One Police Plaza

The Central Park Jogger Case: What Price Justice?

March 10, 2014

Lawyers for The Central Park Five have held two meetings with the city’s new Corporation Counsel, Zachary Carter, and his staff to discuss a financial settlement in a case that remains a wound in NYC’s racial psyche.

One of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s campaign promises was to settle the 25-year-old Central Park Jogger case — rather than to delay and litigate, the strategy of former Mayor Michael Bloomberg against anyone who sued the city.

Some may view the settlement’s terms as a harbinger of how de Blasio will lead New York.

The Central Park Five refers to five so-called minority teenagers who implicated each other in the beating and rape of a white female jogger in the Park on April 19, 1989. They spent years in prison for a rape that even the city acknowledges they did not commit.

Lawyers who have dealt with Carter describe him as both diligent and more responsive to plaintiffs’ concerns than his predecessor, Michael Cardozo.

“Zach Carter is open to the fact that, if there were wrongs, they need to be addressed,” says attorney Sue Karten, who won a $3 million suit against the city for the family of Anthony Baez, who died in 1994 at the hands of an over-aggressive police officer in the Bronx.

Clearly, there were wrongs in the jogger case. But lawyers contacted by NYPD Confidential, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that to win monetary damages, the five must prove the police and prosecutors were not merely wrong or negligent. They have to prove deliberate abuse and misconduct.

The confessions by the five teenagers are at the heart of both the criminal case and the lawsuit, which claims racial discrimination and malicious prosecution. Two of the teens were arrested in or near the park that night, and the other three were brought in the next day based on information from more than 35 teenagers the police questioned who were rampaging through the park in what came to be known as “wilding.”

Each of the five confessed in specific detail to beating the jogger. Each denied raping her but accused the others of having done so.

“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. “The fact that they gave false confessions is not enough.”

But a lawyer familiar with the case said: “How could the teenagers get all that detail into their confessions if the cops hadn’t fed it to them? There is no other source for the information other than the police. If the police fed them this information, that makes it deliberate. And they covered up their misconduct.”

Complicating the talks is an insistence by some in the police department that any settlement acknowledge the police did nothing wrong.

“Our report found, as did the trial judge and the District Attorney, that neither the police in detaining and questioning the suspects nor the prosecutors, in questioning them, were guilty of any misconduct, and that a clear and unequivocal statement to that effect must be part of any fair settlement,” said Michael Armstrong, who reinvestigated the case for the NYPD in 2002 after Matias Reyes, a convicted rapist and murderer serving a life sentence, confessed to the rape. DNA evidence confirmed his claim.

The problem now, says another lawyer who has sued the city, “is that there has been a book and a movie. Politicians have taken it up its cause, which means that there is pressure on the Corporation Counsel to settle.

“The city has a lot to bargain with,” he said. “Yet even if they are not sympathetic characters and have questionable backgrounds, these five teenagers did suffer, both for the years they spent in prison and in their pubic vilification.”

Both de Blasio and Corporation Counsel Carter seem less sympathetic to the concerns of reporters than to the victims of police abuse.

Take former Newsday and Village Voice reporter Graham Rayman, who has authored a book on police whistleblower Adrian Schoolcraft.

Schoolcraft was the cop who claimed that commanders in his Brooklyn precinct had deliberately downgraded crimes to make it appear that their precinct was safer than it actually was — a claim the department belatedly confirmed.

As retaliation, Schoolcraft claimed in a $50 million lawsuit against the city, the police forced him into the psychiatric ward of Jamaica Hospital, where he was kept for five days against his will.

It turns out that Schoolcraft wrote a 10-page account of his hospital stay, which Rayman had access to and which the city now wants and which Rayman refuses to give them.

The city asked a federal judge last week to compel Rayman to provide it.

Rayman notes that the police department has never explained why it forced Schoolcraft into the hospital.

“The city has sealed everything. They have even issued a special gag order that doesn’t allow Schoolcraft to see his case file.

“It’s very much in the public interest for journalists to defend newsgathering from government overreach. The city should always be challenged when it uses subpoena power against a journalist. This is not a matter of national security. This is an employment dispute.”

So Ray Kelly has a new job as the president of risk management services at Cushman Wakefield, which calls itself “the world’s largest privately-held commercial real estate services firm.”

According to a company news release, Kelly will be advising clients how to protect themselves from various threats, including terrorism.

One of the buildings Cushman Wakefield manages is the World Trade Center complex. As police commissioner, Kelly had sought control of the complex, fighting for the past decade with the Port Authority to obtain it.

Meanwhile, Police Commissioner Bill Bratton has cited “collaboration” as his new mantra. He and Joe Dunne, the head of the Port Authority police, seem to have eased much of the two agencies’ tensions that Kelly caused.

Given Kelly’s additional speechmaking — he’s also joined the Council of Foreign Relations as a “distinguished visiting fellow” and signed up with Greater Talent Network to hit the lecture circuit —we’re estimating he’s now part of the city’s 1 Percenters.

If that’s the case, he can afford to stop schnorring at the Harvard Club. (The Police Foundation stopped paying for him at the end of 2013, its executive director, Gregg Roberts, has said.) Maybe Kelly can now make a contribution to the foundation to offset that.

Then there’s his 10-man police detail, paid for by city taxpayers. We’ll leave that alone for now.


Copyright © 2014 Leonard Levitt