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$40 Million Jogger Payout: De Blasio Needs to Explain Why

June 23, 2014

Forty million dollars for five black and Hispanic teenagers — whom the police tricked into falsely confessing they raped a white female jogger in Central Park, leading to years in prison for a crime they did not commit.

Or is it $40 million to five “wolf-pack” punks who beat up people in the park, then lied to police and implicated one other in the rape and beating of the jogger?

Whatever the truth, the city’s $40 million settlement — the largest on record for a case of wrongful conviction — does nothing to resolve these divergent narratives.

Jim Dwyer, who served as a knowledgeable voice in the Ken Burns documentary that painted the five youths as innocents, convicted by predatory police and a stacked judicial system, told NYPD Confidential:

“The results [of the settlement] are unsatisfactory and invisible. After 10 years of litigation and hundreds of thousands of words of testimony, everything [concerning the settlement] was done in secret. This is a bad way for us to deal with wrongful convictions. It’s a lost opportunity to learn and understand.”

Dwyer added: “We need transparency to see what went wrong. Without transparency, we learn nothing. Money is not the only answer.”

The Central Park Five, as they came to be known, were wrongly convicted of the rape of the jogger. Yet it’s simplistic to paint them, as Burns does, as Little Lord Fauntleroys.

The five were arrested as teenagers in 1989 in perhaps the city’s most politically charged, racially tinged criminal case that underscored the city’s rampant crime rate.

They were in the park that night as part of a group of teenagers who, in what was known as “wilding,” assaulted people at random. Police later found the white female jogger raped and beaten unconscious. With no forensic evidence, the five were convicted by their own videotaped statements.

Each confessed to beating the jogger. Each denied raping her, but accused the others of having done so.

Thirteen years later, in 2002, Matias Reyes, a convicted murderer and serial rapist, admitted that he alone raped the jogger. His DNA matched semen found on the victim. Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau, whose office had prosecuted the five teenagers, vacated their convictions.

In 2003, the five sued the city for $250 million, claiming that the police elicited their confessions, knowing they were false.

According to three lawyers involved in wrongful conviction cases, the city had a strong case that the police did no such thing. To win monetary damages, these lawyers stated, the Central Park Five had to prove the police and prosecutors were not merely wrong or negligent. They had to prove deliberate abuse and misconduct.

 “They can only recover if they can prove that the cops knew they were eliciting a false statement,” said a lawyer who has sued the city in similar police-related cases but is not part of the jogger case.

For  ten years, former Mayor Michael Bloomberg stalled the case, refusing to settle or to try it. Running for mayor in 2013, Bill de Blasio pledged to settle the case as a “moral obligation to right this injustice.”

Instead of going to trial, he muscled the $40 million settlement. Each of the five will receive the equivalent of $1 million for each year he spent in prison.

It’s unclear whether the mayor has cited a “moral obligation” to settle any other wrongful conviction case.

The city, for example, has had no meaningful negotiations with Jabbar Collins, who spent 16 years in prison for the murder of a Brooklyn rabbi that he did not commit. Collins is suing the city for $150 million.

As a civil rights lawyer familiar with the Central Park case put it: “There is no other case with such high-level political pressure. The mayor bound the hands of the law department. He agreed to settle for political reasons. Zack [Corporation Counsel Zachary Carter] was stuck with that.”

The Central Park settlement must now be approved by Comptroller Scott Stringer, who recently settled with David Ranta for $6.4 million after Ranta spent 22 years in jail for a murder he did not commit.

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