The Central Park 5 Essay

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.

The City of New York's subpoena of Ken Burns, the documentary filmmaker whose recent project covered the wrongful conviction and eventual exoneration of five men accused of raping and beating a woman in Central Park, opens up a painful point in New York City history, and raises questions about the strength and reach of New York's journalist shield laws. It should also open up a demand for real changes to police investigation and interrogation tactics – to preserve the rights of criminal defendants, and to protect crime victims.

More than 20 years ago, the Central Park jogger rape case roiled New York City, stoking racial tensions and fanning the flames of widespread fear and frustration with pervasive crime and violence. The jogger, a 28-year-old investment banker, was raped and brutally beaten; she barely survived. A group of five black and Latino teenage boys was implicated in the crime. Four of the five confessed on videotape. The boys later recanted, but were all convicted. The media storm around the crime and the trial latched onto the narrative of roving gangs of kids from the projects going "wilding", attacking unsuspecting victims in the park and robbing them, beating them or worse.

More than a decade later, DNA evidence and the confession of the man tied to it proved the innocence of the "Central Park Five". They were released from prison and saw their convictions vacated. Three of the five – now men who spent much of their adult lives in prison – filed a lawsuit against the city in 2003. It's in the context of that lawsuit that the Burns footage – footage that, ironically, the city did its best to prevent from being shot in the first place – has been subpoenaed.

The Central Park jogger case is particularly compelling because it flies in the face of what we believe to be common sense about criminal convictions. A confession, it would seem, is the most ironclad proof of guilt: why would anyone in their right mind confess to a crime they didn't commit? How could five boys all confess to the same crime if they weren't actually responsible?

What Law & Order and whodunit thrillers won't tell you is that false confessions are startlingly common. According to the Innocence Project, 25% of innocent defendants who were exonerated with DNA evidence made incriminating statements or full-on confessions. A disproportionate number of those who falsely confess are mentally challenged or have mental health problems; children and adolescents also routinely fail to understand their rights during a police interrogation. And false confessions are, sadly, an American tradition: even back in 1692, 50 different women "confessed" to witchcraft in the Salem witch trials.

Police officers want to get the bad guy, but too often they pick what they believe to be the most plausible story and ratchet the facts into it. By the time the police are interrogating a subject, they've determined that the person is probably guilty of the crime. The goal of the interrogation isn't to learn the truth: it's to solidify guilt.

That viewpoint lends itself to a mentality where coercive interrogation techniques are justified. Most of the techniques that police officers use are legal – lying to the arrestee, falsely claiming there's evidence implicating him, deceiving him, intimidating him, minimizing the crime and its potential consequences to make a confession seem like an easy out. One of the most troubling coercive tactics is intentional sleep deprivation, to make a suspect more psychologically susceptible to suggestion. Sleep deprivation may sound relatively benign, but it's been widely used as a powerful instrument of torture. Depriving a person of sleep removes their ability to think and act coherently. They have delusions and hallucinations, and the desire for sleep becomes so desperate that a person deprived of it will often do almost anything for reprieve – including, as happened in the Central Park case, admitting to murder.

The Central Park Five all took back their confessions upon being formally arrested. They were kids who had been kept awake for nearly two days and interrogated without attorneys present; they were told if they confessed, they could go home. The stories they told in their confessions were inconsistent with each other and with the physical evidence. Several of the boys said they stabbed the victim, but there were no knife wounds. Their stories varied on the location of the crime, the description of the victim and the timeline of the crime itself. There was little physical evidence tying them to the rape and beating. They were prosecuted and convicted anyway.

In the meantime, Matias Reyes, the man who actually raped and nearly killed the Central Park jogger, continued on his spree of serial rapes throughout New York City. Reyes had violently assaulted several women before the Central Park rape, including his own mother; the same year he committed the Central Park assault, he was also actively breaking into women's apartments and stabbing out the eyes of his victims so that they couldn't identify him after he raped them. He killed at least one of them.

In 2002, while in jail for rape and murder, Reyes admitted to the Central Park rape. DNA evidence tied him to the crime. Tellingly, even after a judge vacated the convictions of the Central Park Five, police commissioner Ray Kelly stood behind the police work that put five innocent young men in jail:

"The judge's ruling has neither exonerated the defendants nor found any collusion or coercion on the part of the police."

Police officers are human and mistakes happen; that's forgivable. Refusing to alter bad practices and placing your own interest in convicting someone ahead of truth and justice? That's not.

Police forces across the country continue to resist beginning-to-end videotaped interrogations and rules against coercive interrogation practices. To the NYPD's credit, video recording is now mandatory for interrogations of murder, serious sex crime and felony assault suspects – though a full decade has passed since the Central Park Five were cleared of their convictions. More police forces should follow suit, and should go still further by doing away with techniques like sleep deprivation, deception and intimidation, which too often have bad results.

When police officers and prosecutors play fast and loose with the facts – when they care more about getting a conviction than getting the right guy – crime victims lose, and more people are victimized. The jogger, Trisha Meili, published her memoir in 2003 and works as a motivational speaker. She deserved to see real justice from the get-go, and not be forced to re-live her victimization more than a decade later when it turns out that, whoops, the police got the wrong guys.

Five teenage boys deserved better than spending their late teens and 20s in prison for a crime they didn't commit. Matias Reyes deserved to be in jail sooner, and frankly deserves his own special hot seat in hell, if such a place exists.

And as a society, we all deserve a police force dedicated to seeking the actual truth, not the most convenient one.

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