It has been nine years since the Central Park 5 filed federal Civil Rights lawsuits against the city of New York and its police department. Plaintiffs are convicted Black and Latino men who seek financial compensation for false arrests, unjust convictions and lengthy incarcerations for crimes they didn’t commit.
The young men, who have never even gotten an apology, want to see a correction of this great miscarriage of justice.
Despite lack of physical or DNA evidence placing them at the crime scene, the youth were arrested, indicted and convicted in a New York State Supreme Court of gang-raping and brutally beating a 28-year-old white investment banker in the park in April 1989.
Yusef Salaam, Kharey Wise, Kevin Richardson, Ramond Santana and Antron McCray, then 14 to 16 years old, were sentenced to five to 15 years incarceration. Each served seven- to 13-year terms in adult maximum-security prisons before they were exonerated and their 1990 convictions overturned in 2002.
Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau was forced to reopen this case in 2002, when Matias Reyes, an imprisoned, convicted rapist, confessed to raping and beating the victim. DNA evidence identified him.
1989: Police coerced confessions
After their arrests, the police interrogated and intimidated the five youth for up to 30 hours, coercing them to confess and plead guilty to crimes they didn’t commit. Their parents were kept away during the questioning.
The media rushed to judgment and found them “guilty.” Several New York newspapers called the youth a “wolf pack” and “savage kids,” who were “wilding.” This shows the racism of the corporate media, which often does not believe Black people are innocent and insists on punishment, even without evidence.
Real estate mogul Donald Trump paid $85,000 for full-page ads in four newspapers, headlined “Bring Back the Death Penalty” — for minors in a non-murder case! Trump’s ads helped foster a divisive, racist and hostile environment in New York before the trial. His incendiary language contributed to injustice for the youth. It also resulted in many new state laws allowing juveniles to be tried and jailed as adults.
This case is reminiscent of the history of racist mistreatment, aggression, violence and murder in the U.S. by white racists, police and the criminal justice system. Race has long been a factor in justice being denied or delayed. Demonization of Black suspects is routine, even when charges are false. African Americans have been arrested, prosecuted and convicted of crimes they did not commit, jailed without evidence or probable cause, and sentenced to lengthy imprisonments.
Inadequate legal representation is rampant. Violations of defendants’ constitutional rights are commonplace, especially when the victims are white. When crime victims are Black and suspects are white, courts often recommend leniency or dismissal of charges.
Blacks and Latinos/as have been targeted and framed up; entire communities stereotyped, profiled, criminalized or destroyed. Today, police shootings of Black men have become routine, while the criminal justice system continues legal lynchings.
2012: City still denies justice
The city of New York has so far refused to settle the plaintiffs’ lawsuits, claiming that the charges brought against them were based on probable cause, including the confessions, in full and fair pretrial hearings and two lengthy trials.
In 2010, Councilperson Charles Barron sponsored Resolution 81, calling for New York City to monetarily compensate the families for the youths’ wrongful accusation, arrest and incarceration; it also requested a Council hearing. Barron stressed that the men should be compensated without trial, since the best years of their lives were stolen and financial devastation was brought on their families.
Barron suggested that the city won’t settle with the youth because it would expose the abuses of the criminal justice system and force the administration to address police coercion and convictions of innocent people without evidence. Additionally, the judge and jury would be seen as racist and incompetent.
Supporters of the Central Park 5 packed a Manhattan courtroom on Sept. 24 for a status conference on the lawsuits. Attending were Raymond Santana and Kharey Wise, two of the exonerated men.
Judge Ronald Ellis has presided over the long fight for restitution for these wrongful convictions. At last month’s status conference, the judge ordered city attorneys to give plaintiffs’ lawyers previously requested “missing” documents and records of two detectives who helped erroneously convict the innocent teens. Ellis set a deadline for producing the records and stressed getting the case ready for trial in a timely manner. His decision will be based on a 2002 affidavit regarding the district attorney’s investigation.
The defendant is the police department. The cops’ credibility and a possible cover-up remain in question. They are yet to be deposed.
The judge will determine which requested documents are relevant and confidential. He said information regarding the detectives’ character is appropriate grounds for producing the documents. All parties are to return to court on Oct. 29. The lawsuits are still in the discovery phase, and any trials appear to be months away.
On Nov. 23, a documentary film shown at the Cannes Film Festival, entitled “The Central Park Five,” will be shown in New York theaters. Based on a book by Sarah Burns, it alleges that racism played a significant role in the arrests. The film was written, directed and produced by Burns; her spouse, David McMahon; and her father, filmmaker Ken Burns, who wants the film to move the city to settle this lawsuit.
However, the city just subpoenaed Ken Burns’ film production company, Florentine Films, demanding unpublished interviews and unreleased film footage about the case. Ken Burns refuses to comply. In a letter to the NYC Law Department, his attorney, John Siegal, states that the filmmakers’ ability to make films about matters of public interest would be compromised by complying with the subpoena. Further, the letter asserts the filmmakers’ intent to invoke their legal rights and withhold unpublished materials the city seeks.
Meanwhile, the Central Park 5 are still seeking justice.