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Eyeing the law's role

October 14, 2002

Thirteen years after five black teenagers were convicted of raping a white female jogger in Central Park, a question has emerged: Should there be an independent investigation to learn what went wrong with law enforcement?

Eric Adams, a police lieutenant who heads 100 Blacks in Law Enforcement Who Care, is only one of many voices asking how the five teenagers were convicted, given the lack of physical evidence at the time and the fact that investigators have now determined that another man committed the rape.

"I think those boys committed a crime in Central Park by committing assaults or even robbing somebody," Adams said. "But often, some of us in law enforcement believe, 'So what if they are not the right guys, they are just as guilty.' When it comes to a person of color, often, when they cannot find a person guilty, anyone will do. History will bare this out."

But don't hold your breath waiting for an independent investigation.

While as a public servant Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau is probably as good as it gets, he is in his third decade and doesn't easily relinquish power.

In this town, the district attorney's job is for life. Term limits for City Council members appear to be misdirected.

Anyone who thinks the 83-year-old Morgenthau has mellowed over time should think again. Seven years ago, after the feds ignored him and teamed with Mollen Commission investigators to indict a score of cops on corruption charges in the 30th Precinct, Morgenthau forced the resignation of a key police informant in the case.

Now comes the Central Park jogger case again. Despite the detailed and graphic videotaped admissions of four of the teens - statements that sent them all to prison - a convicted serial rapist and murderer has surfaced to say that he alone raped the jogger. Investigators say DNA tests have linked the man, Matias Reyes, to semen found on the victim but not identified at the trial.

So what about those admissions in which the teenagers implicated each other in both raping and assaulting the jogger, as well as in attacks on other joggers and bikers inside the park that night?

The rape notwithstanding, were they largely accurate portrayals of what the five did inside the park that night and to the jogger? Or did five police detectives - Hardigan, Nugent, McKenna, Powers and Sheehan, the latter now a television reporter- coerce the teens into making the statements a la "NYPD Blue"?

Was Assistant District Attorney Elizabeth Lederer influenced into acquiescing to the admissions because of the overheated racial rhetoric of the time? Recall that the jogger rape occurred just two years after the Rev. Al Sharpton came forward with the Tawana Brawley hoax that she had been raped by a group of white men. Or that the Amsterdam News, in violation of an unwritten journalistic practice, published the rape victim's name, the city's only media outlet to do so.

"The public is not aware that the confession process is not [a] single event where a person says, 'I did or did not do an act,'" Adams said. "It occurs in phases. The first phase is the questioning phase, then verbal acknowledgment, ending in the tape-recording process. An interrogation can wear down the best. We catch a lot of bad guys, but if used improperly, you can put an innocent person in jail.

"Sometimes they intentionally or accidentally give suspects information of a crime during interrogations to fit the puzzle," he said. "If the detectives did this, the prosecutor is supposed to be there for checks and balances.

"What raised our concern at the time when you looked at the confessions was that there was no physical evidence. None of the boys put themselves doing the crime. They indicated that they didn't understand that what they admitted to was a crime. ... They did not understand 'acting in concert' is a crime. They all pointed to the next guy.

"There were also contradictions such as that one had intercourse, yet there was no physical evidence. Another indicated he removed her bra when it wasn't removed. When you hear all those contradictions, any good investigator will realize something is wrong with this case."

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© 2002 Newsday, Inc. Reprinted with permission.