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.
But last week, the same Donald Trump who sought to execute the boys continued to argue that they were guilty.
“They admitted they were guilty,” he told CNN’s Miguel Marquez. “The police doing the original investigation say they were guilty. The fact that the case was settled with so much evidence against them is outrageous. And the woman, so badly injured, will never be the same.”
As Nancy Petro of the Wrongful Convictions Blog wrote last week, “Donald Trump doesn’t acknowledge wrongful convictions proven by DNA and by the credible, delayed confession of a convicted murderer and rapist. Insisting on Friday that the Central Park 5 are guilty of the 1989 high-profile horrific attack and rape of an investment banker jogging in Central Park, he revealed he knows nothing about DNA, the dynamics of false confessions, or contemporary understandings relating to criminal justice and wrongful convictions.”
She continued, “In his statement Friday, Trump revealed he is woefully uneducated in the realities of criminal justice miscarriages. This is frightening when the need for criminal justice reform has reached an awareness level great enough to find a place in both the Republican and Democrat national political platforms.”
For those who have been impacted by wrongful convictions, and those who have studied them, these are statements by Trump that threaten to turn back the clock on everything we have learned in the last three decades.
Ms. Petro writes, “For those who study wrongful convictions and even for the informed everyday citizen, wrongful convictions are no longer considered a rare, unfortunate event. The National Registry of Exonerations reports today 1,897 known exonerations since 1989, of which 759 were wrongful convictions of murder. Because an exoneration typically takes years, even decades, to achieve, one can only infer that these are just a portion of all wrongful convictions.”
As we know, DNA was not really understood well in 1989. As late as 1994 in the OJ Simpson case it was misunderstood. The first red flag came back in the Central Park case 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.”
There was no physical evidence that linked the Central Park 5 to the crime. However, as Ms. Petro point out, “a forensic scientist said a hair found at the scene was ‘similar’ to one of the teens and that he could say this with reasonable scientific certainty. We have learned that this kind of statement is compelling to a jury but has no reliable probative value.” Such analysis has been found to be junk science.
“The brutally beaten victim had no memory of the attack. No witness came forward. The Central Park 5 — all between the ages of 14 and 16 — were convicted primarily on confessions that occurred after long police interrogations,” she writes. “While false confessions are counter-intuitive, we now understand the dynamics that result in the belief by a suspect that falsely confessing is the best option in a Sophie’s choice scenario. We’ve learned that certain individuals are particularly vulnerable to falsely confessing, including young people uneducated in the criminal justice system and interrogation procedures.”
Moreover, we have someone who has confessed to the attack and the hair and sperm recovered from the victim match Matias Reyes. Moreover, other crimes he was convicted for matched the modus operandi of this crime.
So why is anyone questioning the innocence of these five?
In 2014, 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 role of Donald Trump is interesting in this case. Yusef Salaam and Korey Wise spoke to Mother Jones Magazine in the last week. Mr. Salaam, 15 at the time of the assault, told the magazine that he believes Mr. Trump played a critical role in the media campaign against them.
“[Trump] was one of the fire starters—really the main fire starter—because his name held a lot more weight,” he said. His ad facilitated “the conviction that was going to happen in the public arena prior to us even getting into the courthouse.”
The ad that Mr. Trump put out played a critical role. Mr. Wise said that he “only learned about Trump’s ad after watching a documentary on his case several years ago. After seeing it, he understood why the case had become so incredibly charged.”
“I said, ‘Wow! Wow! Wow!'” Mr. Wise told the magazine. “This is where a great deal of the energy that was directed at me in terms of physical threats” came from.
“The ad was talking about and goes specifically into fears that the public was having at that particular time,” Mr. Salaam told the magazine. “He’s talking about how ‘we’ve had to give up our leisurely stroll in the playground, and we can’t ride our bikes, or we can’t walk around in the streets because now we’re hostages, ruled by the laws of the streets.'”
Mr. Trump, the article notes, “has revisited those themes in his presidential campaign, often citing gun violence in cities like Chicago as indicative of a breakdown in ‘law and order,’ which he insists he can restore.”
—David M. Greenwald reporting