Last year, Fashion Institute of Technology, the State University college at which I’ve taught since 1989, screened The Hunting Ground, a controversial documentary about the plague of sexual assault on American campuses. The event was sponsored by a generous in-house diversity grant…because we take diverse viewpoints seriously at FIT. So much so that this month, via that same in-house diversity grant, we’ll be hosting the Central Park Five—five guys who, back when they were teenagers, chanced upon a female jogger in New York’s Central Park, beat and stomped her senseless, stripped her nearly naked, and sexually assaulted her.
Yes, they did.
That’s not the conclusion reached in the award-winning 2012 documentary The Central Park Five, which FIT will also screen at this month’s event, nor is it any longer the common perception of what occurred that gruesome night nearly three decades ago. Not after the five men’s convictions were dubiously vacated by a doddering 83-year-old district attorney in 2002. Not after their civil suit against the city was preposterously settled by a white-liberal-guilt besotted mayor for $41,000,000 in 2014. Ken and Sarah Burns, the father-daughter team who made the film, paint the Five as latter day Scottsboro Boys, innocent young men-of-color railroaded by a racist justice system to pay for crimes against a white woman.
Which makes the truth of their guilt exceptionally inconvenient.
First, a quick refresher: The Central Park Five—Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana, and Kharey Wise—ranged in age from 14 to 16 when they were charged with the brutal rape of Trisha Meili, a 28-year-old jogger, in New York’s Central Park on the night of April 19, 1989. They were also charged, along with 30-35 other black and Hispanic kids, in the random beatings of several other passersby in the park that night. Meili herself had no memory of the assault, and there was scant physical evidence tying any of the Five to the crime. But ethnically diverse juries convicted them of both the Meili rape and the other attacks in two separate 1990 trials—three of the Five in the first trial; the last two in the second—based primarily on their confessions, significant portions of which were videotaped. They served prison sentences ranging from six to 13 years.
However, in 2002, after most of their sentences had been completed, another man, Matias Reyes, admitted that he’d raped Meili and insisted that he’d acted alone. Reyes was a convicted rapist and murderer, already serving 33-years-to-life for other crimes, so he had little to lose by coming forward. He claimed he felt guilty that others had suffered for his crime. Skeptics have suggested that he sought notoriety—not for its own sake, but because famous prisoners are often transferred, for their protection, to more secure and hospitable prisons. (Reyes was, in fact, transferred.) Though his true motive for confessing may never be known, Reyes provided specific details consistent with both crime scenes associated with the jogger attack—the first, near the running path, where she was initially tackled, beaten, stripped, and sexually assaulted; and the second, the wooded area to which she was dragged, where she was bound and gagged with the remnants of her shirt, where her skull was crushed, where she lost most of the blood in her body, and where she was violently penetrated anally and vaginally. Subsequent DNA tests proved that Reyes had in fact raped Meili.
Based on the new information, DA Robert Morgenthau vacated the Fives’ convictions, not only for the rape of Meili but for the other attacks. Morgenthau’s rationale was that if Reyes’s confession had been known to the original juries, the teenagers’ confessions might have been discredited in their entireties, and the Five might have been acquitted on all charges.
Lawyers for the Five claimed during the trials, and the Five themselves continue to claim today, that those confessions were coached and coerced by detectives. This, indeed, is the main bone of contention among those who still debate the case. Except, once you’re acquainted with the evidence, there’s no real debate. Here are a few of their confession highlights:
Antron McCray: “We charged her. We got her on the ground. Everybody started hitting her and stuff. She was on the ground. Everybody stomping and everything. Then we got, each—I grabbed one arm, some other kid grabbed one arm, and we grabbed her legs and stuff. Then we all took turns getting on her, getting on top of her.”
Kevin Richardson: “Raymond had her arms, and Steve [Lopez, who accepted a plea bargain rather than face trial] had her legs. He spread it out. And Antron got on top, took her panties off.”
Raymond Santana: “He was smacking her. He was saying, ‘Shut up, bitch!’ Just smacking her…. I was grabbing the lady’s tits.”
Kharey Wise: “This was my first rape.”
It should be noted that three of the videotaped confessions (Santana’s, McCray’s, and Richardson’s) were made in the presence of a parent or guardian, as legally required for suspects under 16. Wise was already 16 at the time, so he was interrogated and confessed on his own. Salaam was 15, but had a fake ID listing his age as 16, so his questioning began under that assumption; his confession wasn’t videotaped, however, because his mother arrived and requested a lawyer.
There’s a general consistency to their confessions, even though they were made in isolation from one another: the group had attacked a white, female jogger; they’d tackled her and dragged her, kicking and screaming, a short distance; she’d been beaten, stripped, and pinned; she’d been sexually assaulted, though only briefly; she’d been left semi-conscious. But their confessions don’t perfectly align. Each of the Five, as you’d expect, tried to minimize his own part in the attack, laying the heaviest blame on the others. More serious inconsistencies also exist. The Five disagreed on the exact location of the jogger assault, and on where it fell in the sequence of other attacks in Central Park that night.
