Five cleared in 1989 jogger rape settle for $40 million from NYC

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NEW YORK — 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 for a sensational crime they did not commit.

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 native Pittsburgh investment banker, formerly of Upper St. Clair, who ran in the Manhattan park many evenings after work.

The confidential deal, disclosed by a person who is not a party in the lawsuit but was told about the proposed settlement, must still be approved by the city comptroller and then by a federal judge.

The initial story of the crime, as told by 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 authorities. The statements were ruled admissible, and the men were convicted in two separate trials in 1990.

In December 2002, a state Supreme Court judge vacated the men’s convictions after an investigation by Manhattan District Attorney Robert M. Morgenthau found that DNA and other evidence showed that the jogger had been beaten and raped not by any of those convicted, but by only one man: Matias Reyes, a convicted rapist and murderer, who had confessed to the attack.

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 that the administration of Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg denied and fought vigorously for more than a decade in federal court. In contesting the suit, the Bloomberg administration argued that authorities had acted in good faith and with cause, and should not be held liable. In 2011, a senior corporation counsel lawyer said the arrests had been supported by “abundant probable cause, including confessions that withstood intense scrutiny, in full and fair pretrial hearings and at two lengthy public trials.”

In early 2013, the city’s Law Department echoed those views. “The case is not about whether the teens were wrongly convicted,” a department spokeswoman said. “It’s about whether prosecutors and police deliberately engaged in misconduct.”

But in January, lawyers for Mr. de Blasio asked the court to delay the litigation, so the new corporation counsel, Zachary W. Carter, could “get up to speed on the facts and the circumstances” of the case. Later, the mayor said Mr. Carter was “committed to making sure we get to that settlement quickly, some complicated issues, but we’re going to work through them very, very quickly.”

If the proposed settlement is approved by the comptroller, Scott M. Stringer, it would then be submitted for approval to U.S. District Judge Deborah A. Batts in Manhattan. In 2007, Judge Batts rejected the city’s motion to dismiss the suit and allowed most of the claims to proceed.

In such settlements, the city typically does not admit liability or wrongdoing; and any settlement with the five men would presumably include the legal fees and costs. Aides to Mr. de Blasio, Mr. Carter and Mr. Stringer all declined to comment Thursday when asked about the discussions, as did Jonathan C. Moore, a lawyer representing four of the men. A lawyer for the fifth man did not return a message seeking comment.

Over the years, the men have consistently maintained their innocence in the rape of the jogger, Trisha Meili, who was left with no memory of the attack. (Ms. Meili, a 1978 Upper St. Clair High School graduate who turns 54 Tuesday, revealed her identity as she published a 2003 memoir, “I Am the Central Park Jogger.”)

In prison, three of the men — Mr. Richardson, Mr. Salaam and Mr. Santana — maintained their innocence of the rape at parole hearings, where such a stance hurt their chances at a reduced term. At the hearings, the men acknowledged being in the park as part of a group of teenagers, some of whom committed assaults unrelated to the attack on Ms. Meili, and most expressed regret for the events, without going into specifics, transcripts show.

Mr. Santana indicated in his hearing that the larger group was out to rob people. “I took part in with the beatings of that man,” he said of one victim, adding, “If I could go back in time and not do it again, you know, it would have been a whole different story.”

The men’s lawyers have long said their clients committed no crimes in the park that night.

In recent years, the case remained in the public eye, largely through a documentary, “The Central Park Five,” made by filmmakers Ken Burns; his daughter, Sarah Burns; and her husband, David McMahon.

As recently as last Friday night, about 100 people gathered at the Brown Memorial Baptist Church in Brooklyn to view the film and to hear a talk by one of the men, Mr. Salaam. He described the stigma of living with the brand of being a rapist. “It wasn’t a popular thing to be one of us,” he said. The film, he added, “really gave us our lives back.”

At one point, he addressed the lawsuit. “Mayor de Blasio has said that he will settle this case for us, and there has been some positive motion,” Mr. Salaam said, adding, “We’ve been waiting for 25 years for justice.”

United States - North America - New York City - New York - Michael Bloomberg - Manhattan - Ken Burns - Scott Stringer - Bill de Blasio - Sarah Burns


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