Five wrongfully convicted men are one step closer to the final resolution of their civil lawsuit against the city of New York now that City Comptroller Scott Stringer has approved the proposed $40 million settlement.
The five men were teenagers in 1989 when they were arrested and charged with the brutal rape and assault of 28-year-old investment banker Trisha Meili who was jogging in Central Park. Antron McCray, Raymond Santana Jr., Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam and Kharey Wise spent years in prison for a crime that they did not commit. Convicted rapist and murderer Matias Reyes eventually confessed to the crime, and in 2002, the convictions for all five men were vacated.
In 2004, the Central Park 5 (as they came to be known) filed a civil suit against New York City asking for millions of dollars for what they characterized as false arrest, malicious prosecution and racially motivated tactics by police and investigators that stripped them of their civil rights and prompted the then-teenagers to give false confessions.
The proposed $40 million settlement comes after Michael Bloomberg’s mayoral administration spent over a decade trying to get the case dismissed. New mayor Bill de Blasio vowed during his campaign to resolve the case if he were elected. Award-winning filmmaker Ken Burns, who released a PBS documentary about the Central Park 5 in 2013, urged de Blasio to keep his campaign promise. “An injustice was done, and we have a moral obligation to respond to that injustice,” de Blasio is quoted as saying about the settlement.
“In my judgment, this settlement is a prudent and equitable solution for all parties to the lawsuit and closes a very difficult chapter in our City’s history,” said Stringer in a statement about the settlement.
Now that the settlement has been approved by the city comptroller, the next step is a sign off from a federal judge. The settlement would provide roughly $1 million for each year spent in prison. Four of the men spent nearly seven years in prison. Khary Wise, who was charged as an adult because he was 16 years old at the time, spent 13 years in prison.
The settlement directly impacts the wrongfully imprisoned men and their families, but it could also potentially influence similar pending and future cases as well as practices and policies of city agencies.
In an interview with the New York Daily News in February about NYPD lawsuits, Stringer said he was looking to launch a new program called ClaimStat that would be a “data-driven claims review that will identify patterns and practices across city agencies that lead to claims and work with agencies to find solutions that save taxpayers money.” As comptroller, Stringer’s office conducts financial audits of all city agencies.
New York Civil Liberties Union Associate Legal Director Christopher Dunn sees fiscal, legal and moral reasons as to why the Central Park 5 case should lead to policy changes.
“Coerced confessions undermine the criminal justice system and destroy the lives of those falsely convicted of crimes. This settlement sends a clear message that coerced confessions are also enormously costly for taxpayers. Looking forward, we hope that this settlement urges lawmakers to require videotaping of police interrogations, which is a simple and straightforward way of protecting the accused from unlawful interrogation tactics,” said Dunn.
New York State Senator Bill Perkins has introduced a bill (S1267) that would require interrogations to be filmed. “We want to guarantee that any confession is acquired in a legal manner without coercion. This bill could end coercion, “ said Perkins.
“The settlement will hopefully encourage us to recognize that this did not have to be the case. The false confessions stemmed from the fact that the defendants were coerced into making those statements. This case is particularly horrible because the man who actually committed the rape, Matias Reyes, went on to kill a pregnant woman and rape many other women. These coerced confessions ended up costing not just the $40 million settlement, not just the injustice inflicted upon the Central Park 5 and their families, but a life was lost. Someone died because a murderer and serial rapist was allowed to remain free while innocent young men were locked up.”
As to whether the $40 million settlement is too much (as the NewYork Post and Donald Trump have suggested), Perkins is resolute. “For the sake of our democracy, it’s a cheap price. It’s a bargain. How much should we pay to make sure the truth be told? How much does it cost to prevent another Central Park 5? How much is it worth to save lives?”