodes, who cooked up the scheme to get a big unearned payday by suing the school district for a rape that never occurred. Should Gibson now be held legally accountable for the fraud she helped perpetrate as a teenager?
Prosecutors say that probably won’t happen—the case would be just too difficult to make. They also say it’s unlikely she’ll be required to pay back the $1.5 million acquired in the settlement of the suit.
Well, what about the mom who is thought to be the real force behind her daughter’s actions? Even one of Brian’s attorneys, Alissa Bjerkhoel of the California Innocence Project, believes that the teenage girl “was put up to this by her mother.” But it seems to me that if the case against Wanetta Gibson would be difficult to make, making one against Wanda Rhodes would be just about impossible, despite her lengthy record of serious criminal offenses.
So, they get away with it.
After robbing a young man of ten years of his life, defrauding a school district of $1.5 million dollars, and showing absolutely no remorse for any of it, it seems our legal system can’t hold this mother and daughter accountable.
You Reap What You Sow
But the scales of life do balance. As the Bible says, whatever you sow, you will eventually reap.
According to the neighbors quoted by Tori Richards, Wanetta Gibson needn’t have been concerned about paying back the $1.5 million she and her mother stole—it’s all gone. Once they received their payout, the mother and daughter became big spenders. “The mom was buying cars, big screen TVs, and all sorts of things,” remembers one former neighbor. “One time Wanetta came up here with a wad of cash—she had $10,000 in her hand.”
It wasn’t long until all the ill-gotten gains were gone. Now, according to public records, the women are in debt, moving from one place to another to stay ahead of bill collectors. The cars and other big-ticket items they bought have been repossessed or sold.
Tori Richards sums up the two women’s fate this way: “Gibson and Rhodes continue to live in the shadows, untraceable and vilified for robbing a promising athlete of a college education and an NFL career.”
Brian's Opportunity for Greatness
The callousness displayed by Gibson and her mother toward a young man who had his dreams and years of his life ripped away from him are inexcusable and reprehensible in the extreme. I don't know how to express the disgust their actions merit. But I don't think that's the most important feature of this story.
What impresses me most is the kind of man Brian Banks has apparently become through this ordeal. He refuses to be bitter toward the woman who subjected him to such suffering. “For me, I just want to be positive,” he says. “I want to be in a better position than what I was yesterday. The only way that can happen is by eliminating any negative ill will or feelings toward anyone.”
I really hope Brian Banks is able to become a great professional football player. But even if that doesn’t happen, to my mind he is already on track to become a great human being.
In June 2013, Wanetta Gibson was ordered to pay $2.6 million to Long Beach Unified School District because of the fraudulent claim she had made against it. The amount included repayment of $750,000 she had actually received from the district, plus the district’s court costs, plus $1 million in punitive damages. Gibson did not appear in court to contest the judgment, and her whereabouts were unknown.
In June 2015 California Gov. Jerry Brown authorized a payment of $142,200 to Brian Banks for his wrongful conviction and imprisonment.
A film about Brian Banks and his ordeal premiered in August 2019. He also signed a professional football contract with the Atlanta Falcons of the National Football League.
This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.
Questions & Answers
Question: Did Wanetta Gibson get criminally charged for falsely accusing Brian Banks for rape?
Answer: No, Wanetta Gibson was never criminally charged for her false accusation against Brian Banks. But she was ordered to pay $2.6 million to Long Beach Unified School District to repay the $750,000 she received from them, plus their court costs, and another $1 million in punitive damages, for a total of $2.6 million. Of course it's unlikely that the school district will ever see a penny of what Gibson owes them, but at least she's being held financially accountable for what she did.
© 2013 Ronald E Franklin