Accusing the Accuser

When Laura Douglass went to the police to accuse her uncle of sex abuse, she never imagined she'd be sued for libel

For fifteen years Laura Douglass and her mother made no effort to criminally prosecute the man they claim sexually assaulted Douglass repeatedly during her adolescence. But in 1995, when Douglass learned that Earl Wiggins, who is her uncle, had been hired by the Miami Police Department, she decided she could no longer remain silent, and she went to the police with her allegations. "I do not want [Wiggins] to be able to intimidate people the way that he intimidated me along with the authority of a badge and with the power of a gun," Douglass told investigators in a sworn statement.

Three days after she made her charges, Chief Donald Warshaw fired Wiggins, who had been employed as a police department public service aide and at the time was just ten days shy of graduating from the police academy at Miami-Dade Community College.

Now Wiggins -- along with his wife June -- has sued Douglass and her mother for libel, claiming that the two women falsely accused him in an effort to harm him and ruin his livelihood. The allegations, he says, have been circulated throughout his neighborhood -- the Roads section just south of downtown Miami -- where he has been a well-known civic leader for more than a decade. As a result, he claims, his good name and reputation have been destroyed.

Wiggins has also sued the City of Miami and Warshaw in federal court, alleging that the city violated his constitutional right to due process by firing him without providing an opportunity for him to clear his name.

According to Miami First Amendment attorney Tom Julin, to win the libel lawsuit Wiggins must prove, among other things, that Douglass knowingly and maliciously lied to police and therefore does not deserve the legal protections granted to witnesses or victims of crime that allow them to report their allegations without fear of retaliation through the courts.

Those protections are vital to police work, says Metro-Dade Police Maj. George Aylesworth, who heads his department's legal division. "If people were afraid of getting clobbered in court even if they saw something they really believed was a crime -- putting myself in their shoes, I wouldn't report it." But protection is granted only to those who report a crime in good faith, Aylesworth adds: "That qualified privilege [in reporting a crime] is a societal value so that people will report. The reason it's qualified is so that people won't abuse it by maliciously reporting."

Laura Douglass would not comment for this article. Her mother, Miami attorney Julia Dawson, a prominent member of the National Organization for Women and the Miami chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, says that her daughter's sole objective in going to the police was to prevent others from being victimized. "In my opinion, my daughter's decision to tell Miami police that she was raped and sexually abused as a child was a courageous act," Dawson wrote in a prepared statement. "The ordeal of discussing with strangers the painful details of sexual exploitation was endured in the hope of preventing others from being victimized. I feel my daughter is owed a debt of gratitude for her strength of character and sense of public duty."

Douglass is being represented by Holland & Knight attorneys Dan Gelber and Sandy Bohrer. (Bohrer also represents New Times.) "Her intention was never to publicly embarrass or hurt [Wiggins]," says Bohrer. "She just thought she had an obligation to report it."

The Miami Police Department internal-affairs investigators to whom Douglass reported her allegations asked her to take a voice-stress test, which detects deception by measuring modulations in a person's voice. According to police sources, she passed the examination. (Wiggins failed the same voice-stress test.) The results of such tests are not admissible in court, but as Aylesworth notes, police departments are not required to meet the same standards of proof when dealing with their own employees as criminal prosecutors are required to meet in the courtroom -- namely, that a defendant is guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

Douglass first met her uncle Earl Wiggins when he was in his early forties and married to her mother's sister June. Douglass was ten years old at the time. According to her sworn statement, Douglass, her mother, and brother, along with Wiggins and his wife, took a vacation in the Bahamas three years later, in 1980. One evening, she claimed, her uncle treated her to some type of alcoholic drink at a poolside bar. The rest of the family was sleeping when the two of them returned to their rented condominium. "I laid down to sleep [on a sofa bed] or may have passed out as a result of having this rum punch thing, because I was very thin, and you know ... [it] wouldn't take a lot to make me drunk at that age," Douglass related to investigators. "And I woke up in the middle of the night in pain because he was on top of me having sexual intercourse with me. When I woke up, he stopped."

The girl, bleeding heavily, fled to the bathroom to clean up. When she returned to the living room, she told investigators, Wiggins allegedly issued a threat: "He said that he would kill me and he would kill my mother and he would kill my brother and that if I sent him to jail ... that he would -- he knows a lot of bad people that he would have them kill me and my family even if he was in jail."

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