For about a decade Michael Bloomberg’s administration fought the Central Park Five wrongful imprisonment lawsuits. When Bill de Blasio campaigned to replace Bloomberg as mayor, he vowed to end the fight and reach a “swift settlement” with the men. Then he took office and months went by and there was no settlement.
But then, last week, near the end of de Blasio’s sixth month in office, the New York Times broke the news: the five and the city reached a $40 million settlement.
On Thursday, the city’s offer became official. City Comptroller Scott Stringer approved the agreement, and the proposal can now go before a judge for a final ruling.
“In my judgment, this settlement is a prudent and equitable solution for all parties to the lawsuit and closes a very difficult chapter in our city’s history,” Stringer said in a statement.
Lawyers for the Central Park Five have told multiple news outlets that the settlement total is actually $41 million. The total corresponds to about $1 million for every year each man spent behind bars. Kharey Wise served about 13 years. Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana, and Yusef Salaam each spent about seven years in prison.
The five men were teenagers in 1989 when they were arrested for beating and raping Trisha Meili, who had been jogging through Central Park. It was a high-profile crime that captured the essence of the city’s fear: the bad elements from bad neighborhoods attacking respectable citizens in respectable areas. In addition to the rape, there had been multiple reports of assaults and muggings throughout the park that night.l
The boys were convicted largely on the basis of their confessions. They claimed that the confessions had been coerced. None of their DNA had been found at the scene.
Years later, a convicted rapist named Matias Reyes confessed to assaulting and raping Meili. Reyes’s DNA matched the DNA collected at the scene. In 2002 all of the Central Park Five were exonerated. The next year, they filed a $250 million civil rights lawsuit against the city.
The overturned conviction did not clear their names to all eyes, though. The prosecutor who oversaw the case, Linda Fairstein, continued to defend the convictions.
Last week, a Wall Street Journal article quoted two doctors who treated Meili and maintain that the medical evidence suggests that multiple people were involved in the attack. One doctor said that she recalled seeing several hand marks. The second doctor said that a laceration on Meili appeared to have been caused by a knife or razor, even though Reyes confessed to using only a tree branch. (As columnist Jim Dwyer has pointed out, others doctors, including the city’s chief medial examiner, have said that it was not possible to determine how many people were involved in the attack based on the injuries.)
The Bloomberg administration did not claim that the five men were guilty, but rather it argued that the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office had probable cause to prosecute them. It also defended the confessions, stating that two judges had ruled that they had not been coerced.
The city’s last high-profile wrongful imprisonment settlement was with David Ranta. Ranta spent 23 years in prison after getting convicted of murdering a rabbi during a robbery attempt. Stringer approved a $6.4 million settlement offer before Ranta had even completed the steps to file suit.
Wise’s slice of the settlement, expected to be $13 million, will stand as the most money the city has ever given a person for a wrongful imprisonment.
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