Speculation Gone Wilding

Jogger Theories Defy the Realities of Reinvestigation

Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau's controversial recommendation last week to vacate the convictions of the Central Park Five has brought the case a step closer to closure while simultaneously igniting new flurries of debate over the innocence of the defendants. The acceptance of their guilt appears so deeply embedded in the public consciousness that even Matias Reyes's confession and DNA match aren't enough to quell the murmuring of some pundits and naysayers.

In a 58-page affirmation responding to the motion to vacate the jogger convictions on the basis of newly discovered evidence, information obtained during the D.A.'s extensive reinvestigation of the case is summarized in detail as it relates to the specific issues raised in the defendants' petition. The complete results of the D.A.'s new probe were not presented in the document and may become available at a later date. Among the key findings in the document was the fact that Reyes's account of the attack and rape is "consistently . . . reliable and accurate," while the statements of the then teenage defendants were found to reveal "troubling discrepancies."

While Reyes's version of the assault is "corroborated by, consistent with, or explanatory of objective, independent evidence in a number of important respects," the statements made by the teens were not supported by physical evidence. The investigation of Reyes's claim has even resulted in the discovery of additional evidence in the case. These revelations effectively rebut the group attack theory presented by the original prosecution, and point to Reyes as the sole perpetrator, but nonetheless the debate continues as to the culpability of the defendants.

Sharonne Salaam, mother of Yusef Salaam, after the D.A.'s report was released Thursday
photo: Julia Xanthos
Sharonne Salaam, mother of Yusef Salaam, after the D.A.'s report was released Thursday

The resistance to the conclusion that Reyes acted alone and that the Central Park Five are innocent has its roots in the media perpetuation of the imagery of animalistic frenzy afforded by the wilding wolf pack theory. This theory was never mitigated by portraits of the middle-class families of these young men, or examination of the fact that they had not been in trouble before, or by complicating factors arising upon their arrest. Few were skeptical of the prosecutors' case. At this point the image of monsters ingrained in many minds is not easily reconciled with innocence. Last Thursday, in a press conference fogged by intense emotions, an unwaveringly articulate Sharonne Salaam, the mother of Yusef, aptly described the climate: "I know many of you out there are afraid and unwilling to give up your suspicions of guilt, but it's time to move on."

Evidence supporting Reyes's claim that he was the sole attacker includes specific details in his confession not mentioned in any of the defendants' statements. He correctly states the direction from which the jogger approached the area where she was attacked, and accurately describes her running tights. His account of the assault on the woman is in tune with and "explanatory" of medical and crime scene evidence, including the manner and location of the disposal of her clothing. Reyes also mentions details about the Walkman that was in the jogger's possession and items, such as a Velcro case and two keys, that are consistent with the jogger's recollections of her personal effects. A wound on the woman's face was linked to a ring worn by Reyes and the manner in which she was tied is similar to the binding of another Reyes victim.

With the exception of Kharey Wise, who was shown the crime scene before his statements were made, none of the defendants correctly described the site. Reyes's depiction of the place, on the other hand, was found to be accurate. In fact, the report says that "analysis shows that the accounts given by the five defendants differed from one another on the specific details of virtually every major aspect of the crime." In giving their statements, the teens were clearly cooperating by positioning themselves as witnesses in the so-called "confessions." The report states that once one teen decided to give a name, there was motive for crisscrossing accusations. And despite the repeatedly aired clip of Wise saying, "this is my first rape," the report states, "none acknowledged having had intercourse with the victim." It is also noted in the response that in crime scene photos there is a path of flattened ground cover that "appears to be more consistent with a single attacker dragging an inert form than with a group."

Despite sensationalized accounts of a gang rape based on inconsistent statements made by teenagers reputedly under coercion, the D.A.'s office notes that during the original trials: "The People were unable to offer medical testimony to the effect that the injuries the jogger had sustained could only have been inflicted by multiple perpetrators." Further, "there proved to be no physical evidence recovered at the scene or from the person or effects of the victim which connected the defendants to the attack on the jogger, or could establish how many perpetrators participated." It should also be mentioned that none of the victims of any of the other attacks that night were able to identify any of the defendants.

Still, there is an incessant, almost fanatical insistence that the defendants are guilty of something. "For those who say that they did something," says defense attorney Roger Wareham, "that conclusion is based on the assumption that if you were black and Latino and a teenager in Central Park on April 19 [1989], then you had to be involved in a crime. There is no assumption that if you were white in Central Park that night you had to be involved in a crime, so that to me is a racist assumption. I say unequivocally that my clients did not commit a single crime that night."

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