Central Park jogger case still lacks justice

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Trisha Meili, formerly of Upper St. Clair, doesn't remember the events of April 19, 1989.

While taking a late evening jog through New York's Central Park, the investment banker was assaulted, raped and left for dead by Matias Reyes, a serial rapist who had preyed on the women of Manhattan's Upper East Side for a long time.

Within days, New York's incorrigible tabloids jockeyed to outdo each other with the most sensational headlines about the five Harlem teenagers taken into custody for the rape and attempted murder of Ms. Meili.

Because New York was in the midst of what many believed to be a slow motion descent into anarchy, there was little appetite for legal nuances like guilt or innocence. It didn't matter who drew the short straw as long as someone was caught and convicted, as far as the public was concerned.

This is the subject of "The Central Park Five," a conscience-searing documentary by Ken Burns about the fate of five teenagers predestined for conviction in a city that feared and loathed minority youths with an irrational and unconscionable passion.

Despite the lack of physical evidence tying Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana, Yusef Salaam and Kharey Wise to the bloody crime scene, the cops managed to elicit damning confessions from the terrified and exhausted teenagers. That was after hours of interrogation without benefit of counsel or parents savvy enough to say no to the detectives railroading their sons.

The boys, who didn't know each other prior to their arrests, believed they'd go home if they cooperated with the detectives who took turns playing "good cop, bad cop." The teens believed the empty promises made to them during their interrogation.

Because they didn't really know the circumstances of Ms. Meili's assault, they depended on the investigators' prompting for those details to embellish their accounts. They blamed each other for sexually assaulting Ms. Meili because they didn't understand that their false testimony would ensnare them, too. They were so naive, they believed their lies would help lead the cops to a just outcome that didn't involve them somehow.

Even so, their conflicting stories established a chronology of events that was more contradictory than coherent, even after the information was fed to them. The boys wanted their freedom, the public wanted vengeance, but no one wanted justice. None of the police or prosecutors who were in a position to know better had enough integrity to face the truth. The media failed to show even a scintilla of skepticism about the narrative from the Manhattan district attorney's office.

Interviewed years later about the case, The New York Times' Jim Dwyer admitted that the boys had become proxies for various agendas and that little during their trial had to do with justice. "I wish I had been more skeptical as a journalist," he told Mr. Burns on camera.

Mr. Dwyer wasn't the only reporter who failed to do due diligence. I didn't have my column when the boys were convicted, but I recall being convinced of their guilt at the time, too. Despite New York's wealth of enterprising journalists, no one investigated the flimsy facts of the case. If Matias Reyes hadn't confessed 13 years later, the convictions of the five men would never have been voided.

It took a judge five minutes of deliberation to exonerate the young men who had served prison terms ranging from seven to 13 years. They had been hardened and humiliated by their experience. Most used their time behind bars to finish high school and earn college degrees. Still, having been taken from their families when they were 14, 15 and 16 years old, their youth was a casualty of the system's indifference to justice. It was lost forever.

The Central Park Five filed a civil suit in 2003 against the police and prosecutors. Because of the incompetence of the detectives, the real rapist was free to rape and kill for years. A decade later, the suit is still unresolved.

One former prosecutor has advanced the theory that Reyes may have, indeed, been the primary rapist, but that the Central Park Five were somehow involved. Even in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, the cops and the prosecutors continue to stick to a discredited story. They can't admit that their opportunism makes them as bad as the criminals they often convict.

Trisha Meili finally got justice when Reyes confessed. The Central Park Five are still waiting for the police and the prosecutors to confess to crimes committed under color of authority. When that happens, justice will be done.

tonynorman

Tony Norman: tnorman@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1631. Twitter: @TonyNormanPG.


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