Could the confessions have been coerced, with the facts of the case subtly suggested to the defendants during their questioning?
To believe that, you’d have to believe that the multiple detectives who questioned roughly 40 kids were so hell-bent on obtaining confessions that they arbitrarily conspired to pin the most serious crime on a small subset—the Five, plus Steve Lopez (who, again, plea-bargained down to a shorter sentence)—who had no knowledge of, or involvement in, the crime.
You’d also have to believe that the detectives tricked the Five into falsely implicating one another, plus Lopez…yet didn’t trick them into implicating any of the rest of the kids, many of whom the Five knew from the neighborhood, in the assault on the jogger.
You’d also have to believe that the detectives were diabolically clever enough to feed the boys details of the crime during their questioning…yet not clever enough to get their stories to match up with respect to exact times and locations.
You’d also have to believe that the detectives were diabolically clever enough to feed them details of only the first, less serious, attack on the jogger, consistent with the first crime scene, but never bothered to feed them details of the second crime scene, where the more horrific, life-threatening injuries to Meili occurred—where her head was bashed in and where her blood poured out.
You’d also have to believe that these diabolically clever detectives coached and coerced the confessions from the Five while the jogger was alive but still unconscious. In other words, Meili could’ve awakened from her coma at any moment after the confessions had been made public, with a clear recollection of what had happened, and said, “Wait, only one guy attacked me!” The detectives would’ve been left with five demonstrably false confessions; their conspiracy would’ve been revealed, and their careers in law enforcement would’ve been over.
The Central Park Five documentary acknowledges none of these difficulties. By far the most compelling evidence introduced in the film to undermine the confessions is a reconstructed timeline—which supposedly shows that the Five didn’t have enough time to do all the things they were accused of: assault the jogger and participate in other attacks at different locations in the park.
About that timeline: The filmmakers state that Meili left her York Avenue apartment at 8:55 that night. How do they know? Because she chatted with a neighbor on her way out, and he recalled the conversation occurring at 8:55. Taken for granted is that 8:55 was the precise time, not an approximation. If the neighbor’s recollection is off by even a few minutes, the likelihood of the sequence of events in the park changes drastically. (How often do you chat with a neighbor and mark the time on your watch?) Nevertheless, the filmmakers confidently tell us 8:55 was Meili’s departure time, then calculate her average jogging speed, and—using an impressive-looking blue line sliding across a street grid of Manhattan—trace her rapid and uninterrupted progress across seven avenues toward Central Park. Amazingly, the sliding blue line doesn’t stop, or even slow down, at any of those intersections. (New Yorkers will know the likelihood of hitting seven green lights in a row or of ignoring the red lights and dodging traffic across, say, Lexington or Madison Avenue.) An average traffic signal at an uptown intersection takes between one and two minutes to change; if Meili missed even a few lights, tack on another three to six minutes to her arrival time at the jogging path in the park.
Then, too, there’s the problem of the timing of the other attacks in the park. Again, the filmmakers present these as precisely known. But they’re actually hard to pin down. We can say with some confidence that three earlier attacks, in which at least some of the Five participated, occurred between 9:00 and 9:15, and we also know where these attacks occurred. If the assault on Meili starts at 9:20, as the filmmakers argue, that doesn’t give the Five much time to travel the roundabout route from those earlier incidents to Meili’s location. We also know that at least one, and possibly four, of the Five participated in an attack on a male jogger, David Lewis, closer to the site of the Meili assault. The timing of the Lewis attack is dicey though. Police reports give it as anywhere from 9:25 (which, assuming a 9:20 assault on Meili, would leave the Five a very narrow window to have assaulted her) to 9:42 (which would leave them plenty of time). But, of course, this entire analysis is pegged to the claim that Meili was assaulted at exactly 9:20…which is contingent on her having left her house at exactly 8:55, and jogging at exactly her normal pace across seven avenues, and missing no lights, on her way to the park. If she got there five or ten minutes later than the film’s timeline stipulates, she may have been assaulted after the attack on Lewis, in which case the timing for the Five crossing paths with Meili that night works out perfectly.
Ah, but what about Reyes’s 2002 admission that he’d raped the jogger? What about his insistence that he’d acted alone, as was his wont in previous crimes? What about the specific details he provided? We know for certain, because of the DNA evidence, that he did rape Meili. But some of those details he provided aren’t as exculpatory of the Five as many people now believe. For example, Reyes claimed he followed the jogger for some distance, zig-zagging behind her, stopping to grab a stick (probably a fallen tree branch) so heavy that he needed two hands to carry it, before using it to attack her. But Meili was supposedly running at an eight-minute-mile clip. Five police cadets of roughly Reyes’s size and weight tried to recreate this feat; none could catch a jogger running that fast. Yes, it’s possible Meili wasn’t keeping her usual pace. (Except then what happens to the timeline?) But it’s also possible that she was already incapacitated when he came upon her, and that he dragged her farther out of sight to further brutalize her.
