Guilty Until Proven Innocent


In what is shaping up as potentially one of the most serious miscarriages
of justice in New York history, lawyers are pushing to overturn the verdicts in the infamous Central Park jogger rape attack. This latest blow to the city criminal justice system’s reputation results from the confession of a convicted murderer-rapist that he alone committed the crime and confirmed DNA evidence supporting his claim. Despite these developments, the D.A.’s office is still seeking to link the apparently cleared convicts to the brutal attack. These five young men, who became known across the nation in tabloid accounts of a violent spree labeled “wilding”—a disputed term used to brand black youth—have all served time for the crime.

According to papers filed by Attorney Michael Warren on behalf of three of the five defendants—Kevin Richardson, Antron McCray and Raymond Santana—Matias Reyes, a man currently in prison for raping three women and murdering one only two months after the jogger incident, confessed to the Inspector General’s office in January. Reyes said he made contact with the Manhattan District Attorney’s office in February and described meeting with A.D.A. Nancy Ryan and informing her of his sole responsibility for the attack. He also said that he had been interviewed by authorities on three occasions and had been taken to the crime scene in Central Park.

Earl Rawlins, an investigator for Warren, learned this information during interviews with Reyes six months after he had first contacted officials, and a month after the media broke the news of his confession. The D.A.’s office had already begun to secretly investigate his claims. According to the court papers, at that time, although an attorney or “legal” visit was scheduled, Rawlins was not allowed to meet with Reyes in that capacity, and therefore could not get Reyes’s statement certified by the prison notary. He obtained a notarized statement after a second interview on August 23.

Lawyers for the three young men used these developments as the basis for their motion to vacate the verdicts, or hold a new trial for each defendant. They contend that the confessions used to convict them were “conflicting statements obtained through the most abhorrent form of psychological duress and manipulation” and “that the evidence of Reyes’s sole involvement, which could not be produced at trial, would have probably influenced the jury to render a verdict more favorable to the defendants.” Attorney Myron Beldock, acting on behalf of Yusef Salaam, and Eric Seiff on behalf of Kharey Wise, are filing similar motions.

However, prosecutors do not see it as simply a matter of clearing the five now that Reyes has confessed, and there are serious implications for criminal justice if Reyes indeed acted alone. The defendants did, after all, maintain they were convicted on flimsy evidence, and falsely imprisoned. More troubling is that the real perpetrator was left free to rape again, and ultimately murder a young woman. “They didn’t want anything to spoil their neatly tied package of convictions,” Roger Wareham, co-counsel for the defendants, told the Daily News. Topping it off, of course, is the fact that due to the statute of limitations, Reyes cannot be charged with the crime.

Between the time of Reyes’s initial confession and Rawlins’s interview with him, authorities stealthily attempted to connect Reyes to the five defendants. “Apparently, detectives from the D.A.’s office visited the defendants’ homes without identifying their purpose as having anything to do with Matias Reyes’s confession,” said City Councilman Bill Perkins, a longtime adviser to the defendants.

Perkins says that detectives visited the McCray household under the guise of wanting to talk to them about an incident that had recently occurred in the park. “There was a very confrontational kind of meeting because they wanted to show [McCray’s mother] some pictures,” said Perkins. “Similarly, with the Richardsons, they came under false pretenses, and asked them to look at some pictures, which he could not identify.” There is speculation that authorities tried to see if they would recognize Reyes in the series of photos. Perkins alleges that authorities used other such tactics to link the defendants to Reyes.

“They even went and brought Santana, who is in jail for an unrelated crime [without telling him why], down to the prison where Reyes is to see if he would interact with Reyes,” said Perkins. “Later, other prisoners told him, ‘There’s a guy by the name of Reyes here who has confessed to this stuff.’ When the corrections department found out that he knew that Reyes was there, they took him back up [to his original facility]. They’re basically trying to connect them and their preliminary efforts towards that end were very devious.”

Perkins recalls that after the story broke, and the families had their first meeting to decide a plan of action, the connection was made between the detectives’ visits and Reyes’s confession. “When the stories came out, clearly they were royally pissed off,” said Perkins.

So far, the investigation has conclusively linked DNA samples from Reyes to semen specimens found at the crime scene and has revealed that the supposed evidence used to support the teens’ confessions—hair found on one defendant and blood on a rock said to be used in the crime—did not belong to the jogger as prosecutors had argued during the trial. Authorities have also been unable to link Reyes to the defendants except for a fight that occurred between Reyes and Wise while they were each awaiting trial on Rikers Island.

Prosecutors leaked that the fight may have been connected to the jogger case. “Initially, they were trying to say that it was all a conspiracy on Matias’s part in support of Kharey Wise,” said Perkins. “Matias will tell you that the fight that they had at Rikers Island was when they first met and the fight had to do with control of the television.” Reyes has said, according to Rawlins’s report, that he has encountered Wise twice, once during the altercation and for about five minutes at another facility. Reyes says that no discussion of the case occurred at either time.

Still, authorities are standing by the confessions obtained from the teens as evidence of their guilt. “That seems like the craziest thing, that one would confess to a crime that they did not commit,” said activist Conrad Muhammad, then National Youth Minister of the Nation of Islam and an adviser to Yusef Salaam. “But when you don’t have an understanding of the law and you’re 13 and 14 and 15 years old, there’s a real possibly that you can be duped into making a confession.” Court papers point out that seasoned second-grade detectives interrogated the teens without their parents present. Perkins asserts that parents were there for the taping of the confessions after they had, in some cases, already been drafted by police.

According to reports, investigators are now exploring four scenarios: that Reyes acted alone as he says he did; that he was with a group that attacked the jogger; that he attacked her before or after she was attacked by a group. None of these scenarios, except Reyes acting alone, are consistent with the evidence to date. To push forward any other theory would contradict accounts of the attack as depicted in the confessions that form the basis of the initial convictions, and thus would enhance the position that the confessions were forced. As of press time, the Voice was unable to reach the D.A.’s office; however, it has been widely reported that the office is “thoroughly reviewing the case.”

All of the defendants have served their time for the jogger convictions and are now united in their efforts to overturn their convictions. “Right now, they’re primarily working on clearing their names,” said Perkins, remarking that a lawsuit is obviously a consideration. “There’s a larger concern that they have to correct the criminal justice process that seems to so readily capture, try, and convict young black men without significant evidence, but rather with coercion, media distortion, and latent racism.”