Over two decades have passed since five black and Latino adolescents were convicted in New York City for rape in the infamous Central Park jogger case. Known as the Central Park Five, they were sentenced for the rape and brutal beating of 28-year-old investment banker Trisha Meili, a crime they did not commit — based on forced confessions and a lack of evidence. Now the five men are approaching middle age and are still seeking justice.
Although Matias Reyes, the actual perpetrator, confessed in 2002 — and the convictions of the five innocent men were vacated soon thereafter — the case is still in the news. Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana and Korey Wise each served between 6 and 14 of their prime years in adult maximum security prisons, their youth taken from them. They never received an apology.
Now they are seeking $50 million apiece in compensation from the city for malicious prosecution — for a total of a quarter of a billion dollars — and the city refuses to settle. Observers maintain this case is still significant because of the lessons it teaches about the continued criminalization of people of color in America, and the wrongful incarceration of black and Latino men in America’s prison system.
On April 19, 1989, Meili was raped and nearly beaten to death while jogging in New York’s Central Park. She suffered numerous injuries, including skull fractures and lacerations and severe blood loss. The five young men who were ultimately indicted, tried and convicted say they were coerced into a confession. At the time, police attributed the crime to marauding gangs of teens who engaged in what was termed “wilding.” Those who committed such acts became known as “wolf packs.” Once again, as in other points in American history, associations between animals and black criminality became part of the public conscience.
In 1989, Donald Trump paid $85,000 for full-page ads in four of the New York-area newspapers. Under the headline “Bring Back the Death Penalty,” Trump wrote, “They should be forced to suffer and, when they kill, they should be executed for their crimes. They must serve as examples so that others will think long and hard before committing a crime or an act of violence.”
Members of the Central Park Five believe that Trump’s call for the death penalty — for minors in a non-capital case — only served to create a hostile media environment before the teens went to trial. A new book on the case by New York Daily News staff writer Sarah Burns, called The Central Park Five: A Chronicle of a City Wilding, suggests that Trump’s incendiary rhetoric was one of numerous factors which resulted in injustice for the Central Park defendants.
Despite evidence of intimidation and other impropriety which led to the convictions, legal counsel for the City of New York will not settle, maintaining that “The charges against the plaintiffs and other youths were based on abundant probable cause, including confessions that withstood intense scrutiny, in full and fair pretrial hearings and at two lengthy public trials.”
“It is a travesty of justice not to settle. Not only did the DNA evidence clear them, but the evidence that the police coerced out of them didn’t make any sense because…they were under such tortuous pressure from the police,” said New York City Councilman Charles Barron (D-District 42, Brooklyn) in an exclusive interview with theGrio. “They didn’t have anything connecting them to the crime. They said the woman lost 75 percent of her blood, and none of her blood was on the young men, no semen, nothing was found,” Barron added. “Reyes, who did confess, went on to commit other tragic crimes before he was arrested.”
The African-American lawmaker and longtime community activist has introduced a resolution calling for the City of New York to compensate the men for their false imprisonment, without the need for a trial. Barron noted that the city recently settled a case with a drug dealer, but won’t settle out of court with the Central Park Five, after stealing the best years of their life and bringing financial devastation to their families. Further, the councilman views the Central Park Five case within a larger context of the criminalization of black men in the U.S. “You always hear about black on black crime. Why is it that only our race is color-connected to crime? White people commit crimes against white, Asian against Asian. You never hear about other groups committing crimes against their own people. It is a constant process of criminalizing and seeing black men as animals, savages and beasts fixated on criminal behavior,” Barron noted. “Do we commit crime, yes, but it is not peculiar to us.”
When asked why the city refuses to settle with these men, the councilman suggested that doing so would create an embarrassment by exposing the abuses of the criminal justice system. This would force the city to address the police practice of coercion. “Why not settle? Because if they do settle it is an indictment— coercing innocent people into saying they’re guilty. They would be on spotlight, and the D.A. would be on spotlight for convicting without any evidence. The judge and jury would be on spotlight for being racist, incompetent and foul, so I think the city is looking at all of that, and the elected officials that called them animals, Mayor David Dinkins and Donald Trump called them everything but a child of God,” Barron said. “It puts them all on the spot. Once they say they’re wrong that’s a lot of wrong, and a lot of wrong continuing to this day. How many other youngsters have been coerced?”
