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.
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 , 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.”
As Kevin Richardson’s sister Angela Cuffee puts it, “When you live across the street from Central Park, is there a law that says you can’t go to the park? Is there a law against going to the park because you’re a young black man and something happened to other people?”
Reaction from the law enforcement community to the D.A.’s decision has ranged from unofficial outrage and anger to official disappointment. A spokesperson for the Detectives Endowment Association, the union for New York’s detectives, said that the detectives did an outstanding job and that “it doesn’t fare well when the district attorney takes the word of a convicted felon who is serving time over the testimony of detectives and videotapes of all their confessions.” That outstanding detective work included compromising the hairs found on Richardson’s clothing—75 percent of the forensic evidence against the teens—to contamination by spreading it on the precinct floor for photos before the evidence was removed. The reinvestigation concluded that none of the DNA from these hairs matches that of the victim.
“What the district attorney has done in the year 2002 could have been done in the year 1989,” says Eric Seiff, counsel for Kharey Wise. “In the hysteria that swept the April 19th assaults, the police instinctively, with bias and prejudice, and without knowledge, arrived at a conclusion that led to a true miscarriage of justice. And these five young men, all in their teens, spent years of their lives in prison solely because the police made a predetermination before an investigation began and refused to be open-minded and reconsider what was out there for them to find because they would not allow for the possibility that they had erred.”
In fact, it seems that the investigative process excluded anything that didn’t fit the gang rape theory. According to former detective Mike Sheehan, who had connections to both the jogger case and the apprehension of Reyes, Reyes’s DNA was not compared with the jogger samples in 1989 because Reyes was known to always act alone.
The report does not openly criticize the process by which the confessions were obtained, and does not place blame for any flaws in the prosecution. It is also not within the scope of the response or in the power of the D.A.’s office to declare innocence or guilt, but to accept that the young men are innocent is to accept that the criminal justice system failed. The response also points out that at the time of the trial, counsel for the defendants was free to exploit the weaknesses in the case.
While monetary compensation may be an objective of any future civil actions, they will also serve as an opportunity to closely scrutinize what really took place in the period following the attack, and civil cases could go a long way in identifying whether or not a wolf pack existed on the other side of the courtroom. Councilman Bill Perkins, an adviser to some of the families, says that as a result of this case, legislation has been introduced into the City Council calling for the taping of all police interrogations.
Meanwhile, attorneys for the Central Park Five assert that the report is an indictment of the criminal justice system and that the case will not be closed completely by clearing their clients or settling a lawsuit. “If the people in the district attorney’s office and the Police Department who committed acts of criminal misconduct are punished,” says Wareham, “that would be complete justice.”