A police investigation and City Council hearing focusing on investigative procedure in the Central Park jogger case not so artfully avoided the questions of policy and much needed procedural reform at the heart of the flawed prosecution and subsequent convictions of five young men. If the police get their business-as-usual way, the Central Park case can be added to the list of major shake-ups at the New York Police Department—including the Abner Louima and Amadou Diallo cases—that resulted in little reform to prevent another disaster.
Disregarding decisions by the Manhattan district attorney and a state supreme court judge to vacate charges against the Central Park Five, the NYPD fired up its own reinvestigation of the case “to determine whether policy or procedures needed to be changed.” Actually, the resulting report is long on new theories of the crime and short on assessment of policy and procedures.
Essentially speculating again as to what may have happened in the park that April night in 1989, the report barely examines what took place in the station house when the five teens were goaded into confessions after more than 30 hours of questioning. The D.A. and the NYPD have different scenarios: The police argue that Matias Reyes, who says he alone committed the crime, acted with the Central Park Five, while the D.A.’s report says it is feasible he acted on his own. Yet neither department has focused on how detectives and prosecutors extracted confessions that—despite which theory is correct—were at least tainted, if not totally false. At a recent City Council hearing, both the D.A.’s office and the NYPD presented their cases, and the only thing they could agree on was that there was no police misconduct in the case.
The 43-page police report includes six pages exploring Reyes’s credibility. Dozens of pages recount the events, including theoretical scenarios, most of which propose that Reyes—the only one whose DNA was found at the scene—did not act alone. Michael Armstrong, an attorney appointed to the police panel, says the report does not dwell on faulty confessions because “inconsistencies and weaknesses of the defendants’ statements were fully explored” during pre-trial hearings.
Calling the report a “whitewashing,” at the rather raucous council hearing, Councilmember Bill Perkins said the alternate theories only “muddy the waters” and fail to address a startling series of investigative oversights and shoddy police work that led to the convictions. First, there was the failure to compare evidence in the jogger attack to another gruesome rape that occurred only two nights before and a few blocks away in the park—and committed by Reyes. At least one detective—retired cop and Fox 5 News reporter Mike Sheehan—worked on both crimes. Once Reyes was arrested a few months after the Central Park Five, no attempt was made to match his DNA to that found at the jogger scene—even when it became apparent that none of the five teens could be linked to the evidence. Then there were bumpy official timelines that have the rape taking place at about the same time as other crimes in the park also linked to the Central Park Five.
But most notable, according to the report’s critics, are two major factors: One, that police apparently didn’t continue seeking the attacker who would match with the jogger-scene DNA when the teens didn’t. Two, detectives and prosecutors settled for contradictory confessions, in which the young men blamed one another, minimized their own roles, and never implicated Reyes. “This still happens. This is not just the Central Park case,” says Legal Aid’s Russell Neufeld, who also testified before the council. “Once they get a confession, they stop investigating a case. The same is true once they get an ID. This kind of police work has to change.”
Dubbed “the cleanup team” by critics, the three-member panel chosen by the police to “reinvestigate” is also under fire for having too much stake in results that make police and prosecutors look rosy. Armstrong, for instance, is employed at law firm Kronish Lieb Weiner & Hellman, LLP, where Central Park prosecutor Linda Fairstein’s husband is a lawyer. Jules Martin, another attorney on the panel, was a career cop with no record of acting for police reform who has been on the police watchdog Civilian Complaint Review Board (CCRB).
“I would suggest that these individuals were not independent enough to conduct a full and thorough investigation, and I think their findings bear that out,” says Councilmember James E. Davis, a member of the Public Safety Committee. Michael Warren, a Central Park Five attorney, concurs. “This was an attempt to legitimize what was done in the interrogations and to justify the so-called confessions.”
Noting many of the problems in the investigation, including the failure to match DNA or to compare rape cases that happened within days of each other, the police and city officials claim these are not glitches that could occur in 2003 because of recent departmental changes. Those changes include a DNA databank that automatically matches samples and a rape task force that would oversee and compare all attacks. “I asked Sheehan the way it was back then, and he said, ‘I just moved on to another six cases.’ There was no one in charge of looking. Now there is a whole rape task force. Now every new DNA sample goes into that database,” says Councilmember Peter Vallone Jr., head of the public safety committee that would demand procedural change.
The police investigative panel conceded a handful of errors that should have been better handled, and offered a few recommendations for perfunctory changes. One suggestion was to create adequate space to interrogate minors because rooms used now are too small. The report also said that a “management team” should have been created that night to handle a case with so many tentacles.
There is a canyon-sized gap between these recommendations and what advocates say must be done to avoid disaster. Perkins is lobbying for full videotaping of interrogations, instead of just short, taped confessions. Activists like Neufeld say there must be change in archaic rules on interrogation such as limiting lying to suspects and not using information given during police contact before they have been officially arrested. “The way they interrogate people creates a huge possibility that they are going to get false confessions,” Neufeld says.
Davis favors a further change in the questioning of minors. He feels that having a parent or guardian present is not enough. “There shouldn’t be any interrogation without a bona fide lawyer present, not just the parent,” says Davis. That parent may not have the knowledge necessary and the police may be able to talk circles around the parent’s head. So I’d like to see even more protection as far as having a lawyer present when any interrogation is done of a child.”
But change won’t be easy politically, Perkins says. “There is already resistance even within the council. The chairman is thinking [videotaping] handcuffs the police,” says Perkins. In fact, Vallone confirms his concern that videotaped interrogations will get good confessions “tossed out on technicalities.”
Looking at how little change has come out of past disasters like the Louima case doesn’t say much for what’s to come. “We still have the 48-hour rule. We still have residency issues. We still have situations where police are able to cover up without consequences. Bad police make it bad for good police,” Perkins says.
As for the final say in the Central Park jogger case, lawyers for the five young men are looking toward the civil suit to help bring out the truth of what happened in the interrogation rooms in the hours following the Central Park attack. According to Warren, “Reforms will come about only after we glean through the depositions in the discovery process what really occurred.”