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Struggle for justice by ‘Central Park 5’ culminates in $40 million settlement

June 20, 2014 at 6:29 PM EDT
New York City will pay $40 million to five black and Latino men who 25 years ago were wrongly convicted of raping and beating a woman in Central Park. Their conviction was vacated in 2002, but it took until now to close the book on the decade-long civil rights lawsuit. Jeffrey Brown talks to Craig Steven Wilder of Massachusetts Institute of Technology for more on the legacy of the infamous crime.
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TRANSCRIPT

JUDY WOODRUFF: New York City has reportedly agreed to its largest settlement ever in a civil rights case, a story that captured the country’s attention in the late 1980s, following a heinous attack on a woman in Central Park, and one that inflamed racial tensions in the city and added to a perception of lawlessness.

New York will make the payments to five men who were wrongly convicted and came to be known as the Central Park Five.

Jeffrey Brown has the story, beginning with more background.

JEFFREY BROWN: The $40 million settlement comes 25 years after one of the most sensationalized crimes in New York City’s history.

In 1989, passersby found the nearly lifeless body of a white 28-year-old woman, much later identified as Trisha Meili, in a wooded area of Central Park. She had been raped, beaten, and left for dead while jogging. She was in a coma for 12 days.

Five black and Latino defendants, all between 14 and 16, were arrested and portrayed by police and in the media as part a marauding and wilding pack of youths who rampaged through the park that night. The five were convicted on a series of charges related to the assault, and served sentences ranging from seven to 13 years.

But lawyers argued there was a lack of physical evidence linking the five to the crime, and that the convictions were based almost entirely on coerced written and videotaped confessions like this one.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: What happened when you charged her?

ANTRON MCCRAY: We charged her. And, like, we got her on the ground. And everybody started hitting her and stuff.

JEFFREY BROWN: Then, in 2002, convicted murderer and serial rapist Matias Reyes told police he had been the rapist. DNA evidence confirmed his claim.

MAN: The motion is granted.

Everyone, have a very merry Christmas, happy new year.

(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

JEFFREY BROWN: Later that year, a New York State Supreme Court judge vacated the earlier convictions.

Today’s agreement could close the book on the decade-long civil rights lawsuit brought against the police and prosecutors for wrongful arrest amid a racially motivated conspiracy. The city, under Mayor Michael Bloomberg, fought the suit for years. But new Mayor Bill de Blasio pledged to — quote — “right this injustice.”

In 2012, filmmaker Ken Burns, with his daughter Sarah and her husband, David McMahon, released a documentary chronicling the crime and its aftermath.

In this excerpt, two of those convicted, Raymond Santana and Kevin Richardson, described how police turned them against one another.

RAYMOND SANTANA: And I’m like, “I didn’t do anything.” And he’s like, “Well, this is why I’m here to help you, because I know you didn’t do anything. You’re a good kid. You know, this isn’t you.”

He pulls out this picture of Kevin Richardson, and he goes, “You know this kid?” And I’m like, “No, I don’t know him.”  And he goes, “You see the scratch under his eye? That came from the woman. We know he did it. He’s going down.”

KEVIN RICHARDSON: At this point, I’m like, you know, like, I don’t know these guys that’s there, so I’m just going to make up something and include these guys’ names.

RAYMOND SANTANA: OK, if you know, if you’re going to do it to me, then I’m going to do it to you.

KEVIN RICHARDSON: They was coaching me, and I was writing it down.

RAYMOND SANTANA: He just fed it to me. “Well, what did he do? What did Antron McCray do?” He gave me the names. I put them in. I couldn’t tell you who they were, who they looked like. If he would have gave me 100 names, I would have put 100 people at the crime scene.

JEFFREY BROWN: And we’re joined now by Craig Steven Wilder, a professor of urban American history at MIT who followed the kids closely and was featured in the documentary.

Well, welcome to you.

Can you take us back, first, take us back in time? How and why did this become such a huge event in the history of the city?

CRAIG STEVEN WILDER, Massachusetts Institute of Technology: I think there are multiple factors that informed why this became such an important event, both in New York City and nationally.

I think New Yorkers white and black had by the 1980s certainly come to fear that the police and the prosecutors were unable to protect them. In a three-month period in 1984, there was a horrific police brutality case. Eleanor Bumpurs, an elderly black woman, was shot to death by the police department.

And three months later, Bernie Goetz, actually the vigilante subway shooter, emerged on the scene, and both of those events in that roughly three-month period actually captured the extent to which New Yorkers feared both crime and also doubted the capacity of the police and the prosecutors to protect them in that moment.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes. So, that was followed by many, many years of a long legal battle, first over what happened that night in the park, and that case was overturned, and then this long legal battle over what to do, the restitution process.

CRAIG STEVEN WILDER: Right. Right.

And you have, you know, a young white woman, well-educated, investment banker, Trisha Meili, perfectly innocent, jogging in Central Park, brutally assaulted and left for dead. The police round up multiple, in fact, dozens of black and brown young men began to in fact release the story that they had the culprit.

And from that point on, they were on a track, they resisted, in fact, the facts. They had created blinders to the facts and they had presented the public with an — there was just tremendous pressure for the police to actually be able to resolve this case.

There was tremendous pressure for the prosecutors to bring it to closure. And once they actually announced that they had the culprits, it was difficult to backtrack from that point on. And so we end up in a situation in which basically a group of young men, a group of children were actually turned into — turned over to the prosecution, tried as adults, and eventually tossed into adult men’s prisons.

JEFFREY BROWN: After the case was overturned, then was the second legal struggle that culminates today.

The city resisted that as well for a long time as well. And I think the argument — and, tell me — the argument was that, yes, it was a wrongful conviction, but, no, it wasn’t done purposefully.

CRAIG STEVEN WILDER: Right.

I think the city’s position has been that they couldn’t find evidence of an intentional, willful violation of the rights of the five boys, now young men, who were prosecuted at that time. And we also have to remember that when this case unfolded, when it began to unravel in 2002, the police department was allowed to investigate itself at that point and to declare itself innocent.

JEFFREY BROWN: What has happened to the five men?

CRAIG STEVEN WILDER: You know, I have met four of the five.

I spent time with them and their families. And the one thing I’m really quite pleased with today is, I hope that this settlement actually starts to bring them and their families, their parents, their children, their spouses some sense of resolution and vindication.

I think it’s also an important moment in the history of New York City, because we also need to look back at that moment. We need to look back at the Central Park case and its aftermath and really hold ourselves accountable and our public institutions accountable. And I hope this is the beginning of that process.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, one wonders, does this end the case? Or in what ways are any of these issues still with us today?

CRAIG STEVEN WILDER: Oh, I don’t think it ends the case that all. The reality is that, in the aftermath of the Central Park case, almost every state in the United States passed laws making it easier to try children as adults.

We moved thousands and thousands of children into the adult criminal system. By the mid-1990s, we had reached a peak in the number of children being tried as adults. And much of that was actually flamed by the furor over the Central Park case. That lives with us today. That legacy lives with us today.

JEFFREY BROWN: But the city — the city, at least, has resolved it, it’s part of it?

CRAIG STEVEN WILDER: The city’s resolved its part with the five young men who were wrongfully convicted.

But, in fact, there’s a lot of work left to do. You know, I think the era of aggressive policing, extensive incarceration periods, et cetera, is not over. Mass incarceration is actually continuing to destroy families and communities. And that actually still has to be addressed. We actually have a lot of work to do in our criminal justice system today.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Craig Steven Wilder, thank you so much.

CRAIG STEVEN WILDER: Thank you.