Randomly we get a rare glimpse at how the criminal justice system works.Â What we're allowed to see before the sanitation begins is often human fallibility both unfair and unequal.Â It is often influenced by racial issues and by class, as well as socio-economic status. Other times it is noble and heroic.
On April 19, 1989, a young woman left her apartment around nine p.m. to go jogging in New York's Central Park.Â Nearly five hours later, she was found comatose lying in a puddle of mud in the park.Â She had been viciously raped, her skull was fractured, and she had lost 75 percent of her blood.Â When the woman recovered she had no memory of what had happened to her.Â The brutality of the crime sent shock waves throughout the city and seemed to fuel a national perception that crime was rampant and unchecked on the streets of New York.
A group of five 14- and 15- year-old boys who had been rounded up in the park after a night of "wilding" with some 30 others were already in custody at the station house of the Central Park Precinct.Â The police suspected that they had been involved in a series of random attacks in the park.Â Other charges included sexual abuse, assault, riot, and robbery. Under intense questioning, they at first confessed, in written statements and on videotape, but shortly thereafter retracted everything contending that they had been intimidated, lied to, and coerced into making the statements. There was no physical evidence linking them to the crime - no blood match, no semen match, nothing.
Since the victim could not remember the evening's events, nor even leaving for the jog, she could not place any of the young men at the scene.
According to the testimony of a forensic analyst, two head hairs collected from the clothing of one of the defendants microscopically compared to those of the victim, and a third hair collected from the same defendant's T-shirt microscopically compared to the victim's pubic hair.Â A fourth hair was found microscopically similar to the victim's.Â This hair was found on the clothing of Steven Lopez, originally charged with rape but not prosecuted for the crime.Â Hairs were the only pieces of evidence offered by the District Attorney as a way for the jury to know that the videotaped confessions of the teens were reliable.Â All five defendants were convicted and ultimately served from nine to thirteen years.
SometimeÂ inÂ January 2002Â a serial rapist and murderer named Matias Reyes, whoÂ was serving a 33 1/3-to-life sentence in state prison, sought out the authorities, told them religion had entered his life, and confessed that he and he alone had brutalized and raped the jogger. His DNA, it was soon learned, matched that of the semen found in the jogger's cervix and on one of her running socks. Other DNA tests showed that the hairs offered into evidence at the original trial did not come from the victim, and so could not be used to link the teens to the crime as the D.A. had argued.
The public wasn't informed of anyÂ of this new information as the justice system wrangled over what to do with it.
Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau, whose office prosecuted the case, began an investigation.Â It was a much slower process with less people assigned to it.Â The police department still believed that the five youths had a hand in the assault.Â Unseen backstage, the two assistant district attorneys in charge of Morgenthau's reinvestigation, Nancy Ryan and Peter Casolaro,Â were said to be under heavy lobbying from the players who produced those convictions. It wasÂ now a tug-of-war between a fair decision and one that would try to protect some carefully crafted reputations.
After an eleven-month investigation of the original charges, a New York State Supreme Court judge dismissed all of the convictions against the five teenagers in the Central Park jogger case.
Of note is the political atmosphere during this time period (This according to the Village Voice):
"Back in 1989, the atmosphere surrounding this crime was, modestly put, emotional. The city was crackling with racial aggravation. And the mayoral campaign had begun David Dinkins, who is black, would be opposing Rudolph Giuliani, who was already showing his disdain for many in the black leadership.
"And then, on the night of April 19, in the city's premier greensward, a white, 28-year-old honors graduate from Wellesley and Yale, a rising star at Salomon Brothers investment bank, was allegedly raped by a group of black and Latino youths who, the authorities said, had thrown her to the ground, stripped her of her clothes, and, as she struggled desperately, bashed her all over her body with a rock and other objects to stop her flailing. Her left eye socket was crushed and her skull broken through to the brain. She lost 80 percent of her blood. The doctors at Metropolitan Hospital, who initially told police her chances to live were almost nil, saved her.
"Press coverage was wall-to-wall. The rape wasn't the only crime committed in the same area that night. During the roving band's hour or two in the park, a number of cyclists and pedestrians and joggers had also been assaulted. Two of them, both men, were beaten into the dirt and, like the jogger, left in pools of blood. In such crimes, given the media attention and the potential for community anxiety and even unrest, pressure on police and prosecutors is immense. The unwritten edict from on high is: Solve this case instantly and put the perpetrators behind bars. In less than 48 hours, the police had rounded up a dozen or so suspects and reported that a few had already confessed.
"A week later, with five youths of color charged, Donald Trump, a loud real estate developer and casino operator whose kinship with either truth or justice has never been obvious, took out a full-page ad in each of the city's four daily papers urging New Yorkers to ignore those like Mayor Koch and Cardinal O'Connor who had counseled against "hate and rancor." Of the accused, he wrote: "I want to hate these muggers and murderers. They should be forced to suffer and, when they kill, they should be executed. . . . I am looking to punish them. . . . I want them to be afraid." Ugliness was in the air.
"Linda Fairstein, who controlled the case as head of the Manhattan District Attorney's Sex Crimes Prosecution Unit, says now: "I don't think there was any rush to judgment." Perhaps. But there certainly was a rush.
