(This is the first of two posts about the "Central Park Jogger" case.)
A bit more time has passed, and I’ve done a bit more reading. So here are some thoughts on the case.
Despite my initial reaction, we don’t know that the 5 teens who were convicted are innocent. We do know that Matias Reyes is guilty – but police have said all along that DNA evidence showed that there was one more rapist who hadn’t been caught. It’s possible that what took place was a gang-rape involving the five convicted teens and Reyes. (Reyes has said he acted alone, but the word of a murderer and multiple rapist isn’t absolute proof).
Furthermore, the essential finding of the DNA evidence – that there was a rapist besides the six people arrested – was known in 1989. Even in the 1989 police version of events, some of the defendants contributed to the rape by holding the victim down and "fondling" her – still legally rape (and rightly so), but not something that would leave semen behind. Despite the new evidence, at least one of the original jurors still believes the guilty verdicts were correct (Newsday, September 6 2002).
But we don’t know that they’re guilty, either. And a presumption of innocence should go in favor of the accused. And I’m not convinced the prosecutors ever had an open-and-shut case:
- Even back in 1990, based on the evidence that existed then, one of the jurors – Ronald Gold – nearly hung the jury based on disbelief in Antron McCray’s videotaped confession. According to a report in Manhattan Lawyer (October 1990), based on interviews with the jurors, Mr. Gold wanted to report a hung jury, but had his mind changed when George Louie essentially screamed at him. (I’m reading between the lines – the article refers to Mr. Louie’s "shear vehemence" and quotes another juror saying Mr. Louie "raised hell" and "stunned us all"). Gold gave in and voted to convict, but other jurors said he just "capitulated out of exhaustion," and Gold later said he felt terrible about his guilty vote.
- Only one of the six defendants’ lawyer – Kharey Wise’s lawyer – pressed the issue of racism and coercion at the trial as strongly as possible (American Lawyer, Jan/Feb 1991), "arguing that the six black and Latino youths charged with the crime had been framed by racists in the police department and the Manhattan district attorney’s office." Although the mainstream press criticized the legal strategy for being "divisive," the jury was convinced – Wise was the only defendant to be acquitted of rape.
- There’s no evidence that these five teens are guilty other than their confessions. (The victim has no memories of the rape, and there were no important eyewitness accounts – which makes Mark Kleiman’s statement that "The basic problem is that Anglo-Saxon law relies on witnesses, and witnesses aren’t really very reliable," although true in general, wrong applied to this case). Reyes’ claim that he acted alone is what has brought their confessions into doubt.
But even without Reyes’ statement, the confessions are dubious. Raymond Santana, for instance, confessed after being held and interrogated more than 24 hours (LA Times, July 27 1990), after which he probably would have confessed on video to being Jack the Ripper if he thought it would please his interrogators. And after an ordeal like that, that the parents – who didn’t even know enough to demand a lawyer – were present for the videotaping at the end isn’t a meaningful protection.
- The fact is, what the teens describe in their confessions isn’t what actually happened. From Newsday, July 27 1990:
McCray, for instance, talks on his videotape about attacking a female who was jogging around the Central Park reservoir. But, the 30-year-old investment banker was discovered in a ravine off the 102nd Street cross-drive.
The youths also said on their tapes that the woman was neither bound nor gagged when they attacked her. But two medical experts testified that the female jogger’s mouth was gagged and her neck nearly strangled by her own bloody jogging shirt, tied like a rope twice around her. The woman, they said, was found near death in the early morning hours of April 20.
The timing of events is also unclear. The prosecution contends that the attack on the female jogger came in between attacks on other joggers and bicyclists. But Santana, in his statement, says her assault came last.
- The police lied to trick the defendants into confessing (which is legal in New York). The defendants were told, falsely, that fingerprints were found on the scene; that other defendants had already implicated them; that a conviction was a sure thing. It’s possible that innocent boys, believing they were doomed anyway, would confess in hopes of leniency – "it’ll go easier on you if you just confess."
