Back in 1989, Donald Trump took out a full page ad calling for the death penalty in the case of the Central Park Five. In his ad, he wrote, “How can our great society tolerate the continued brutalization of its citizens by crazed misfits. Criminals must be told that their CIVIL LIBERTIES END WHEN AN ATTACK ON OUR SAFETY BEGINS!”
He called on local politicians to give the police back the power to keep us safe. “Unshackle them from the constant chant of ‘police brutality’ which every petty criminal hurls immediately at an officer who has just risked his or her life to save another’s.”
In 1989, at the height of the crime wave, there was a brutal rape of a jogger in Central Park. Antron McCray, Korey Wise, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, and Raymond Santana, all between 14 and 16 at the time, were all in the park that night and they were causing trouble, but the police assumed that these boys were the same ones who attacked the woman who was found to have been badly beaten with multiple skull fractures, raped, and near death. She survived, but has no memory of the attacks and fought hard to fully recover.
Under pressure from police, investigators coerced the boys, from working class backgrounds, whose parents were not sophisticated or educated, into confessing to a crime that it turned out later they had not committed.
This week, Korey Wise, one of the Central Park 5, blasted Mr. Trump for having taken out a full page ad in 1989 calling for him and the four other teens to have the death penalty.
“When he speaks about the Fox News host (Megyn Kelly) bleeding, Mexicans — and even us — to make these mistakes and not apologize, it shows no compassion,” said one of Wise’s former co-defendants, Raymond Santana.
Mr. Wise, who served the longest prison term of the five, said in a statement Wednesday that Mr. Trump “was shouting to the world that I should be executed, hung out to die for a crime that I did not commit and was later exonerated from.”
“In light of his opinion of me, an innocent child at the time, I do not feel that he is capable of leading this country or its people who have situations that he may not agree with or understand,” Mr. Wise said. “I believe he would throw us all under the bus.”
It was last year that Mr. Trump called the $40 million settlement a “disgrace” in a New York Daily News op-ed.
He wrote, “My opinion on the settlement of the Central Park Jogger case is that it’s a disgrace. A detective close to the case, and who has followed it since 1989, calls it ‘the heist of the century.’ Settling doesn’t mean innocence, but it indicates incompetence on several levels. This case has not been dormant, and many people have asked why it took so long to settle? It is politics at its lowest and worst form.”
He added, “Speak to the detectives on the case and try listening to the facts. These young men do not exactly have the pasts of angels. What about all the people who were so desperately hurt and affected? I hope it’s not too late to continue to fight and that this unfortunate event will not have a repeat episode any time soon — or ever. As citizens and taxpayers, we deserve better than this.”
The Central Park Five was featured in a documentary last year by Ken Burns. The police made a classic error in how they handled the case. They forced a confession and, once they did so, they began to ignore serious problems with the case.
The first red flag came back when their DNA profiles – and DNA testing in 1989 was in its infancy – did not match the DNA found on the victim. That should have alerted authorities right there that they had a problem.
Moreover, the timeline that the police constructed with the boys did not place them at the scene of the crime. Instead, at the time of the woman’s attack, which they were able to pinpoint, the boys were at a different scene – and this was known because they were involved in an assault on an unrelated victim.
As longtime New York DA Robert Morgenthau recounted, it was only because of DNA testing that it was possible to reexamine the evidence.
When they retested the DNA, they were able to tie semen found at the crime scene, not to the five boys who were convicted, but to a sixth person, a man named Matias Reyes.
On December 4, 2002, it was reported, “Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau is expected to ask a judge Thursday to vacate the convictions of the five men found guilty in the April 1989 brutal rape and beating of a 28-year-old jogger in Central Park and other attacks that night.”
Despite the lack of evidence outside of the confessions, Ken Burns noted that the prosecutor who tried the case, as well as the police, still believed the boys were involved.
Reported ABC News in 2002, “Some law enforcement officials believed that the five defendants are still guilty of other crimes that fateful night. Police said the Central Park rape was part of a rampage of 12 random attacks by a gang of as many as 40 black and Hispanic youths who were participating in the ‘wilding’ spree.”
The report continues, “Morgenthau will ask that all the convictions be vacated, even though sources told ABC NEWS the Manhattan District Attorney’s office still believed the five men are guilty of those other crimes and that those convictions should stand. There is no evidence of the police or prosecutorial misconduct [as] the five suspects have alleged in the case, the sources said.”
“Detectives who were involved in the Central Park jogger rape investigation still believe the five defendants were somehow involved in the attack and that Reyes was with them. They just disagree over whether he was with the teens during the rape or whether he attacked the jogger after the others,” the report continued.
“I believe these kids did it. They said they did it,” said Bert Arroyo, who was the lead detective on the case.
“The videotapes speak for themselves,” he said, referring to videotaped confessions made by the defendants.
He said that the teens gave the confessions voluntarily and without coercion.
“It says that it wasn’t a complete and thorough investigation,” Mr. Arroyo said. “It clearly says that.”
But it doesn’t speak for itself. The stories told in the confessions did not match each other and did not corroborate any facts in the case. In fact, in the documentary, a key point was made that, on the key details of the attack including who attacked her, who raped her, who held her down, the confessions agreed on not a single point.
All of this information bothered Juror No.5 at the time. But, as he described, everyone else was convinced, they were attacking him, and he ultimately relented and voted to convict.
Unfortunately, this story is all too often the case in these wrongful convictions. The police here made assumptions, and once they got the confession, they stopped investigating, even as contrary evidence came forward.
We now know that people falsely confess to crimes, particularly under pressure tactics and when denied access to counsel. They were misled by police that confessing was a way to end the torment they were suffering and that they could go home.
As Juror No.5 indicated, the jury was convinced that an innocent person would never admit to a crime that they didn’t commit, but now, nearly 25 years later, we know much more about the anatomy of false confessions and we understand the mechanics behind them much better.
What is interesting is that one of the best practices for avoiding false confessions is a videotape of the interrogation. Here, they only videoed the confession itself. Frankly, with proper scrutiny, that should have been sufficient to exonerate them, as we could clearly see the statements do not match on the critical points.
It was Mr. Reyes who was able to explain clearly little details of the crime scene – why police never found keys, why the shoes were positioned as they were, and what the victim was wearing at the time of the attack.
It was later that crime scene investigators should have been able to tell from the crime scene that only one perpetrator dragged the woman into the brush, rather than these five.
But while these questions should have been explored at the time, they were ignored because of the confessions.
The sad thing is that the boys had their lives turned upside down, they had their childhood stolen, and they have not been compensated by the authorities for mistakes the authorities made. The prosecution and the police continue to believe now, against all known evidence, that somehow these boys were still involved.
Perhaps these boys can take solace that their case will hopefully allow others to avoid these mistakes in the future.
As Eisa Nefertari Ulen, author and freelance journalist, notes, “Jim Dwyer, a New York Times writer featured in the film, says: ‘The police controlled the story from the beginning’ and laments the fact that he and his colleagues did not do their jobs better when covering the case. Investigators working for law enforcement and criminal justice ignored timeline discrepancies, an absence of any physical evidence linking the boys to the rape, and obvious contradictions in the very videotaped confessions that were used to convict the Central Park Five.
“The demonization of our children continues, of course. Our brown babies are too often criminalized by police, by prosecutors, in the media, in our own communities – even in our own homes,” she writes. “The only redemption we can hope to achieve in the aftermath of The Central Park Five case is that we all get honest with ourselves after watching this film. The only hope for real, enduring justice is that we all back away from swift judgment of people caught up in a system that was never intended to protect them in the first place, people who look like you and me.”
—David M. Greenwald reporting