New York City To Settle Wrongful Conviction Case For $40 Million
More than a decade after they were exonerated, five men who were wrongfully convicted of committing one of the most notorious crimes in New York City in the 1980s appear to be on the verge of settling with the city, and their case serves as a reminder of what can go wrong in our judicial system:
The five men whose convictions in the brutal 1989 beating and rape of a female jogger in Central Park were later overturned have agreed to a settlement of about $40 million from New York City to resolve a bitterly fought civil rights lawsuit over their arrests and imprisonment in the sensational crime.
The agreement, reached between the city’s Law Department and the five plaintiffs, would bring to an end an extraordinary legal battle over a crime that came to symbolize a sense of lawlessness in New York, amid reports of “wilding” youths and a marauding “wolf pack” that set its sights on a 28-year-old investment banker who ran in the park many evenings after work.
The original crime, which was the subject of a long story in New York magazine several years ago, brought together all of the elements of the racially tinged atmosphere that pervaded New York in the 80s as it continued to try to recover from the long decline of the 60s and 70s:
The initial story of the crime, as told by the police and prosecutors, was that a band of young people, part of a larger gang that rampaged through Central Park, had mercilessly beaten and sexually assaulted the jogger. The story quickly exploded into the public psyche, fanned by politicians and sensational news reports that served to inflame racial tensions.
The five black and Hispanic men, ages 14 to 16 at the time of their arrests, claimed that incriminating statements they had given had been coerced by the authorities. The statements were ruled admissible, and the men were convicted in two separate trials in 1990.
In December 2002, an investigation by the Manhattan district attorney, Robert M. Morgenthau, found DNA and other evidence that the woman had been raped and beaten not by the five teenagers but by another man, Matias Reyes, a convicted rapist and murderer who had confessed to acting alone in the attack. Concluding that the new evidence could have changed the original verdict, Mr. Morgenthau’s office joined a defense motion asking that the convictions be vacated.
If approved, the settlement would fulfill a pledge by Mayor Bill de Blasio to meet a “moral obligation to right this injustice.”
The proposed settlement averages roughly $1 million for each year of imprisonment for the men. That amount would suggest that the city was poised to pay one of the men, Kharey Wise, who spent about 13 years in prison, more than it has in any wrongful conviction case.
The other four men — Kevin Richardson, Antron McCray, Yusef Salaam and Raymond Santana Jr. — served about seven years in prison.
The lawsuit had accused the city’s police and prosecutors of false arrest, malicious prosecution and a racially motivated conspiracy to deprive the men of their civil rights, allegations which the administration of Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg denied and fought vigorously for more than a decade in federal court.
When the convictions of the five men were finally voided in 2002 and it was revealed that their confessions, which had not been corroborated by any sort of physical or forensic evidence, had been coerced by police, it seemed to confirm the worst of what some were alleging about the New York City Police Department during the Koch/Dinkins era. Since those revelations didn’t come out until after the September 11th attacks, though, when public opinion of the NYPD was at its peak for obvious reasons, it didn’t seem as though there was much of an effort to discuss what reforms might be necessary to prevent something like this from happening again. Indeed, it was around that same time that the NYPD began its controversial “stop and frisk” program, which authorities have credited with reducing crime and civil rights advocates have denounced as unfairly targeting young African-American and Hispanic men. Last year, a Federal Judge found that practice unconstitutional and, while the Bloomberg Administration had vowed to appeal the case, it now appears that the Administration of new Mayor Bill DeBalsio is taking steps to settle this and other “stop and frisk” cases and make big changes to the policy. When it comes to the incentives that helped bring about these wrongful convictions, though, it’s unclear if the NYPD, or any police department, has changed all that much from the way it was in 1989.
Cases like this, which have been repeated in other jurisdictions many times since 1989, raise a whole host of issues about our criminal justice system. Growing up in the area at the time, for example, I recall this case being covered relentlessly by the local media for months and the five young men who were arrested raked over the coals as soon as those arrests were made public. Given the nature of the attack and where it occurred, the media attention was perhaps understandable, but it also brought forth the same old “conviction in the court of public opinion” that we’ve seen in high profile criminal cases going as far back as the kidnapping of Charles Lindbergh’s son in the 1930s, Added on top of all of that were the racial tensions that were running through New York City in the late 1980s, tensions that were fomented both by the actions of the police and by the rhetoric of race hustlers like Al Sharpton. In the end, once these men went on trial it was inevitable that they would be convicted notwithstanding the fact that their confessions were not supported by any evidence.
Some might suggest like things like this don’t happen in the criminal justice system anymore, but that would be incredibly naive. There have been enough cases of innocent people being convicted of crimes they didn’t commit, and even cases where people ended up confessing to crimes they didn’t commit thanks to police interrogation tactics that border on the coercive. Beyond that, eyewitnesses are often mistaken, government witnesses can “testi-lie,” and forensic evidence can get corrupted. Given all of that, tell me again why we should trust this system with the power of life or death over people?
It was an injustice that these five men were imprisoned for so long for a crime the didn’t commit, but at least they’re still alive to be compensated.