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Arts & Entertainment

"The Central Park Five"

"The Central Park Five" (+)
January 15, 2013
This Ken Burns documentary includes television footage taken in 1989 when police officers in Central Park arrested one Latino and four black juveniles for allegedly raping and assaulting a jogger. It also contains statements made by the youths at the time, claims of supporters alleging they were innocent, demands of some for swift prosecution of the young men referred to in some papers as a wolf pack, and the comments of others made before and after the five were subsequently freed.
"Wilding" was the term used by the youths to describe their activities in Central Park that night.
In one clip of me in the film, I refer to the incident as "the crime of the century," which it was in terms of interest around the world. All five received prison terms ranging from 5-10 years or 5-15 years. Each was convicted on evidence consisting solely of confessions made to the cops and to the District Attorney's office. Their confessions were made while their parents were standing by and available to their children. Further, a judge has found in a lengthy decision that the confessions were made voluntarily.
After sentencing and during the incarceration of the youths, one of them, Kharey Wise, met Matias Reyes. Reyes, a convicted rapist serving time for another crime, told his jailers that he raped the young woman in Central Park, not the convicted five. An examination of the DNA found in the jogger (sperm) established that Reyes had raped her. No DNA of the five youths was found on the jogger or her clothes.
The lawyers, based on the new evidence provided by Reyes, moved in court to free the youths. Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau, while not himself passing judgment on their guilt or innocence -- a jury having found them guilty - stated that he had a doubt with respect to their guilt. As everyone knows, guilt must be established beyond a reasonable doubt. Mr. Morgenthau acceded to the defendants' motion and the youths were freed.
The five men have now sued the City of New York for $250 million in the aggregate. The law concerning such suits is the following: the city is only liable if the police or any other city agency violated the Constitutional rights of the defendant. The reason is obvious. If the city does everything right, a jury finds for a defendant, and the law requires the city to pay damages, it could find itself unable to provide services. A huge amount would be removed from its operating budget which is used to pay the cost of services provided to all New Yorkers. There are many acquittals during the course of a year. The percentages vary in each of the boroughs.
Some will ask why there should ever be an acquittal in cases where a defendant confesses. The Innocence Project, which has represented a number of defendants it believed were wrongfully found guilty, has offered its opinion stating that "in about 25 percent of DNA exoneration cases, innocent defendants made incriminating statements, delivered outright confessions or pled guilty." Also, the Innocence Project provided some reasons for those false confessions: duress, coercion, intoxication, diminished capacity, mental impairment, ignorance of the law, fear of violence, the actual infliction of harm, the threat of a harsh sentence and misunderstanding the situation.
The film is superb. It provides a host of interesting interviews and undoubtedly caused many viewers to conclude that there was a miscarriage of justice. Supporters of the five men say the city should pay them damages. Each defendant in this case has asked for $50 million. I, like District Attorney Morgenthau, with less information than he had available to him, concluded after seeing the picture that there is a reasonable doubt and the defendants were rightfully freed.
I do not believe the city should simply give away its money, except pursuant to law. I do not believe the defendants will be able to establish that the city violated their Constitutional rights. So how can justice be achieved? The state has provided another remedy allowing a suit in these circumstances to be brought in the Court of Claims, where there is no jury. A judge makes the decision. Historically, those awards are far lower than in cases where juries make the awards.
There is a problem using this second route. That law provides that the plaintiff does have to establish that he did not by his own conduct cause or bring about his conviction. That generally means that if the plaintiff voluntarily confessed (albeit falsely) and/or pleaded guilty, for example, his claim could be barred.
These cases are very difficult. I believe the state should remove this provision, a form of Catch-22. It seems to me to be an unfair requirement, particularly in view of the Innocence Project finding that 25 percent of defendants freed as a result of DNA evidence have made incriminating statements, which under the law could ban them from being eligible for a monetary award as a result of their wrongful confinement.
As a result of this case, I believe the state legislature should correct the law, and the defendants should be allowed to immediately file their claims under that law. Let justice be served.
However, there are responsible people in the criminal justice system who believe not every injustice has a remedy or requires compensation from government. I believe wherever reasonably possible the government has a responsibility to eliminate injustice, level the playing field and assist those who are victims in our society. The city and state government should find a way to do so in this matter. The movie was produced, written and directed by Ken Burns, David McMahon and Sarah Burns. They deserve high praise for bringing the problem to light in such an interesting and provocative film.


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