[This article now cross-published by The Progressive...]
I finally found a moment recently to watch The Central Park Five, a documentary film by Ken Burns, Sarah Burns, and David McMahon which aired on PBS earlier this year about the travesty of justice following the infamous 1989 Central Park Jogger case.
The word "travesty" here isn't really strong enough to properly describe what happened in this case if the film and the available evidence are accurate.
The film details the story of the five young African-American and Hispanic boys from Harlem, aged 14 to 16, who had absolutely nothing to do with the brutal beating and horrific rape of a white, affluent, 28-year old female jogger, but who ended up serving some seven years each (more in the case of the one 16-year old) after false confessions were apparently coerced out of them by New York City police detectives in the days immediately following the crime.
According to the documentary, one of the kids who was falsely convicted wasn't even considered a suspect when a NYC detective in Harlem, seeking to bring the boy's friend into the station for questioning, suggested the boy come along for the quick ride downtown and back. He promised him he'd be home in an hour or so. It would be years before either of them were allowed to go back home for good.
The film, frankly, is extraordinary disturbing, heart-breaking and infuriating on several different levels, not the least of which was that I lived in NYC when the horrible rape and violent assault --- attempted murder, actually --- took place. I remember the supposed "wilding" incident well, along with the fear and furor that subsequently gripped the city. Yet, I had no idea, until this film, that the boys tried and convicted for the crime were, years later, found to have been completely innocent. They had absolutely nothing to do with the crime they were each convicted of...
In 2002, while serving a life sentence, the so-called "East Side Rapist", Matias Reyes, offered a real confession to the crime which, he says --- and evidence confirms --- he committed alone. Reyes had been arrested after a string of serial rapes and murders on NY's Upper East Side, just months after the Central Park jogger incident, but police never bothered to tie him to that case. That case was said by NYPD (and the media which simply took their word for it) to have been "solved" just days later. Supposedly it was committed by a roaming "wolf pack" of kids from Harlem as police, and the media at the time, wrongly reported.
It wouldn't have been difficult to tie Reyes to the Central Park case. The only DNA found at the scene of the rape of the jogger, Trisha Meili, was never tied to anyone before the kids were tried and convicted. There was no DNA or fingerprints of any of the five boys found anywhere near the crime scene. After Reyes' confession years later, however, DNA in semen samples from the rape was found to be a match to Reyes'.
The video taped "confessions" of the falsely convicted boys were the result of nearly 24 straight hours of interrogation for each of the 14-, 15- and 16-year olds who, according to New York Magazine, "had been awake for nearly two days" by the time the prosecutor turned on the camera to tape their stories. Each of the boys had been promised they'd finally be allowed to go home to their parents if they just signed the confessions they were rehearsed to repeat on camera.
None of the boys' confessions matched the others (they couldn't, they were made up, suggested to them by the cops) and yet, video tapes of those "confessions" --- given before the boys even had lawyers --- were used as the only evidence against them during their trials. It worked. The jury bought it. The real rapist, in the meantime, spent years before being tied to the crime, thanks to the NYC cops and prosecutors who allowed him to get away in exchange for a quick, if completely false, "capture" and conviction that pleased an anxious, frightened and angry city in 1989.
Days later, each of the boys would retract their false confessions, but it didn't matter. The video-tapes were too powerful. One juror tried to hold out, according to the film, but after 13 hours of deliberation, even he ultimately gave up.
Each of the boys maintained their innocence throughout all the years of their incarceration. Ironically, that was one of the reasons they were not released from captivity earlier. As they refused to show remorse for their "crimes", the parole boards wouldn't even consider early release. Kharey (now Korey) Wise, who received the longest sentence because he was the oldest at the time of the crime --- 16 years old, so he was tried as an adult and sentenced to years in Rikers Island --- even stopped bothering to show up at his parole hearings at all after a few years. He knew it was pointless. He had lost all hope.
In short: what happened to these boys was precisely the setup that so many --- too many --- in the African-American community complain happens routinely in this country. It is the familiar cry of "innocence" from family members and a community that is too-easily dismissed by the media and the general public alike. It is, no doubt, the knowledge of this sort of blatantly false arrests that lead so many in the African-American community, rightly or wrongly, to believe to this day in the innocence of people like OJ Simpson.
The fact is, as this film convincingly demonstrates again, false arrests, false evidence and false confessions happen. And, if the way the convictions came about in the Central Park Five case is any indication, it happens routinely and easily, and it not prevented by entire teams of otherwise well-respected prosecutors and law enforcement officials who should (or do) know better.
If New York had had the death penalty at the time of the Central Park crime, not only is it likely that at least the oldest, Wise, could have been killed, but had the real rapist, Reyes, been put to death for the murders and rapes he was captured for, or had he been killed during one of them or during the course of capture, those five kids would never have been exonerated for the horrific crime...that they did not commit.
After Reyes' 2002 confession, including very specific details of the crime that had never been made public, a review of the original case by District Attorney Robert Morgenthau led to his recommendation the cases against each of the five be vacated. As he found [PDF] when reviewing their confessions, years too late:
Each of these boys, now men, Wise, Kevin Richardson, Antron McCray, Yusef Salaam, and Raymond Santana are now struggling to get on with their lives. They each deserve big cash settlements for what was done to them. A $250 million lawsuit against NYC, filed in 2003, is still pending. NYC, which refused to cooperate during the making of the documentary, is currently refusing to settle.
Perhaps more importantly, if the details in the film are accurate, the police detectives and interrogators --- and perhaps even prosecutors --- responsible for what happened should be tried, convicted and sentenced to at least as long in prison as each of the so-called "Central Park Five" for what appears to have been knowing and blatant coercions of false confessions and prosecutions.
As mentioned, I'm ashamed to say that, even though I lived through the incident in NY in the late 80's and early 90's, I had no idea about the complete exoneration of these guys and the vacating of all charges against them in 2003 until seeing this film. I feel very badly about that. Though I was not a part of the media at the time, I feel badly that "we" failed to do our job back then, failed to ask questions, and joined in the mob mentality that took these guys down without any actual physical evidence tying them to the crime at all.
I'm also ashamed that, even after all of these years of covering the torture, or so-called "enhanced interrogation" of terror suspects during the George W. Bush years, I don't think I truly understood just how simple it appears to be to coerce a false confession --- much less from 14-, 15- and 16-year olds --- with exacting details, to just about anything that interrogators might want, when a suspect is placed under extraordinary stress.
Central Park Five paints a very vivid picture of how it was done, in the voices of the boys, both in 1989 and now that they are free men, in each of the five cases.
This is a very important film and it should be watched by many. (See video clips here, buy the film here. Check "On Demand" for your local PBS station to see if it's still airing.) I hope it receives the attention that it deserves. I'm glad the five boys each lived to see this day as free men. That fact --- like the survival and recovery of the jogger who was left for dead (and yet survived and lived to run a marathon years later!) --- is a miracle in and of itself. Similar stories, particularly with the kind of racial element involved in this case, do not usually end up with this sort of a "happy" ending. They almost never do.
But while I'm relieved and amazed they each survived to see this day as free men, after the horrors each of them went through for so many years, I hope some day soon they will see actual justice for what happened to them.