"So intense was the push for confessions that Fairstein, who had sought and achieved celebrity from her sex-crime prosecutions, bullied and stalled and blocked the mother and two friends of one suspect, Yusef Salaam, from gaining access to him. Fairstein's apparent purpose was to keep the suspect under wraps because she had been informed by the interrogating detective that the questioning was in a delicate phase where Salaam had begun to make some admissions. A short while later, Fairstein realized she could not bar the mother any longer, and the angry parent halted the interrogation.
"Thus, unlike the four others charged with the rape, Salaam had not signed any written statement nor given a videotaped confession. The prosecution's only evidence of what he said at his interrogation came from the detective, Thomas McKenna, who testified at Salaam's trial a year later. (The case was split into two trials, with three of the defendants grouped in the first oneAntron McCray, 15, Yusef Salaam, 15, and Raymond Santana, 14and the remaining two accusedKevin Richardson, 14, and Kharey Wise, 16in the second. These groupings were largely maneuvered by the prosecution so as to get information to the juries in the order the D.A.'s office preferred. Both trials were held in 1990 and both lasted two months.)
"On the stand, McKenna, a detective for 20 years, openly acknowledged that he had used a ruse on the night after the rape to get Salaam's "confession." The boy, McKenna said, at first repeatedly denied having been in Central Park. Then, went McKenna's testimony, he, the detective, made the following untrue statement to Salaam: "Look, I don't care if you tell me anything. I don't care what you say to me. We have fingerprints on the jogger's pants. They're satin, they're a very smooth surface, and we have been able to get fingerprints off of them. I'm just going to compare your prints to the prints we have on the pants, and if they match up, you don't have to tell me anything. Because you're going down for rape."
At this, according to McKenna's testimony, Salaam blurted, "I was there but I didn't rape her." And then, said McKenna, the boy calmly proceeded to admit that he had hit the downed jogger twice with an iron bar and felt her breasts, but said it was four other boys who actually "f.....ed her." Salaam identified two of them, Kevin Richardson and Kharey Wise, McKenna testified. He said he didn't know the other two.
There never were, of course, any fingerprints on the jogger's running pants.
As described by McKenna, his trick-playing on Salaam is, under present case law, quite legal. As are many other kinds of law enforcement distortions, misdirections, and veiled (and sometimes not so veiled) suggestions that leniency will be granted if the witness is forthcoming. The justice system's premise for accepting these stratagems is that an innocent person will not falsely incriminate himself.
After the trial, some jurors said the detective had gained credibility with them by being so candid about his methods." (Village Voice, November 20 - 26, 2002)
The prosecution in this case never did reveal the true DNA results and analysis.Â The FBI analyst (Adams) even admitted the evidence was strong enough to reveal that the semen stains were not tied to any of the teenage suspects that they had in custody.Â He spoke up saying that the Prosecution "knew" that none of the teenagers was responsible for the rape, but that they prosecuted them anyway.Â
Adams revealed one more thing on the stand that the prosecution had never told the public: The FBI lab had compared the semen from the cervix and the semen from the sockand they were from the same person. "They seemed to match," he said clearly.
What Adams's testimony meant was that only one person, still at large, had ejaculated inside the victim while keeping in mind that since some rapists are not able to function sexually during the attack, the possibility that both Reyes and a temporarily impotent group assaulted her cannot be absolutely ruled out. (The police have lately been searching for possible evidence of a link between Reyes and the five who were convicted.)
But the theory of the crime that the hard, forensic evidence most supports is that the group of five, or some of them, took no part, or no significant part, in the sexual assault. This raises the further possibility or likelihood, as counter-intuitive as this may seem given the confessions, that the five defendants were indeed "coerced" as the law defines the wordwhich would support their charges that they were intimidated, fed details about the rape, told that their friends had informed on them, and prodded with subtle hints that if they confessed about the others they would help themselves.
Today the victim still has physical maladies from the attack.Â The boys who were wrongfully convicted are obviously affected by the ordeal.Â Members of the D.A.'s office are moving up in their own professions, right or wrong.Â
Robert Morgenthau, it is fair to say, is a haloed icon in the New York establishment. At 83, he has probably spent more years in public service here than any other active government official. For the past 28 years (he began his eighth consecutive term in January), he has been the Manhattan D.A. Some admirers call him "America's D.A." He has been an advocate for good government and has lent his name and time to many worthy causes. That said, he is, like all the other players in this story, a mortal being, not a deity. Like any D.A., he has in his time covered up lots of his office's mistakes. Like other big-city D.A.'s, he has also swept under a large carpet the misdeeds of myriad well-known personages. They owe him. Not long ago, his office buried an investigation into Charles Gargano, the state's economic czar, who has a recurring habit of giving big state contracts to people who make big campaign contributions to his friend Governor George Pataki. Some Morgenthau watchers think that he may have been too long with power and that with age, he may have lost his touch (Village Voice).
Could this story be an example of players in a big game?Â Did they play the game to the detriment of innocent parties?Â Should they have ignored the obvious DNA and evidence as they did?Â Should they have not sought out the obvious match in the first place when it pointed to someone other than the five youths they had in custody to do true justice to the young woman who'd been raped and beaten while jogging in the park?Â This story is a point in case where doing the right thing may have prevented even greater crimes to society.
Village VoiceÂ "A Journey Through the Tangled Case of the Central Park Jogger" by Sydney H. Schanberg November 20 - 26, 2002Â http://www.villagevoice.com/news/0247,schanberg,39999,1.html
Saferstein, R.Â "Criminalistics: An Introduction to Forensic Science" (2007) p. 215 9th Ed. Upper Saddle, New Jersey. Pearson/Prentice Hall.