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Central Park Five: A Travesty of Justice
I live in New York City just one block off Central Park and when this unthinkable crime occurred on April 19, 1989 I remember, like most New Yorkers, being shocked and horrified. This brutal attack not only rocked the city it reverberated around the world. Mayor Koch called it the "crime of the century."
The victim, a 28-year old white female, investment banker had been so badly beaten, raped and left for dead she was not expected to live. The suspects, five black and Latino teenagers, were in the park for a night of “wilding” and the jogger was just another victim in their wake or so the story went.
It was amazing how quickly the perpetrators were apprehended, confessed to the crimes, tried and sent off to rot in prison. No muss. No fuss. The press dehumanized and vilified them as members of a “wolf pack.” Notable personalities, including Donald Trump, immediately went to work publically defaming and demonizing these kids. Mayor Koch chimed in “They got ’em.” They were tried in the court of public opinion, condemned and convicted in a court of law and that was that.
The young woman miraculously recovered although, luckily for her but sadly for the five accused youths, she remembered nothing about her attack or attacker(s).
Amazing how quickly all the loose ends were wrapped up in a neat little package and tied with a bow. Now everyone could go back to business as usual. The criminals had been apprehended, law and order restored, we breathed a collective sigh of relief, the city went back to normal and everyone forgot about the attackers as justice had been served or so we were led to believe.
I recently attended a screening of the film, “Central Park Five” by Ken Burns, his daughter Sarah Burns and her husband, David McMahon. As I watched this powerful documentary unfold I became more and more outraged, as did the audience as evidenced by how many of us, myself included, responded verbally to what was transpiring on the screen. The film uses actual footage of the events including the confessions. As the facts unfurl you realize not only was there no physical evidence linking these kids to the attack but their confessions were coerced and none of their confessions matched each other or the crime. The entire case was built on lies.
The cops, the detectives, the prosecutors all knew there was no physical evidence linking these kids to the crime so they manipulated these kids and the facts to fit their narrative. They reassured them if they’d just confess they could go home. Then coached them on what to say. It seems the cops were under so much pressure to find the perpetrator(s) they needed/wanted someone/anyone to pay for this crime and it didn’t matter who.
These kids didn’t stand a chance. They didn’t even have attorney’s present when their confessions were coerced. The parents look shell-shocked in the film and didn’t seem to know they had any rights let alone the right to an attorney. Everyone just went along assisting the police who they believed were helping them until they realized they weren’t and by then it was too late.
Then low and behold some 13 years later a serial rapist and convicted murderer, Matias Reyes, now serving a life sentence for raping 3 women and raping and murdering another woman suddenly confesses to the crime. His DNA is tested and it’s a match for the DNA found on the Central Park Jogger.
In 2002 Judge Tejada reviews the confessions and DNA evidence from Reyes and immediately overturns the convictions of the Central Park Five and wipes their records clean. Unfortunately, there was little if any fanfare regarding their innocence and even a ticker-tape parade up the Canyon of Heroes couldn't give these five now grown men back their lives. This travesty of justice destroyed their lives and their families. And because Matias was not apprehended he was allowed to continue his slaughter of innocent women as well.
The Central Park Five and their families have subsequently filed a $250 million civil suit, accusing the city as well as the police officers and prosecutors who worked on the case, of violating their civil rights, which the New York City government is fighting. According to a New York Police Department commissioned review, the police officers involved in the case claim they did noting wrong.
No surprise there. The police protect their own. We all know many police departments have their own “code of conduct.” This Blue Code of Silence is an unwritten rule among police officers in the U.S. not to report on a colleague’s errors, misconducts or crimes by claiming ignorance of any wrongdoing.
The city has also fired back by subpoenaing Burns’ company, Florentine Films, to turn over all their notes and outtakes not included in the documentary for review. The city claims Burns and his colleagues are not journalists and therefore aren’t allowed to invoke legal privileges to protect their work.
This case brings to mind the recent execution of Troy Anthony Davis. Davis was tried, convicted and executed for the shooting of a white police officer, Mark MacPhail, in Savannah, Georgia, although there was no physical evidence linking him to the crime. Then in a evidentiary hearing ordered by the Supreme Court of the United States eight of the witnesses, whose original testimony identified Davis as the shooter, recanted their testimony and identified Sylvester “Redd” Coles as the trigger man. Coles was not subpoenaed by the defense so his alleged confession to the killing was excluded as hearsay. Troy Anthony Davis was executed on September 21, 2011 by lethal injection.
The systemic corruption and mass incarceration of black males is outlined in Michelle Alexander’s best selling book, “The New Jim Crow.” The United States has 5% of the world’s population but 25% of the world’s prisoners. According to Alexander, the majority of young black men in large American cities are “warehoused in prisons” (their labor no longer needed in the globalized economy) or, after having criminal records and labeled as “felons,” are permanently trapped in a second-class status.”
The conventional point of view holds discrimination mostly ended in the 1960's with the Civil Rights movement reforms. After all we have a black president, Oprah Winfrey’s rich and we have many black professionals.
Michael Tonry writes in Thinking About Crime: Sense and Sensibility in American Penal Culture:
“While historically crime and punishment intensities have often been poorly correlated, the scale and lack of balance of the present USA criminal justice activity and penal system have turned it, according to Alexander, into a system of social control unparalleled in world history. Its targets can be defined largely by race. The rate of incarnation in the U.S. has soared, while its crime rates have generally not been higher than those in other western countries, where the incarceration rates accordingly have remained stable. The current rate of incarceration in the USA, six to ten times greater than in other industrialized nations, is therefore not related to the actual rates of crime or their increase, but can be traced to a great extent to the artificially invoked “War on Drugs” discriminatory policies.”
The Central Park Five case is an excellent example of how broken our system of justice is. At this point it functions more as a system of injustice . Systemic corruption runs throughout our entire judicial system. These kids were thrown into prison for a crime they didn’t commit while not one banker who caused the global meltdown has been questioned let alone prosecuted. Whistleblowers are being prosecuted for exposing war crimes. Pfc. Bradley Manning is charged with a number of offenses, including communicating national defense information to an unauthorized source and aiding the enemy, a capital offense for exposing the Collateral Murder footage and the U.S. Diplomatic Cables. Former CIA officer John Kiriakou, has been sentenced to 30 months in jail for exposing waterboarding and other harsh interrogation techniques and yet not one person has been prosecuted for torture or for starting an illegal war based on lies. I guess they're still looking for those WMD's. The message is very clear. If you’re rich no matter what you do you walk except for Bernie Madoff whose real crime was stealing from rich people. Let's be honest, if you’re poor or black or tell the truth you’ll pay.
“During times of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act.” George Orwell
The “Central Park Five” documentary shows with amazing clarity, and facts using actual footage. These kids were framed and the DA, the detectives, police officers and the prosecutors knew these kids weren't the perpetrators of this crime and yet they prosecuted and convicted them anyway. They got their promotions and their notoriety and now that the truth is out they’re not only denying it but fighting it.
Justice did not prevail. Corruption did.