The 1980s were a grievous time in inner-city America, as the new film “The Central Park Five” makes clear in a montage featuring, among other images, the subway vigilante Bernhard Goetz. Horrific crimes begat horrific injustices, and a sense of hysteria that played out along racial lines.
The 1989 case of “the Central Park jogger,” as the unnamed New York City rape victim was known, marked the height of outrage. But it’s useful to remember that Boston, too, had nationally infamous crimes, including the Carol Stuart murder. And the jogger case, like the Stuart murder, set off a painful rush to judgment. While Boston’s error was revealed when the brother of Carol Stuart’s husband, Charles, implicated him in the murder, New York secured a conviction against five teenagers, four of whom were black and one Hispanic, for brutally raping a 28-year-old white woman.
The case, as it turned out, was deeply flawed. After 13 years, DNA testing showed that the rape was committed by a man who had attacked numerous women on New York’s East Side in 1989. Manhattan’s district attorney, Robert Morgenthau, did the only honorable thing and voided the convictions. The boys, however, had each served long sentences and had their lives upended. Shockingly, New York has refused to settle a civil suit brought by three of them. A spokesman for the city’s corporation counsel was unrepentant, complaining instead that the filmmakers, including New Hampshire’s Ken Burns and his daughter Sarah, “have publicly sided with the plaintiffs and their families, who are seeking hundreds of millions from New York City.”
So what? City leaders have apparently resisted a settlement out of deference to the detectives in the case, who still maintain that the boys played some role in the rape. At first glance, such team loyalty might seem understandable. But a closer look suggests a more troubling motive. The great mystery of the jogger case was how the boys could have delivered cool, dispassionate confessions on videotape before loudly proclaiming their innocence. The answer seems to be that police questioned them over a long period, while alternating tough interrogations with sympathetic advice of the let’s-get-this-over-so-you-can-go-home variety. The boys, all between 14 and 16, thought the police were asking them to participate in a charade, to implicate others in exchange for their own freedom.
Whether or not the officers deliberately deceived the boys, or thought they were somehow ferreting out the truth, the police and prosecutors behaved wrongly. They blew the case. The actual rapist had been assaulting women before and after the jogger rape; someone should have made the link. The DNA evidence did not match the boys’, and their confessions didn’t match up with one another or the physical evidence.
What emerges from the film is an unsettling suspicion that this wasn’t an isolated instance — that this type of interrogation probably has yielded confessions from other suspects. Police and prosecutors may be correct in saying they didn’t deviate from procedure. If so, it makes it far more important that New York stop defending the investigation. City officials need to acknowledge their mistakes to avoid repeating them.
Sadly, it wasn’t just the police and prosecutors who rushed to judgment. New York media, politicians, and protest groups also piled on. Outrage plus hysteria plus bad information equals disaster, whether in Boston or Central Park. This story should be a lesson for all.