‘Trial By Media’: Cheryl Araujo’s gangrape case broadcast revealed her identity and became like soap opera
As the defense alleged it was "consensual," there was increased speculation on what rape was. Opinion was divided among viewers, with some saying "she asked for it," or "she should be put away too"
Cheryl Ann Araujo, 21, on March 6, 1983, was heading home in New Bedford, Massachusetts, when she realized she had run out of cigarettes. It was a Sunday evening, she decided to stop by Big Dan's tavern, a bar on the way home to buy some. Araujo knew a waitress there, and began talking to her about her day. The waitress, at some point, left the bar, and the 21-year-old sat at a table and decided to finish her drink before leaving.
The bar was filled with at least 20 men, she was the only woman left inside. Araujo resolved to leave, and it was then when a man got up and locked the door while another grabbed her from behind. The man threw her on the floor, tore off her pants, and raped her as the men around silently watched, and some even cheered. Three other men joined the attacker and carried Araujo to a pool table and raped her for a period of two hours. She screamed and begged for help but no one came forward. No one called the police.
She somehow managed to escape the horror, wearing a pink sweater and nothing else. She ran onto the streets and flagged down a motorist, three men eventually helped her get to safety.
The gangrape was all over the media the next morning. It was explosive. Everyone wanted to know more details. When it emerged that the men had cheered the brutal assault, the case grew into a spectacle. People wanted to know more about the victim and her identity. Araujo became very concerned about her safety and decided to get an attorney. She had made up her mind by then. Araujo wanted to fight the case and get justice.
When her attorney asked her if the ordeal of going through a trial was worth it, she said: "She wanted to make the world a better place for her daughters."
Police by then arrested four men in the case, all of them Portuguese nationals. Two more men who watched the assault were arrested and charged as accessories. New Bedford at the time had a heavy Portuguese American presence, with nearly 60 percent of the population having a Portuguese descent. The media latched on to the immigrant criminal story. Nearly all of them described the accused as Portuguese immigrants, which antagonized the Portuguese community. The case was now laced with racial tension, with some residents, saying: "This is not Portugal and people needed to follow the land of the law."
There were simultaneous widespread demonstrations happening in the fishing town of New Bedford by women, asking for justice and more awareness around rape laws. The more the media covered the case, the scrutiny over it increased with many beginning to question the victim. Many called in to these news networks, asking about her history, what she was wearing, and her reasons for being there at the bar at night. The public was engaging in victim shaming.
The trial began and the prosecutors pressed Araujo to testify in the court and she relented. Considering the interest in the case, the judge allowed the trial to be televised. There had never been a nationally televised rape trial in a courtroom before that. There were cameras in the court and every minute of the proceedings and evidence was broadcast live on CNN, and other news channels.
With daily live coverage, the rape case became a source of entertainment for many across the country. "I really enjoyed the trial coverage," said one viewer, while another said: "I love General Hospital but I haven't seen it since the trial in the case began." The viewers were getting a thrill out of the victim's trauma.
As the defense presented its case, alleging that the assault was "consensual," there was increased speculation on what exactly the act of rape was. There was divided opinion among the viewers, with some saying "she asked for it," or "she should be put away too." The defense claimed that the victim did not say no, and it was a consensual act albeit in public in front of dozens of men. The trial became a nationwide soap opera.
It was time for Araujo to take the stand, and the judge advised television crews to not photograph or film her to protect her identity. However, when Araujo was asked to state her name and address during the trial, it was recorded and telecast live. The entire nation knew her name and where she lived. It became a public record.
Araujo became afraid as she had witnessed an increasing animosity towards her as the media's live coverage gained more traction. The 21-year-old was vilified in every way possible in the courtroom as the defense engaged in victim-blaming and asked her if she took drugs or why did she willingly go into a bar filled with boisterous men. Critics noted that it appeared as if it was the victim who was on trial. It was then counselors in the region that began getting calls from rape victims saying they were afraid to take their cases to court. The trial had a negative impact on many rape victims, who feared their identity would be outed if they sought justice.
The defense portrayed Araujo's rape as a "gray area." After days of trial the verdict finally came: The two men who watched on the assault were found not guilty. While the other four were found guilty of aggravated assault. The judge had not realized the impact of a widely-televised trial. Shortly after the verdict, an angry mob assimilated outside the courthouse and jeered at the jurors.
An immediate protest also erupted in the Portuguese community in support of the defendants. They took the verdict as a sleight on the community. The massive protests were headed by the two accused who were found not guilty, with women in groups claiming Araujo "wanted it."
The 21-year-old was tormented all this while. Araujo, along with the trauma of the assault, had witnessed her character assassination by people who did not even know her. With a looming fear of her and her daughters' safety, she decided to uproot herself from a city where she was born and grew up in and moved to Florida. Araujo was essentially exiled. Her torment had became a showcase for the residents of New Bedford, where she was now known as 'Big Dan's rape victim.'
Araujo struggled to adjust to Florida as her past continued to haunt her. Her tragedy had become a media circus. Nearly two years after the assault, in 1986, the 23-year-old died in a car accident. She was drunk. Her death was hardly covered in the media. Her perpetrators were soon released, none served a prison sentence of more than six years for a crime which holds a possible life sentence.
Netflix's docuseries 'Trial By Media' premiered May 11.