While a judge yesterday finally approved the $41 million settlement for the five men who were wrongfully convicted of the 1989 rape and beating of a female jogger in Central Park, New York City went to remarkable lengths to absolve the police and prosecutors of any blame in the miscarriage of justice.
As noted in published reports, while it is customary for the city to deny liability when it settles lawsuits, this time the city went much further than usual.
Considering that the five men lost years of their lives in prison—four of them spent seven years in prison while the fifth spent 13 years—the case is a remarkable illustration of how far American institutions like the criminal justice system will go to protect their own, even faced with the clear evidence of obvious wrongdoing. It is a relevant lesson for the Black community as the nation waits to see what, if anything, will happen to Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson for killing unarmed teen Michael Brown last month.
The terms of the agreement grant the five men about $1 million for each year of their imprisonment. But the agreement explicitly asserts that prosecutors and police detectives did nothing wrong at the time.
“The City of New York has denied and continues to deny that it and the individually named defendants have committed any violations of law or engaged in any wrongful acts concerning or related to any allegations that were or could have been alleged,” the settlement states.
In an interview with the New York Times, Zachary W. Carter, the city’s corporation counsel, said the agreement “should not be construed as an acknowledgment that the convictions of these five plaintiffs were the result of law enforcement misconduct.”
“On the contrary,” he continued, “our review of the record suggests that both the investigating detectives and the assistant district attorneys involved in the case acted reasonably, given the circumstances with which they were confronted.”
Given the details of the case, that is a rather mind-boggling statement.
When it first happened, the brutality of the case served as an ugly symbol of rampant crime and out-of-control urban youths in the 1980s. Then when it was proven by DNA evidence in 2002 that the jogger Trisha Meili—a 28-year-old investment banker—had actually been assaulted by murderer and serial rapist Matias Reyes, it became an illustration of police and prosecutorial misconduct, and the difficulty for young men of color to be treated fairly.
The young men—Korey Wise, Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana and Yusef Salaam—maintained their innocence throughout the ordeal, claiming police railroaded them into making incriminating statements against themselves and each other. At the time, the city’s newspapers howled for arrests, then-Mayor Ed Koch called it “the crime of the century,” and real-estate mogul Donald Trump took out ads calling for the return of the death penalty. Not many wanted to hear the story of the young men.
Though they were only 14, 15 and 16, the teens were tried as adults and convicted, despite inconsistent and inaccurate confessions, DNA evidence that excluded them, and no eyewitness accounts that connected them to the jogger.
Rev. Al Sharpton, who suffered a heap of abuse for standing by them after they were arrested, told the New York Daily News when the settlement was first announced in June, “We took a lot of abuse. The toll on these men and their supporters was terrible. I want to know we have things in place so that this doesn’t happen again.”
“I’m happy for them, but you know… money doesn’t give them those years back. It doesn’t give them their youth back,” Sharpton added.
Ken Burns, who co-directed the 2012 documentary “The Central Park Five” that dramatically illustrated the outrageous way the five boys were treated by the system, tweeted back in June, “Tonight, I see five young boys resting proudly on the shoulders of five grown men. A long time coming my friends.”
Mayor Bill de Blasio said in a statement that the settlement arose from “a moral obligation to right this injustice.”
“This settlement is an act of justice for those five men that is long overdue,” he added.
The $12.25 million to be received by Korey Wise, who spent 13 years in prison, will amount to the largest settlement for a wrongful conviction case in New York City history.
Jonathan C. Moore, a lawyer for one of the plaintiffs, said it was “wonderful this case is finally over for these young men, who maintained their innocence all along.” He said the settlement was “some measure of justice, and nobody would deny that, but no amount of money could really compensate them for what they and their families suffered.”
“After more than a decade in which numerous parties have investigated and litigated the case, there has been no finding of wrongdoing or unprofessional behavior by any of the prosecutors involved,” said current district attorney Cyrus R. Vance Jr.
If there was no finding of wrongdoing or unprofessional behavior, meaning all the city employees acted like they were supposed to, the city is tacitly acknowledging that the same level of injustice could easily happen to another group of young Black and Hispanic males—and we shouldn’t be surprised when it does. In other words, we shouldn’t expect the city’s criminal justice to treat Black and Hispanic boys fairly.