A Journey Through the Tangled Case of the Central Park Jogger

When Justice Is a Game

Every now and again, we get a look, usually no more than a glimpse, at how the justice system really works. What we see—before the sanitizing curtain is drawn abruptly down—is a process full of human fallibility and error, sometimes noble, more often unfair, rarely evil but frequently unequal, and through it all inevitably influenced by issues of race and class and economic status. In short, it's a lot like other big, unwieldy institutions. Such a moment of clear sight emerges from the mess we know as the case of the Central Park jogger.

She was horribly beaten and raped and left near death on an April night 13 years ago. Five Harlem teenagers who were part of a "wilding" spree by more than 30 youths in Central Park that night were accused of the rape. Other charges included sexual abuse, assault, riot, and robbery. Under intense questioning, they at first confessed, in written statements and on videotape, but shortly thereafter retracted everything—contending that they had been intimidated, lied to, and coerced into making the statements. There was no physical evidence linking them to the crime—no blood match, no semen match, nothing. The victim could not provide an identification of any assailant because the battering left her with no memory whatever of the episode or even of starting out on her jog. But in two court trials a year later, the juries were persuaded by the vivid confessions that each of the five had at least some role in the attack on the young woman. Four—because they were under 16—were sentenced under juvenile guidelines and served jail terms of five to 10 years. The fifth, Kharey Wise, who was 16 and thus classed as an adult, got a sentence of five to 15 years. He came out of prison just last August.

Sometime last winter a serial rapist and murderer named Matias Reyes, who is serving a 33 1/3-to-life sentence in state prison, sought out the authorities, told them religion had entered his life, and confessed that he and he alone had brutalized and raped the jogger. His DNA, it was soon learned, matched that of the semen found in the jogger's cervix and on one of her running socks.

illustration: Yuan Lee

The public wasn't told any of this for several months as the shocked "justice system" wrestled with the gargantuan problem.

Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau, whose office prosecuted the case, began an investigation. It was not as hurried as the first one. Nor were as many detectives assigned to it. Despite the new evidence, the police department, whose leadership is reported to believe still that the five teenagers had at least some connection to the rape, recently started its own investigation. Morgenthau has a court date of December 5 to deliver his recommendations on whether the convictions should be vacated. Unseen backstage, the two assistant district attorneys in charge of Morgenthau's reinvestigation, Nancy Ryan and Peter Casolaro, are said to be under heavy lobbying from the players who produced those convictions. It's now a tug-of-war between a fair decision and one that would try to protect some carefully crafted reputations.

State law would seem to favor the five convicted youths. New York's Criminal Procedure Law—Section 440.10 (1) (g)states that if "new evidence" is produced that probably would have affected the original verdicts, then a court may "vacate" the convictions. There is no requirement for the court to rule that the confessions were coerced.

Back in 1989, the atmosphere surrounding this crime was, modestly put, emotional. The city was crackling with racial aggravation. And the mayoral campaign had begun—David Dinkins, who is black, would be opposing Rudolph Giuliani, who was already showing his disdain for many in the black leadership.

And then, on the night of April 19, in the city's premier greensward, a white, 28-year-old honors graduate from Wellesley and Yale, a rising star at Salomon Brothers investment bank, was allegedly raped by a group of black and Latino youths who, the authorities said, had thrown her to the ground, stripped her of her clothes, and, as she struggled desperately, bashed her all over her body with a rock and other objects to stop her flailing. Her left eye socket was crushed and her skull broken through to the brain. She lost 80 percent of her blood. The doctors at Metropolitan Hospital, who initially told police her chances to live were almost nil, saved her.

Press coverage was wall-to-wall. The rape wasn't the only crime committed in the same area that night. During the roving band's hour or two in the park, a number of cyclists and pedestrians and joggers had also been assaulted. Two of them, both men, were beaten into the dirt and, like the jogger, left in pools of blood. In such crimes, given the media attention and the potential for community anxiety and even unrest, pressure on police and prosecutors is immense. The unwritten edict from on high is: Solve this case instantly and put the perpetrators behind bars. In less than 48 hours, the police had rounded up a dozen or so suspects and reported that a few had already confessed.

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