But Barron also thinks there is another reason why the city will not settle out of court: “It is the attack on black men, the attack on black people, the continuing criminalizing of black people even when they are innocent. [The attack on] Black Wall Street started when a black man was accused of raping white women. How many times does this happen when we are fixated with raping white women and it doesn’t happen?”
According to Barron, we must analyze the Central Park jogger case and its aftermath within a larger framework of a history of crimes committed against communities of color. In 1921, a mob of 10,000 white men destroyed the prosperous black community of Tulsa, known as Greenwood or Black Wall Street. The white community, resenting the success of their African-American neighbors, lynched at least 300 black residents. The riot began after rumors had spread that a black man had raped a white woman in an elevator.
Some in the black community have compared the Central Park Five to the Scottsboro Boys. In 1931, nine black teenagers in Scottsboro, Alabama — ranging in age from thirteen to nineteen — were accused of gang raping two white women. Tried without adequate representation, they were sentenced to death by all-white juries, despite a lack of evidence. One of the women later recanted.
Meanwhile, there are more contemporary examples of innocent young black men being targeted and railroaded by the criminal justice system. For example, in 1992 police in Oneonta, New York rounded up every black man in sight after hearing reports that a black man had robbed a white woman in her home. Officers rounded up suspects on the street, on public transportation, and at the State University of New York at Oneonta. A federal appeals court later ruled that the Oneonta police did not violate the Constitution because the officers were acting on more than merely the color of the alleged perpetrator.
Police had conducted roundups of Boston’s black men in 1989, when Charles Stuart of Boston claimed that a black gunman robbed and shot him and his pregnant wife, killing her. Black suspects were reportedly strip-searched in public and otherwise disrespected by law enforcement. After Stuart became a suspect amid allegations that he plotted to secure his wife’s insurance money, he committed suicide. And in 1994, Susan Smith of Union, South Carolina reported that a black man carjacked her and kidnapped her two sons, both toddlers. Smith later confessed to murdering the children.
In 2006, six black teenagers in the town of Jena, Louisiana were arrested and prosecuted for fighting against nooses dangling under their high school’s “White tree,” while the White students who planted the nooses and committed other acts of violence were given a pass.
Meanwhile, legal experts have studied the Central Park jogger case as an example of the ways in which race is entangled in the criminal justice system. “The Central Park Five case provides three important lessons for criminal and racial justice,” according to David Rudovsky, Senior Fellow at the University of Pennsylvania Law School and partner at Kairys, Rudovsky, Messing & Feinberg, a public interest law firm in Philadelphia. Rudovsky is one of the nation’s leading civil rights and criminal defense attorneys.
“First, we should learn to be highly skeptical of charges made early in a high profile criminal investigation. There is enormous pressure on the police to quickly “solve” the case and often the rules and procedures that should govern the investigation are ignored to justify an early and improper arrest. In the Central Park Five, there should have been strong suspicions that the ‘confessions’ of the defendants were coerced and not worthy of belief. As it turns out, in over 20 percent of exonerations, there has been a false or coerced confession,” Rudovsky told theGrio.
“Second, the problem is exacerbated where there is a white victim and minority suspects,” Rudovsky added. “Again, a rush to judgment is even more likely and racial politics can easily override false charges. The press and public are all too willing to believe that a young black or Latino man is guilty and should be severely punished on evidence that may not hold up in court. Whether the evidence for an arrest is a cross-racial identification, confession or an informant, the tendency is to try to make the charges stick, regardless of its inherent weakness or even evidence pointing to others. Especially today, where good forensics and DNA evidence can reliably show guilt or innocence, investigators should not develop early tunnel vision.”
“Third, we should not demonize the suspects or their Sydney compensation lawyers (as happened in the Central Park Five case); ultimately it took dedicated and talented defense lawyers to prove the falsity of the charges and to achieve exonerations,” Rudovsky concluded.
Finally, Charles Barron also thinks the case of the Central Park Five is instructional. He believes that the case has much to reveal regarding the psychological damage done to African-Americans, in what he sees as a modern-day form of slavery occurring behind prison bars. “The Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery except for [imprisonment for] a crime. We were brought here for our labor and they still want our labor. We went from the plantation to the penitentiary. The prison industrial complex is the new plantation. That’s why these men were arrested. That’s why the city doesn’t want to own up to that. This is why the Central Park jogger case is the critical case of the twentieth century.”