Content note: Sexual assault, violence, racism.
The Central Park Five are the five men who were wrongfully convicted for the 1989 rape of a jogger in Central Park. A few weeks ago I wrote about the Central Park Five for the Guardian. It’s a heartbreaking case — the jogger barely survived the attack, and suffered enormous physical trauma. The city was enraged and hungry for a conviction. Donald Trump put out a “bring back the death penalty” ad in response to the crime. Five black and Latino boys were interrogated for hours and deprived of sleep until they confessed; once actually arrested and charged with the crime, they recanted. Racial tensions boiled, with racist caricatures of of-color youth going “wilding,” prowling the streets in a “wolf pack” for innocent white victims proliferating in the white-dominated media. While the woman was generally treated as an innocent victim, even she didn’t totally escape victim-blaming — writing about this case even 20 years later inevitably leads to many people asking, “Why was she jogging in Central Park late at night? What did she think was going to happen?”
(Answer: At the time the assault happened, Central Park was actually significantly statistically safer in terms of violent crime than many of the areas around it).
Here’s my summary:
More than 20 years ago, the Central Park jogger rape case roiled New York City, stoking racial tensions and fanning the flames of widespread fear and frustration with pervasive crime and violence. The jogger, a 28-year-old investment banker, was raped and brutally beaten; she barely survived. A group of five black and Latino teenage boys was implicated in the crime. Four of the five confessed on videotape. The boys later recanted, but were all convicted. The media storm around the crime and the trial latched onto the narrative of roving gangs of kids from the projects going “wilding”, attacking unsuspecting victims in the park and robbing them, beating them or worse.
More than a decade later, DNA evidence and the confession of the man tied to it proved the innocence of the “Central Park Five”. They were released from prison and saw their convictions vacated. Three of the five – now men who spent much of their adult lives in prison – filed a lawsuit against the city in 2003.
This case is interesting for a lot of reasons, but especially because it shines a light on coercive interrogation tactics. Most of us think that an admission of guilt is the most air-tight evidence aside from DNA. Who would ever admit to a crime they didn’t commit? But it’s not that simple:
The Central Park jogger case is particularly compelling because it flies in the face of what we believe to be common sense about criminal convictions. A confession, it would seem, is the most ironclad proof of guilt: why would anyone in their right mind confess to a crime they didn’t commit? How could five boys all confess to the same crime if they weren’t actually responsible?
What Law & Order and whodunit thrillers won’t tell you is that false confessions are startlingly common. According to the Innocence Project, 25% of innocent defendants who were exonerated with DNA evidence made incriminating statements or full-on confessions. A disproportionate number of those who falsely confess are mentally challenged or have mental health problems; children and adolescents also routinely fail to understand their rights during a police interrogation. And false confessions are, sadly, an American tradition: even back in 1692, 50 different women “confessed” to witchcraft in the Salem witch trials.
Police officers want to get the bad guy, but too often they pick what they believe to be the most plausible story and ratchet the facts into it. By the time the police are interrogating a subject, they’ve determined that the person is probably guilty of the crime. The goal of the interrogation isn’t to learn the truth: it’s to solidify guilt.
That viewpoint lends itself to a mentality where coercive interrogation techniques are justified. Most of the techniques that police officers use are legal – lying to the arrestee, falsely claiming there’s evidence implicating him, deceiving him, intimidating him, minimizing the crime and its potential consequences to make a confession seem like an easy out. One of the most troubling coercive tactics is intentional sleep deprivation, to make a suspect more psychologically susceptible to suggestion. Sleep deprivation may sound relatively benign, but it’s been widely used as a powerful instrument of torture. Depriving a person of sleep removes their ability to think and act coherently. They have delusions and hallucinations, and the desire for sleep becomes so desperate that a person deprived of it will often do almost anything for reprieve – including, as happened in the Central Park case, admitting to murder.
We know significantly more about the dangers of coercive interrogation techniques now than we did a few decades ago, but investigators and criminal law experts have long warned of the consequences of relying on such techniques. New York City chose to disregard those warnings until very, very recently (the city now has some stop-gaps to try to prevent coercive interrogations; they’re far from perfect, but they are a start). The Central Park case highlights the damage done by relying on coercive techniques — five innocent men spent much of their lives in prison, and a woman who barely survived a brutal assault had to undergo the trauma of realizing that the men convicted of raping her weren’t actually the ones who did it. To top it off, the man who actually did commit the Central Park Rape — a man who was eventually tied to the crime through DNA evidence — was a brutal serial rapist who had assaulted several women and his own mother before the Central Park Jogger, and went on to assault at least one more woman, the details of which are so horrific I’m not going to type them here, but you can click over to the Guardian piece if you want to know more.
In the Times today, several commentators debate whether the Central Park Five should be compensated by the City of New York for their false convictions.
I know that the district attorney concluded that “there is a probability that the new evidence … would have resulted in verdicts more favorable to the defendants.” But whatever doubts he had about the case, I know he never declared the defendants to be innocent. I know that he did not find that the prosecutors and police officers involved in the original investigation had acted improperly, and that they deny engaging in misconduct.
If the city’s police deliberately and wrongfully harm individuals by violating their rights, the city must accept responsibility and pay damages. But if defendants who were not involved in a crime are mistakenly convicted by a jury as a result of the efforts of police and prosecutors who were acting in good faith, the city should not pay for a mistaken result. When Robert M. Morgenthau, the former district attorney, had a doubt about the convictions, he took action. But, contrary to the view that, unfortunately, is becoming a norm in our society, not every bad thing that happens makes someone entitled to recompense by the government. Absent proof of intentional wrongdoing by the city’s agents, the city should not pay.
Was there intentional wrongdoing insofar as the police and prosecutors knew that the confessions were false? Probably not. Given their positions, did they know (or should they have known) that the interrogation techniques used were faulty, and that there was a good chance the confessions were false, and the total lack of physical evidence (including DNA from someone else) meant that the case wasn’t nearly well enough established, and that the media circus and city-wide anger did not create an environment conducive to a fair trial? Yeah.
The Central Park Five deserve justice. But more importantly, police departments and prosecutors offices around the country need to take a good hard look at this case, and realize it’s a high-profile version of a situation that happens over and over and over — that there are many people in prison right now (and some who have been executed) who didn’t commit the crimes of which they were convicted. Our justice system only works if its agents perform the role of justice-seeks — not vengeance-seekers, not conviction-getters. And unfortunately, it’s been proven time and again that those agents aren’t going to do t hat on their own. Police departments need to institute comprehensive measures and rules that regulate interrogations; police departments should also videotape interrogations fully, and should abide by Miranda rules (ideally, they would go beyond the Miranda rules and abandon coercive tactics).
This case is a tragedy, and an avoidable one. But it seems like the city, and police departments across the country, have learned very little.
- The painful lessons of the Central Park Five and the jogger rape case by Jill October 5, 2012
- Man Arraigned In Rape Case Where DNA Cleared Another Man by Marcella Chester July 21, 2008
- The Ethics of Outing Your Rapist by Jill November 9, 2012
- Rape: the sinister blame game by Cara February 16, 2010
- False Rape Investigation Model: Between Belief And Disbelief by Marcella Chester July 24, 2008