Yusef Salaam, for instance, denied being present at the rape at all, until Detective Thomas McKenna told him that Salaam’s fingerprints had been found on the victim’s tights (Newsday, July 25 1990). Maybe, as Detective McKenna believed, Salaam was guilty and confessed because (he thought) the police had him dead to rights. Or maybe Salaam was innocent, exhausted and scared, and confessed because (he thought) it didn’t matter what he said because he’d be convicted anyway.
Jason, writing in the comments at Negroplease, summed it up better than I can:
- It’s useful to keep in mind that the defendants were young, poorly-educated, and – there’s no nice way to put this – stupid. Although the judge didn’t allow it, lawyers for the defendants wanted to show the jury IQ tests to make this point (Toronto Star, June 27 1990). Would smart, innocent people have confessed? Probably not – but these were not smart people.
(You could argue that IQ tests are culturally biased in favor of white people. I admit, you might be right, in which case my use of the word "stupid" is wrong and perhaps offensive. BUT – it makes no substantive difference to my argument here. Whether IQ tests measure intelligence, or whether they measure the ability to understand and respond correctly to white-biased cultural institutions, in either case someone who scores very low on an IQ test is ill-suited for protecting their best interests in a police interrogation. If the cops aren’t a white-biased cultural institution, after all, what the hell is?)
- Guilty or not, it seems likely that – had Reyes’ confession and DNA evidence been available at the time – more of the defendants, or perhaps all of them, would have been acquitted.
- Guilty or not, if the defendants – or their parents – had known enough to insist on a lawyer, they wouldn’t have been convicted. Because no lawyer would have let them confess, and without the confessions the prosecution had no case. ("Along with resolving the case against the defendants, legal experts say the trial will delineate the legal pitfalls that often confront poor people accused of crime and the legal protections readily available to better-off suspects who know their rights and can afford a lawyer to protect them." – NY Times, June 11 1990).
And, of course, they would have had a much better chance of being well-educated if they hadn’t been poor. And they would have had a much better chance of not being poor had they been white.
If I was walking through Central Park being an asshole teenage boy that could’ve been me. And at 14, 15, 16…hell, today, I don’t know how well I’m going to be standing up to Officers of the Law, Men and Women of Authority in their house telling me that I did some shit and they were going to prove that I did some shit and did I know that my friend already said that we did the shit together and I better start talking to or there’s going to be no more leniency and they are just trying to help a brotha out but a woman got raped and somebody’s got to pay and they know about niggas like me I was just out having a good time and shit got out of hand, I just saw this girl and she was jogging through central park and I was just going to take her purse but my friend, yeah, your friend, he was the one that wanted to rape her. In fact, I tried to stop him, see, that’s what we think happened. If that’s what you did then we’re sure that you can just go home. We know you’re tired, we’ve been talking about this for 15 hours. You’re just tired. You want your mother and you just want to go home right. Sign this right here and you can just go home. It’ll be over. All over.
Of course, there was not only racism but sexism involved in this case – particularly from some of the activists who felt the defendants were being railroaded. Kharey Wise’s lawyer questioned (insanely) if a rape had taken place at all, and also suggested that the guilty party might be the victim’s boyfriend, whom the victim was lying to protect. (The jury, who did convict Wise of assault, evidently didn’t buy this line of argument at all).
That was mild compared to what some non-lawyers were saying. According to Newsday (July 17 1990), "Some of the more vocal spectators denounced the defense lawyers for not questioning the jogger about her sexual activities around the time of the assault." From The Sunday Times, July 22 1990:
Some suggest the jogger was in the park looking to buy drugs; others say she was raped by her white boyfriend. One black woman last week even claimed that the police photographs were fakes. ”That wasn’t pictures of the jogger. That was just some corpse they got for the case,” she announced.
The low point of this type of behaviour occurred when the jogger left the courthouse. Several black women surrounded the police van carrying her away and shouted: ”She’s a prostitute, she’s a whore, she’s part of it.”
The fact that some of their most vocal defenders were asshole misogynists doesn’t show that the defendants were guilty or innocent, of course. I guess I’m just mentioning it because it seems to have been largely forgotten (the only person I’ve seen mention this element is a poster on the Ms Magazine discussion boards), and it shouldn’t be.
No related posts.