Mayor Bill de Blasio acted in the interest of justice when his administration agreed to pay about $40 million to the five black and Hispanic men wrongly convicted in the brutal beating and rape of a white, female jogger in Central Park in 1989. If the settlement is approved by the city comptroller and a federal court, it will bring to a close one of the more shameful and racially divisive episodes in New York City history.
The assault, which stunned New Yorkers, came at a time of deep anxiety about urban crime that pervaded not just the city but the nation as a whole. New York City itself was still recovering from the insolvency of the previous decade and reeling from the crack wars, which had desolated neighborhood after neighborhood.
Against this dismal backdrop came a report that a large group of teenagers who were roaming Central Park, assaulting runners and throwing rocks at a taxicab, had raped and beaten a young jogger who ran regularly in the park. The group was quickly seized upon as the embodiment of urban barbarism.
Five teenagers, ages 14 to 16, were convicted despite an absence of legitimate physical evidence tying them to the crime scene. In their confessions, the suspects disagreed sharply with one another on virtually all of the specifics of the crime — including who struck, raped or held down the victim. The young men acknowledged being in the park that night. But they maintained their innocence, claiming that their confessions had been coerced by the police, and a timeline indicated they had been elsewhere in the park when the attack occurred.
In 2002, a serial rapist and killer who had committed a similar assault 48 hours before the attack on the jogger came forward to admit to the crime, maintaining that he had acted alone. An exhaustive investigation by the Manhattan district attorney, Robert Morgenthau, substantiated the man’s story — noting that his DNA had been found at the scene — and pointed to defects in the original investigation. The convictions were vacated. But by then the five teenagers — Kharey Wise, Kevin Richardson, Antron McCray, Yusef Salaam and Raymond Santana Jr. — had lost their young lives to prison terms that ranged from seven and a half years to, in the case of Mr. Wise, about 13 years.
“The assault, which stunned New Yorkers, came at a time of deep anxiety about urban crime that pervaded not just the city but the nation as a whole. New York City itself was still recovering from the insolvency of the previous decade and reeling from the crack wars, which had desolated neighborhood after neighborhood.”
I remember those times well. As frightening and anxiety-inducing as they were, the purpose of a criminal justice system is to follow rules that are not based on emotion, but on facts, science, and the law.
For all of the advances we’ve seen in the areas of tech and biotech, we still convict all too many innocent people, for decades. Just in the last year, there have been too many men who were found innocent of crimes they were convicted of, decades later. While they too will eventually reach a financial settlement, like the Central Park Five, those settlements will never repay them what we, society, robbed them of.
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Curated from www.nytimes.com