A long journey to justice ended Thursday when South Africa’s Supreme Court rejected disgraced tennis great Bob Hewitt’s appeal of his six-year sentence for raping and sexually assaulting three girls and ordered him imprisoned for exploiting “his wicked desires.’’
The ruling came five years after the victims publicly accused him of the crimes in a Globe investigative story and one year after the former Boston Lobsters star was convicted in a South African trial court.
The nation’s Supreme Court described the long lapse until its final ruling as “regrettable.’’
“The sentences fit the criminal and the crime,’’ the court concluded.
Hewitt, 76, a deposed Tennis Hall of Famer who has been on house arrest at his South African citrus farm since his convictions, is expected to surrender to police, who will transport him to prison. The sentence means he will serve at least three years.
“Justice has been served,’’ said Theresa “Twiggy” Tolken, who was 13 in 1980 when Hewitt, her tennis coach, raped her. “The South African justice system has shown the world that it does not matter who you are, how old you are, or how wealthy you are, in the end you will have to answer for your crimes.’’
Hewitt maintained his innocence even after he was convicted of raping Tolken and Suellen Sheehan, who was 12 in 1982 when Hewitt assaulted her during a tennis lesson. He also was convicted of sexually assaulting a tennis student in 1994 who was 17 at the time.
The Globe does not identify victims of sexual assault, but Tolken and Sheehan were among six women who publicly identified themselves while alleging that Hewitt assaulted or harassed them as their coach from the 1970s to the 1990s. The others included Heather Crowe Conner of West Newbury, who was a 14-year-old student at Masconomet Regional High School in 1975 when Hewitt began raping her.
The Supreme Court, in rejecting Hewitt’s appeal, harshly criticized him for further victimizing the women when he requested leniency from the trial court after his convictions. Hewitt referred to one woman as “a so-called rape victim’’ and suggested he deserved leniency because he stopped penetrating the other girl when she complained he was hurting her. He also asked for leniency because he “only vaginally penetrated’’ each girl once.
Attempts to reach Hewitt and his attorneys were not successful.
The Supreme Court also criticized Hewitt for denigrating his victims for sharing their stories publicly.
“Whilst lack of remorse is not an aggravating circumstance, it would have redounded in [Hewitt’s] favor if he had shown some appreciation of and contrition for the devastation he caused,’’ the three-member court stated.
“He showed no remorse for his vile deeds,’’ the judges ruled.
Hewitt is one of the greatest doubles players in tennis history, a winner of 15 Grand Slam titles in doubles and mixed doubles over a 13-year career before he was enshrined in the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1992. The Hall indefinitely suspended him in 2012 after its own investigation of the allegations and expelled him in April when South Africa’s Supreme Court refused to hear his appeal of his conviction but agreed to consider his sentence.
Every investigation of Hewitt found that he lived a double life, which, according to the court, included grooming his young female tennis students so he could sexually prey on them.
“He abused his position of authority and responsibility towards them and also abused the trust that their parents had placed in him when they put their young children in his care,’’ the court stated. “Quite apart from the immediate physical and psychological trauma which the complainants suffered from the offenses, there is also the lasting and devastating effect which the offenses have had on their lives and their families.’’
The court noted that both Tolken and Sheehan have been divorced and “have struggled to maintain intimate relationships with men throughout their adult lives as a direct result of the rapes.’’
Tolken later remarried, moved to New Zealand, and had 9-year-old twins. But the court said her parents and sister never recovered from the rape, which she reported to her family soon after it happened, only to have lawyers advise them it would be a losing proposition to press charges against a rich and famous sports celebrity such as Hewitt.
The court also referred to Tolken being so fearful of her children falling victim to the kind of crime she endured that she has overly protected them.
In Sheehan’s case, the court stated, she has “suffered severe depression and anxiety and has led what she termed ‘a self-destructive life.’ ”
All three victims were tennis prodigies — Sheehan played for Auburn University at Montgomery — but they abandoned their careers because of the emotional toll of the rapes.
Hewitt, whose daughter was nearly the same age as Tolken and Sheehan at the time of the rapes, asked for leniency in part because he had never before been convicted of a crime and has been married for nearly 50 years. He also cited his failing health and “the devastating effect of the trial on his family’s social life.’’
“He endured a barrage of anonymous hate mail and hostility from members of the public and the media when he attended the trial,’’ the court reported.
Hewitt’s health issues include osteoarthritis, progressive coronary artery disease, peptic ulcers, and a dysfunctional colon, according to the court. A doctor who examined him reported that his conditions “are fairly well controlled’’ with regular medical attention.
In upholding the six-year sentence, the court expressed the importance of properly punishing rapists, particularly in a nation that for many years was viewed as too tolerant of sexual abuse.
“Our courts have, in countless cases of this nature, consistently expressed society’s abhorrence of sexual offenses, which once earned South Africa the shameful title of being the rape capital of the world,’’ the decision stated.
Sheehan, who lives near Johannesburg and earlier this year changed her name, wrote on her Facebook page, “Today marks the end of the toughest years of my life. I’ve lost, I’ve gained, I’ve learned, I’ve unlearned, I’ve cried, I’ve laughed, but most importantly I’ve become a better version of who I used to be.’’
Tolken described the ruling as “a huge relief.’’
“Now I can finally get on with my life knowing justice has been served, and try and put it behind me,’’ she said.
It was Conner who triggered the Globe investigation that ultimately led to the charges in South Africa. She endured many years of serious emotional trauma after Hewitt repeatedly raped her as a teenager. In 2015, the US District Court in Boston ordered him to pay her $1.2 million after finding him civilly liable for the rapes. She has not received a payment.
“I get no satisfaction at all from knowing he may go to jail,’’ Conner said. “He may have tried to ruin me but he didn’t. I’m proud of being able to realize a dream of mine to be married and have children in spite of what he did to me and what he took from me.’’
Bob Hohler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.