The Central Park Jogger Case: A Lesson on Wrongful Convictions

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A new book and a civil suit have re-focused scrutiny on how New York City police and prosecutors managed to convict the wrong people in one of America's most notorious rape cases.

At a little before nine o'clock on the evening of April 19, 1989, a 28-year-old investment banker named Trisha Meili went for a run in New York City's Central Park. Four hours later, she was found unconscious, bound and bleeding near the center of the north side of the park. She'd been beaten and raped so savagely she lost 75 percent of her blood.

Elsewhere in the park, according to The Central Park Five: A Chronicle of a City Wilding, a new book by author Sarah Burns, police arrested a group of five young teenage boys—all black and Latino—who'd been trolling the park that night, committing minor crimes, including pelting joggers with rocks. After hours of interrogation, they all made incriminating statements, and once booked, were dubbed the “Central Park Five.”

At the time, New York was experiencing a record crime wave (in 1989 the city averaged 36 murders a week) and fear pervaded the city. The Central Park Jogger case was a perfect vehicle for that fear, and the media pounced.

The New York Post called for readers to “demand the death penalty” in a full-page editorial a week after the attack. Even the New York Times' editorial page referred to the boys as a “wolf pack.”

The next summer, writes Burns, despite the fact that none of their DNA matched samples found on Meili, all five were convicted and sent to prison.

But that was just the beginning.

The Real Culprit Confesses

In late 2001, 12 years after the original incident, a man named Matias Reyes confessed to the crime. Police tested his DNA and found that it matched the sample found on Meili. The following year the boys, now men, were exonerated and later released from prison. Meili, whose name had been withheld for years, eventually recovered from her injuries, and in 2003 she published a book entitled “I Am The Central Park Jogger: A Story of Hope and Possibility.”

But nearly 10 years after the exonerations, the case is far from settled. On May 23, Yeshiva University's Cardozo School of Law held a forum to discuss the case, occasioned by the publication of Burns' remarkable new book.

The book, and an ongoing civil suit the five have brought against the city, have re-opened a case that divided New Yorkers for more than 20 years—and the passage of time has done little to cool passions. Just last month, the New York Post, in an editorial applauding Mayor Michael Bloomberg for refusing to settle the lawsuit, and defended the “meticulous” police work in the case, despite the fact that then-District Attorney Robert Morgenthau threw out the convictions, and that detectives failed to connect Meili's rape to a similar attack (perpetrated by Reyes) in the area just two days before. The Post called Morgenthau's move “foolish.”

Burns begs to differ. After years spent interviewing the Central Park Five and pouring over transcripts and other evidence from the case, she believes that Morgenthau's office finally did the right thing in 2002.

Asked why, despite the exoneration, a newspaper like the Post is still hanging on to the original version of the crime, Burns was blunt: “Just as the NYPD doesn't want to admit they got it wrong, neither does they Post. They both have some responsibility in what happened here.”

And she's not alone in her opinion: Barry Scheck, the director of the Innocence Project, assisted in the exoneration and said we have a lot to learn from what the police—and the media— did wrong back in 1989.

'Standard Operating Procedure'

“It was standard operating procedure back then for police to get a confession, then begin a videotape,” Scheck said. Now, he continued, we know better: “Every interrogation should be videotaped.”

According to Scheck, the New York District Attorney's Association agrees that videotaping suspects from the moment they are brought in for questioning is the correct reform, but won't endorse a mandate to do so.

“If this had been mandated [in 1989] they wouldn't have been able to coerce those confessions from those juveniles,” said Scheck. “There is almost nothing more powerful that can go in front of the jury than a confession… hopefully jurors are becoming more knowledgeable that false confessions are something that happen.”

Cheryl Wills, a reporter for NY1 News, attended the event as part of reporting an upcoming three-part series on the case.

“It's clear the press smelled blood in the water in 1989,” Willis said. “The taped confessions boosted news ratings and that was all they cared about – not the teenagers caught in the middle. No one even asked, could those statements have been coerced?”

But, she continued, not much has changed: “Even now, with the Dominique Strauss-Kahn case, once again we see a rush to judgment and anti-French sentiment.”

Raymond Sanchez, Jr. and Korey Wise, two of the Central Park Five, attended the event. Sanchez, who was just 14-years-old when he was arrested, interrogated and tried for the rape and beating, served nearly seven years in prison and is now suing the city. Sanchez told The Crime Report that he believes what happened to him can, and will, happen again.

“At the end of the day I hope that people can be human enough to say, 'We made a mistake, we're sorry, and we're going to correct it,'” he said. “Only then can we move forward.”

Julia Dahl is Deputy Managing Editor of The Crime Report. She welcomes comments from readers.

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