By Jared Chausow
By Katie Toth
By Elizabeth Flock
By Albert Samaha
By Anna Merlan
By Jon Campbell
By Jon Campbell
By Albert Samaha
A week later, with five youths of color charged, Donald Trump, a loud real estate developer and casino operator whose kinship with either truth or justice has never been obvious, took out a full-page ad in each of the city's four daily papers urging New Yorkers to ignore those like Mayor Koch and Cardinal O'Connor who had counseled against "hate and rancor." Of the accused, he wrote: "I want to hate these muggers and murderers. They should be forced to suffer and, when they kill, they should be executed. . . . I am looking to punish them. . . . I want them to be afraid." Ugliness was in the air.
Linda Fairstein, who controlled the case as head of the Manhattan District Attorney's Sex Crimes Prosecution Unit, says now: "I don't think there was any rush to judgment." Perhaps. But there certainly was a rush.
So intense was the push for confessions that Fairstein, who had sought and achieved celebrity from her sex-crime prosecutions, bullied and stalled and blocked the mother and two friends of one suspect, Yusef Salaam, from gaining access to him. Fairstein's apparent purpose was to keep the suspect under wraps because she had been informed by the interrogating detective that the questioning was in a delicate phase where Salaam had begun to make some admissions. A short while later, Fairstein realized she could not bar the mother any longer, and the angry parent halted the interrogation.
Thus, unlike the four others charged with the rape, Salaam had not signed any written statement nor given a videotaped confession. The prosecution's only evidence of what he said at his interrogation came from the detective, Thomas McKenna, who testified at Salaam's trial a year later. (The case was split into two trials, with three of the defendants grouped in the first one—Antron McCray, 15, Yusef Salaam, 15, and Raymond Santana, 14and the remaining two accused—Kevin Richardson, 14, and Kharey Wise, 16in the second. These groupings were largely maneuvered by the prosecution so as to get information to the juries in the order the D.A.'s office preferred. Both trials were held in 1990 and both lasted two months.)
On the stand, McKenna, a detective for 20 years, openly acknowledged that he had used a ruse on the night after the rape to get Salaam's "confession." The boy, McKenna said, at first repeatedly denied having been in Central Park. Then, went McKenna's testimony, he, the detective, made the following untrue statement to Salaam: "Look, I don't care if you tell me anything. I don't care what you say to me. We have fingerprints on the jogger's pants. They're satin, they're a very smooth surface, and we have been able to get fingerprints off of them. I'm just going to compare your prints to the prints we have on the pants, and if they match up, you don't have to tell me anything. Because you're going down for rape."
At this, according to McKenna's testimony, Salaam blurted, "I was there but I didn't rape her." And then, said McKenna, the boy calmly proceeded to admit that he had hit the downed jogger twice with an iron bar and felt her breasts, but said it was four other boys who actually "fucked her." Salaam identified two of them, Kevin Richardson and Kharey Wise, McKenna testified. He said he didn't know the other two.
There never were, of course, any fingerprints on the jogger's running pants.
As described by McKenna, his trick-playing on Salaam is, under present case law, quite legal. As are many other kinds of law enforcement distortions, misdirections, and veiled (and sometimes not so veiled) suggestions that leniency will be granted if the witness is forthcoming. The justice system's premise for accepting these stratagems is that an innocent person will not falsely incriminate himself.
After the trial, some jurors said the detective had gained credibility with them by being so candid about his methods.
photo by James Hamilton
Probably the most blatant example of the prosecution's contortions under pressure had to do with distorting the meaning of critical evidence—the DNA. To wit, the D.A.'s office all along, right up to the first trial in 1990, had told the press, and therefore the public, that the DNA results were "inconclusive" because they showed only a "weak" or "faint" pattern—leaving the impression that, while there was no match, the samples likely did belong to one or more of the indicted five, but were merely of poor quality. In fact, the semen samples taken from the victim were absolutely conclusive in ways important to the defense.
The prosecution never did reveal the true DNA results and analysis. The FBI did—at the first trial, more than a year after the crime. The disclosure was made by the witness from the FBI laboratory, Special Agent Dwight Adams. And it didn't come in his direct testimony as a witness for the prosecution, because Assistant D.A. Elizabeth Lederer avoided any question to him that might lead to the whole truth. However, Adams told the story openly, with no reluctance, in his cross-examination by defense attorney Mickey Joseph.