IT could be the storyline of a blockbuster thriller. A would-be author accuses a man she spots in the street of having raped her and writes a memoir about her nightmare ordeal that becomes a best-seller.
The man serves 16 years in jail before being released, and he is eventually cleared of the crime.
Yet incredibly, this is the true story of The Lovely Bones author Alice Sebold, whose 1999 book Lucky — which tells of her rape at 18 and how it shaped her life — was to become a Netflix film.
Yet six months ago the project came to a halt amid accusations of racism and false rape claims.
The film’s executive producer, Tim Mucciante, quit in June after suspecting Alice had sent the wrong man to jail for her 1981 attack.
He told the New York Times: “I started having some doubts, not about the story that Alice told about her assault, which was tragic, but the second part of her book about the trial, which didn’t hang together.”
Anthony Broadwater, 61, was last week cleared after spending 16 years in jail and a further 23 on New York’s sex offenders’ register.
He said through tears after leaving his final court hearing: “I never, ever, ever thought I would see the day that I would be exonerated.”
This week the American author released a carefully worded apology through a website.
Alice, 58, wrote: “I will continue to struggle with the role that I unwittingly played within a system that sent an innocent man to jail.
“I will also grapple with the fact that my rapist will, in all likelihood, never be known, may have gone on to rape other women, and certainly will never serve the time in prison that Mr Broadwater did.”
Alice’s first novel, The Lovely Bones — the story of a raped girl and published in 2002 — sold ten million copies and was turned into an Oscar-winning film in 2009 starring Mark Wahlberg, Rachel Weisz, Susan Sarandon, Stanley Tucci and Saoirse Ronan. It took £40million at the box office worldwide and earned Tucci a best actor Oscar.
Alice — who lives in a £4million mansion in San Francisco — saw her career take off after Lucky was published three years earlier, selling a million copies.
It detailed how she had been raped by a man she called Gregory Madison while she was an 18-year-old student at Syracuse University, New York State.
Part of it reads: “He kneed me in the back of my legs so that I would fall down. ‘You don’t get it, bitch. I’ll kill you. I’ve got a knife. I’ll kill you’.
“He released his grip on my mouth again and I fell, screaming, on the brick path.
“He straddled me and kicked me in the side. I made sounds, they were nothing, they were soft footfalls. They urged him on, they made him righteous.
“I scrambled on the path. I was wearing soft-soled moccasins with which I tried to land wild kicks.
“Everything missed or merely grazed him. I had never fought before, was chosen last in gym.”
Nearly five months after the attack, Alice was stopped in her tracks one day when she was approached by her attacker in the street near her university.
She wrote: “He was smiling as he approached. He recognised me. It was a stroll in the park to him, he had met an acquaintance on the street. ‘Hey, girl’, he said. ‘Don’t I know you from somewhere?’
“I looked directly at him. Knew his face had been the face over me in the tunnel.” Police eventually detained Anthony — who, like Alice’s attacker, was black.
Sprinkle some junk science on to a faulty identification and it’s the perfect recipe for a wrongful conviction.Lawyer David Hammond
But in a police identity line-up Alice failed to pick out Anthony, who was fourth in line, instead selecting the fifth man.
She wrote: “I moved on to number five. His build was right, his height. And he was looking at me, looking right at me, as if he knew I was there. Knew who I was. The expression in his eyes told me that if we were alone, if there were no wall between us, he would call me by name and then kill me . . .I approached the clipboard . . . I placed my X in the number five box. I had marked the wrong one.”
After an officer told her she had picked the wrong suspect, she wrote: “He did not tell me which one was the suspect. He couldn’t.
“But I knew. I stated for the record that in my opinion, the men in positions four and five were almost identical.”
Despite failing to pick out Anthony, he was still put on trial after a sample of his pubic hair matched one found on Alice after the attack.
The science has since been discredited, but he was convicted of rape, sodomy and sexual cruelty.
His lawyer, David Hammond, said: “Sprinkle some junk science on to a faulty identification and it’s the perfect recipe for a wrongful conviction.”
Because Anthony maintained his innocence through his time in jail, he was denied parole five times.
Meanwhile, in the years after the trial, divorcée Alice struggled with trauma from her attack. She has told how, ten years later, she was snorting heroin “now and then”.
She said: “The heroin was like booze and cigarettes and dating not the most stable people, a distraction from me not feeling the feelings of the rape. Vietnam vets call it ‘self-medicating’.”
After seeking therapy she began to write her story in the form of a memoir, which became Lucky. But on Tuesday, her publisher Scribner issued a statement saying: “Following the recent exoneration of Anthony Broadwater, and in consultation with the author, Scribner and Simon & Schuster will cease distribution . . . while Sebold and Scribner together consider how the work might be revised.”
Pan Macmillan, Alice’s UK publisher, has confirmed it too will be pulling the title.
After his release in 1998 Anthony met his future wife Elizabeth — but said his conviction prevented them from ever starting a family.
He told New York local news website syracuse.com last month: “I met a person that believed in me. And she’s been with me since 1999.
“We had a big argument sometimes about kids, and I told her I could never, ever allow kids to come into this world with a stigma on my back.
“I wouldn’t bring children into this world because of this. And now we’re past (that) age. We can’t have children.”
Anthony said he opted to work night shifts in a factory when he was freed from jail so he would have an alibi if he was accused of another late-night rape.
He said: “I always wanted a night job, to protect myself.”
This summer, producer Tim Mucciante decided to follow his doubts about Anthony’s case and hire a private investigator to track down the real rapist — then only known in Lucky and Alice’s interviews by his fictional name, Gregory Madison.
The detective also found Anthony, living in a dilapidated house in Syracuse, a city of 150,000 people. Windows were covered in tarpaulin and the walls crumbling. Tim said: “He was pretty shocked. He is living, this is not an exaggeration, a very squalid existence. Alice Sebold, based on Lucky and The Lovely Bones, is living in a very, very nice home in San Francisco.
Give him the money you made from your best-selling book about the sexual assault you wrongly accused him of.Brit Actress Jameela Jamil
“I am not suggesting for a moment that she intentionally identified the wrong man.
“She did the best she could as a teenage girl but regardless, I really hope she reaches out to him now.”
Some are now demanding the author gives Anthony a share of her profits.
An online Go Fund Me page, Writing A Wrong — Anthony Broadwater’s Future Life, has already raised more than $30,700 (£23,100) towards his legal fees.
The organiser of the fundraiser, Sheryl Depker-Barau, wrote: “While Anthony spent 16½ years in prison for a crime he did not commit, and the subsequent 23 years as a felon and registered sex offender, Alice Sebold was able to make millions of dollars from her book Lucky, which was based on the sexual assault and inaccurately portrayed Anthony as the rapist.”
Brit actress Jameela Jamil tweeted: “Give him the money you made from your best-selling book about the sexual assault you wrongly accused him of.”
Chocolat author Joanne Harris tweeted: “Maybe he could write (or have ghosted), a companion memoir called Unlucky, which would be included in every forthcoming edition of (Alice Sebold’s) memoir, with suitable royalty and advance privileges.”
Anthony said simply: “Something did happen, but I was not the person. I’m relieved she has apologised. It must have taken a lot of courage for her to do that.
“It’s still painful to me because I was wrongfully convicted, but this will help me to come to peace with what happened.
“I just hope and pray that if she had doubts, then she should have come forward and said, ‘Hey, it wasn’t this man’.”