One of the most shocking cases of wrongful conviction ever to occur in the United States happened in New York 23 years ago. It remains unresolved.
Five black and Hispanic teens were convicted of brutally attacking a white jogger in Central Park and leaving her for dead. The teens were sentenced to prison and served six to 13 years of their lives behind bars before the convictions were thrown out when evidence pointing to the real attacker came to light.
Indeed, as a new documentary by Ken Burns demonstrates, those five boys were surely innocent, cowed by police – who were themselves under intense pressure to solve the case – into making false confessions that sealed their fates. They have been out of prison for 11 years, but their lawsuit against the city remains unresolved.
That is nearly as shocking as the case, itself. Five young men are wrongfully ground up by the criminal justice system and more than a decade after their convictions were overturned, the state has not found a way to compensate them. The crime was shocking; the wrongful convictions were shocking; and the state’s refusal to atone is shocking. When will this case end?
While the crime and its reverberations occurred in New York City, this is a state issue. Felony trials are titled “The people of the State of New York” vs. the defendant, not New York City, not even just the state. These men were convicted in the name of the people of the state, and those people – all of us – have a moral obligation to offer redress, just as we did to the wrongfully convicted Buffalonians Anthony Capozzi and, belatedly, Lynn DeJac Peters.
The case is complicated – but not all that complicated – by the fact that there may have been no actual wrongdoing by police or prosecutors and, even if there had been, none that could be proved at this late date. That’s why this case needs to be settled out of court and, indeed, why it should have been settled many years ago.
There was no demonstrable wrongdoing in the rape case that ensnared Capozzi, either. Yet, the state compensated Capozzi for his suffering and it eventually did so for DeJac Peters, as well. Neither settlement took anything close to 11 years, the time that has passed since the convictions against Raymond Santana, Kevin Richardson, Antron McCray, Yusef Salaam and Korey Wise were thrown out.
Those were different days in New York City. Crime seemed rampant and racial strife permeated the culture. Even the best cops must have felt, at least sometimes, a sense of futility. But while those factors may help to explain how it was so easy to convict these five young men, it does nothing to excuse it. New York needs to make this right.
The state also needs to reform its criminal justice procedures to guard against wrongful convictions, but it hasn’t done that, either. In particular, the problems of witness misidentification and false confession need to be addressed. There are ways to do that. Other states – even Texas – have taken steps to fix their broken systems. New York hasn’t.
PBS will broadcast Ken Burns’ “The Central Park Five” at 9 p.m. April 16. It’s a disturbing film that all New Yorkers should see.