The Central Park jogger case represented an inevitable collision at the intersection of racism and convenience – and will now be known as one of the highest wrongful conviction settlements in United States history.
A perfect storm of shoddy police work, mayoral pressure to “clean up” the city, and five convenient targets made an otherwise unspeakable crime even more unthinkable. In the end, five innocent men spent over a decade behind bars, paying for a crime they never committed.
Background of events
On April 20, 1989, a 28-year-old female investment banker took to her usual routine: a familiar jog around Central Park. Then, a brutal attack by one man forever changed the lives of six people.
The victim was brutally beaten and violently raped. Her attacker slipped off into the night. Around 1:30am the following morning, two passers-by found the woman bound by her own sweatshirt. She remained in critical condition for days and suffered two severe skull fractures.
Around the same time as the attack, a group of teenagers were committing lesser offenses around the Central Park area, including petty theft, throwing rocks at a taxicab and assaulting a male jogger, who escaped relatively unharmed. When it came time to investigate the perpetrator of the vicious assault, police suspicion turned to five of the teens – then aged 14 through 16 – alleged to be involved in the other crimes.
As recalled by the suspects, Kharey Wise, Kevin Richardson, Antron McCray, Yusef Salaam and Raymond Santana Jr., each was coerced into admitting to the crime and thereafter buried under their own confessions, which were ruled admissible in their subsequent trials.
Public opinion, already frustrated by the perceived violence and lawlessness of the time, was also against the teens. Media reports spoke harshly of the gang of teenagers on a “vicious rampage” the night of April 20, 1989.
The teenagers, whose ethnicities include African-American and Hispanic-American, were promptly convicted of rape and assault – and spent the next 12 years behind bars.
The true perpetrator emerges
In 2002, Manhattan District Attorney Robert M. Morgenthau decided to take another look at the case and applied then-emerging forensic DNA technology to the evidence retained from the crime scene. Unbelievably, the recovered DNA was not of five distinct perpetrators, but of just one man, Matias Reyes.
Reyes, a convicted rapist and murderer, confessed to the crime in 2002. The five men wrongfully convicted for the crimes were finally exonerated that year.
Allegations emerge against investigators and police
Shortly after their exoneration, the men began mounting their civil lawsuits against New York City. Their allegations included malicious prosecution, wrongful conviction and various civil rights violations. The men asserted that the NYPD cut corners with the investigation of their crimes, targeted them due to racial bias, and failed to take into consideration any other suspects.
In a legal battle that lasted a decade, then-mayor Michael Bloomberg stood behind the NYPD, asserting that the convictions were wrongful but not due to any wrongdoing on behalf of police or prosecutors. More specifically, the mayor contended that the convictions were supported by “abundant probable cause,” confessions that “withstood intense scrutiny” and, ultimately, two public trials on the merits of the case.
Upon taking office earlier this year, New York City’s current mayor Bill de Blasio promptly instructed his office to settle the matter, contending it was finally time to correct the injustice.
After six months of negotiations, the City agreed to settle with the group for $40 million – one of the highest wrongful conviction settlements to date. The historic settlement is pending approval from the Office of the New York State Comptroller, as well as a federal judge.
Effects of the Central Park jogger case
Earlier this year, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman announced his support of the Unjust Imprisonment Act – a piece of legislation winding its way through the New York Assembly. The legislation would eliminate several procedural hurdles that, under current laws, work to prevent the wrongfully accused from obtaining compensation from the state.
Under current laws, the state of New York could legally refuse to compensate a wrongfully convicted person if that person “caused or brought about” their conviction – such as, for example, through a false confession. The new law would eliminate this hurdle and provide equal access to compensation for all who have faced wrongful incarceration.
Since the five teens in Central Park that night falsely confessed to the crime, the current laws could have prevented each from collecting compensation from the city, under the notion that each “caused or brought about” their ultimate conviction.
In this case, New York overlooked this technicality and the men will each be afforded the opportunity to move forward with their lives knowing their slates are wiped clean – and the true rapist is behind bars forever.