NYPD Confidential - An Inside Look at the New York Police Department
Home Page
All Columns
Contact Leonard Levitt
Search this site
Printable versionSend to a friendEmail Leonard Levitt

The Central Park Jogger — No Justice But Money

January 13, 2014

No case in New York City has fanned racial tensions more than that of the Central Park Jogger, in which five non-white teenagers [four black and one Hispanic] were falsely convicted of raping a white woman and literally beating her within an inch of her life.

Like “Stop and Frisk,” no case better fits the tale-of-two-cities racial rhetoric of the city’s newly elected mayor Bill de Blasio.

Former mayor Michael Bloomberg refused to pay one dime to The Central Park Five, as the teenagers are now called, who are seeking $250 million for the years they served in prison.

De Blasio has promised to settle the case. The question is how much money the city will pay them.

That the case continues to rile emotions 25 years after it began suggests the breadth of the racial divide over the police and the criminal justice system.

A documentary by the filmmaker Ken Burns and his daughter Sarah, which has gained widespread attention, is guaranteed to further enflame passions.

Here’s a nutshell summary of what occurred on the night of April 19, 1989. Some 40 teenagers, roaming through Central Park, assaulted a homeless man, a male jogger, a male teacher, and a couple on a tandem bike. That was the night the term “wilding” was born.

Then, at 1:30 A.M., a jogger, Trisha Meili, a 28-year-old investment banker, was found in the park unconscious and barely alive. She had been beaten so badly she had no memory of the attack.

Because she was a rape victim, her name was not reported in the mainstream media, although it did appear in the Amsterdam News. Instead, she was referred to as “The Jogger.”

Five teenagers were picked up for questioning not far from where she was found. No physical evidence linked them to her attack.

While none of them admitted raping her, their videotaped statements to police implicated each other — not just in Meili’s rape and beating, but as part of a larger group that carried out the other assaults in the park that night.

Anton McCray, 15, said he had held Meili and faked raping her. Raymond Santana, 14, said he had touched her breasts. Kevin Richardson said he had merely watched and tried to stop the attack. Kharey Wise, 16, said he had fondled her legs while others held her down.

This reporter watched those confessions in the living room of a Newsday reporter who covered the Manhattan District Attorney’s office. Their accounts seemed chillingly believable and frighteningly convincing.

They were so convincing that a jury convicted them. They were given maximum sentences of between five and 15 years.

Turns out the jurors, like me, were dead wrong. The key part of the teenagers’ confessions was false. None of them had raped the jogger.

In 2002, 13 years after the attack, Mathias Reyes, a serial rapist and murderer who was serving a life sentence, confessed that he alone had raped and assaulted the jogger. His DNA matched that found at the scene of the crime.

Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau, after reconstructing that night’s events, concluded that the five teenagers could not have gang-raped the jogger because they were then assaulting others in the park.

As for their confessions, the teenagers and their supporters maintained that they had implicated their friends in the rape under police duress. They pointed out that the police did not videotape the prior questioning of the teenagers, implying that the police had intimidated them into their videotaped admissions.

At Morgenthau’s recommendation, Judge Charles Tejada vacated their convictions, not only to Meili’s rape and assault, but also to the other attacks.

By then the five teenagers had completed their jail terms. Wise had served 11 ½ years; Santana eight; Richardson, McCray and Yousef Salaam six.

Meanwhile, the police department reacted with scorn and skepticism to the case’s reinvestigation — specifically to Reyes's claim that he had acted alone. They criticized Assistant District Attorney Nancy Ryan, who led the reinvestigation, saying she had prevented detectives from fully questioning Reyes. They suggested she had a personal agenda: a rivalry with former Assistant District Attorney Linda Fairstein, whose unit had prosecuted the teenagers.

Police Commissioner Ray Kelly ordered the department to conduct its own investigation.

Led by Michael Armstrong, the counsel to the Knapp Commission on police corruption 30 years before, the investigation concluded that it was “more likely than not” that the five teenagers had subjected the jogger to some sort of “hit and run” attack consistent with their other activities that night, as Armstrong later put it.

Department officials were also adamant that the detectives had not coerced the teenagers’ confessions. Armstrong cited a telephone conversation between Wise and Melody Jackson, a family friend, whom Wise had called from prison in which he reiterated — apparently under no duress — what he had told the police in 1989: that he fondled the jogger’s leg while others held her down.

Enter Ken Burns, whose documentaries on the Civil War, Major League baseball, and countless other historical subjects have made him something of a national icon.

With his daughter Sarah, who had written a book on the case, subtitled: “The Untold Story Behind One of New York’s Most Infamous Crimes,” he produced a film that painted the teenagers as innocent victims of police abuse and a racist judicial system.

In private, Burns was said to have compared their case to that of the notorious 1931 Alabama Scottsboro Boys, in which nine black men were convicted of rape on the false testimony of two white women.

To narrate his Central Park Five documentary Burns chose Jim Dwyer, the Pulitzer prize-winning New York Times columnist, whose heart is as wide as a city block.

Alas, the documentary does not deal with the complexities of the Jogger case. Although Dwyer says in the film that the teenagers never offered an alibi defense because “They were beating up other people,” Burns portrays them as innocent Little Lord Fauntleroys.

He glides over Dwyer’s point that, even if they did not rape the jogger, the Central Park Five were hardly innocents. Earth to Ken and Sarah: what do you suppose they were doing that night in Central Park?

The Burnses also ignored the entreaties of Armstrong, who attempted to present the police department’s case.

“Sarah [Burns] called me, two or three years ago, maybe more,” said Armstrong, “to tell me that she and her father were doing a documentary. I took her to lunch at the Harvard Club and we talked for at least two hours. She was most pleasant and led me to believe that she was out to produce a fair, impartial presentation of what happened and the various theories surrounding the events. I agreed to be questioned on camera, and some months later went to Burns’s studio where I spent a full afternoon in a taped question and answer session. I answered all questions put to me, volunteered information where I thought it would be helpful to do so, and pretty much covered our report’s factual findings, conclusions, criticism of police procedure and recommendations for reform. The questioning was thorough but not confrontational, and I came away with the impression that they were going to do an objective job.

“A few months after that, Burns called me to say that they were not going to go into the matters about which I had been questioned so they wouldn’t be using the footage of my interview. He thanked me for my help.”

“The case is over,” said a police official, expressing the view of many at Police Plaza. “The kids already did their time. Who gets hurt by this? Only the police department. We’re always the ones who take the blame.”

Well, not quite. What the department has never owned up to is this: The police had Reyes’s name before the jogger attack, and had a description of him from a similar attack in the park that had occurred before the jogger’s.

Its failure to arrest him for the attack on the jogger allowed him to rape and murder a pregnant mother a month or so later and to rape and maim two other women.

One more thing. It’s been more than ten years since Reyes’s confession came to light, exonerating the five teenagers. The department has resisted changing its procedures about videotaping the questioning of suspects before they give their statements.

« Back to top
Copyright © 2014 Leonard Levitt