Reyes’s description of the jogger’s outfit also changed in an illogical way. In an April 2002 interview with police, he claimed she was wearing black shorts and matching tank top; a week later, he claimed she was wearing a white t-shirt with long, tight, dark-colored pants. In fact, she was wearing long tight black jogging pants and a long sleeved white shirt. Yes, these interviews came 13 years after the fact; you can understand Reyes getting a few details wrong, but why would they shift in the space of a week in 2002? One possible explanation: He had no clear memory of her clothes because they’d already been torn apart when he found her.
Reyes also claimed, in a February 2002 interview with police, that he’d taken Meili’s Walkman. This is significant since there was never a police report that it had been stolen—remember, she had no memory of what happened—and detectives had more pressing things to focus on than figuring out what personal items she may have lost. Meili was able to confirm, after Reyes came forward, that her Walkman was indeed missing after she’d gotten home following months of recovery. So Reyes got that detail right. But his mention of the Walkman caused investigators to review the detectives’ original notes from the case…and it turned out Reyes wasn’t the first person to mention a Walkman. Back in 1989, Kharey Wise told a detective that a guy name “Rudy” had played with the jogger’s breasts and taken her Walkman. “Rudy” was never identified. Could Wise have mistaken Reyes’s name? More to the point, if the police at that time had no knowledge that Meili was carrying a Walkman—and thus couldn’t have fed Wise that detail—how could he have known about it unless he was present at the assault?
Wise, incidentally, may have provided another incriminating comment when the police took him back to the park on April 20, the day after the assault. In the presence of a detective and assistant district attorney, he began muttering, “Damn, damn that’s a lot of blood. Damn, this is really bad, that’s a lot of blood.” When asked what he meant, he added, “I knew she was bleeding, but I didn’t know how bad she was. It was really dark. I couldn’t see how much blood there was at night.” But there’s no video or audio of this conversation, just the detective’s notes.
Given the totality of what we now know of the crime, the likeliest scenario is that the Five spotted Patricia Meili on that jogging path the night of April 19, 1989. Joined by Steve Lopez, and perhaps by the mysterious “Rudy,” they tackled her, beat her senseless, dragged her a short distance, tore off most of her clothes, copped their feels, pantomimed pelvic thrusts, may or may not have penetrated her, and left her dazed and bleeding just off the jogging path. After the Five were gone, Matias Reyes found Meili (unless he was already there as “Rudy”), dragged her to an even more secluded spot in the woods, and perpetrated the unspeakably vicious beating and rape that left her clinging to life. But it is certain, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the Five were involved in the jogger assault—which means they’ve been lying through their teeth about the incident to anyone who’d listen, including two gullible filmmakers, ever since.
So why would New York’s current mayor cough up $41,000,000 to settle their civil suit against the city? For insight, it’s helpful to ask a related question: Why would attorneys for the Five let them participate in the Burns’ documentary? If you’re a lawyer who’s just filed a multimillion dollar lawsuit charging malicious prosecution, racial discrimination, and emotional distress, wouldn’t you advise your clients not to discuss the incident? You’d think that would be the first thing you’d tell them since any relevant conversation, even an offhand remark to a friend, can potentially be introduced as trial evidence. Common sense says you’d tell them to shut up…unless, of course, you were less concerned with winning in a courtroom than with winning in the court of public opinion.
Note that the original civil suit was filed in 2003, after Reyes’s confession. It wasn’t settled until 2014. Why didn’t it go to trial during that decade? Here’s a thought: Maybe because the Fives’ lawyers realized they had no chance to win. As I hope I’ve shown, the detectives did nothing wrong. That’s why city attorneys, during the Michael Bloomberg administration, refused to settle; it’s why they kept telling the Fives’ lawyers, in effect, “See you in court.” Yet somehow the case never moved forward. If you’re shocked at that, I’ve got a NYC bridge to sell you. (Ken Burns even made a documentary about it!)
Could it be that the lawyers for the Five provided Ken and Sarah Burns full access to their clients in order to turn up the heat on the next mayor to settle? If so, then the strategy worked. The next mayor turned out to be Bill de Blasio, a race- and class-obsessed stick figure who bumbled and stumbled into office buoyed by his chief rival’s sexting habits.
So, yes, the Central Park Five will be appearing this month at FIT. They’ll be lying, as they do whenever their lips move, about what occurred on April 19, 1989, and the students who show up—less than a year after FIT screened The Hunting Ground—will listen intently, nod sympathetically, groan at the seeming injustice, and, in the end, they’ll cheer earnestly and loudly. And the Five will cash yet another paycheck, part of their ongoing bonanza for a night of wanton violence and sexual assault so many years ago.
Mark Goldblatt’s latest book is Right Tool for the Job: A Memoir of Manly Concerns.