The Central Park Five: A Chronicle of A City Wilding by Sarah Burns. New York: Aflfred A. Knopf. 2011. 240 pp. $25.95
In 1989, Trisha Meili, an employee at Salomon Brothers in Manhattan, went out for a late night jog through Central Park. In another area of the park, Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Korey Wise, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana, Jr., along with a loose-knit group of African American and Hispanic youths, were harassing bicyclists and joggers near a reservoir, activities that the media would later misappropriately refer to as “wilding.” Meili and the youths never crossed paths that night and yet their fates became inextricably tied together by an appalling act that would change their lives completely. In the weeks and months following that night, Meili would be dubbed by the local tabloids as “The Central Park Jogger,” the victim of a horrific rape and beating that fanned the flames in an already racially divided city. The young men were collectively referred to as “The Central Park Five,” who were charged and convicted for Meili’s attack. In 2002, DNA testing conclusively ruled out these young men as Meili’s attackers, but in 1989-1990, with DNA testing still in its infancy, their convictions rested solely on confessions that were coerced by overzealous Sex Crimes and homicide detectives and a prosecution’s office which had decided their guilt long before an investigation into the attacks even began. Sarah Burns’ The Central Park Five: A Chronicle of A City Wilding, cuts to the heart of what led to the convictions and how a city, already overburdened with crime, violence, and racism, and led by an exploitative and opportunistic news media, engaged in a modern day lynching.
The slender but thorough book chronicles the events which led up to Meili’s attacks and the arrest and conviction of the five young men. Burns centers these events within the larger scope of New York during the 1980s---the crime and violence, largely located within the city’s econonomically deprived areas, whose prevalence was exploited by the local news media that helped further cement an image of a city spinning out of control. Though Burns makes the point that crime and violence was limited among the poor, she also reveals how a sensationalistic press helped establish in the minds of many white New Yorkers that crime was far more egregious than it actually was and linked the most horrific examples with the face of black males. Racial violence and police brutality had also added an extra layer of explosive tension in the city. The racially motivated murders of Michael Griffith and Willie Turk, both of whom were attacked by a mob of white youths after wandering into the Italian enclaves of Gravesend and Howard Beach; the police-related deaths of Eleanor Bumpurs, a sixty-six year old Bronx resident who was shot twice by riot police after lunging at them with a kitchen knife; and Michael Stewart, a graffiti artist who mysteriously slipped into a coma and died while in custody; and the media cause célèbre Bernhard Goetz, who shot five black youths after they approached him for money were all indicative of a society that was disintegrating into a morass of rage and racial violence. This willingness to believe black men were guilty of crimes highlights Burns’ contention that “the media only amplified that the city’s most at-risk population was the source of all crime, that black and Latinos, especially male teenagers, were criminals---murderers, thieves, rapists, and arsonists.” By the time of Meili’s attack, racial biases and a blindside on the part of detectives and prosecutors in their failure to admit the flaws in their case made it all but certain that the Central Park Five would be charged with the attack, even with little to no evidence linking them to Meili.
Their arrests on that fateful night were merely coincidental since many were picked up for attacking and robbing male joggers and tandem bicyclists whose main route ran along the park reservoir. After Meili was found, badly beaten and near death, in another area of the park, investigators immediately zeroed in on the young men who had been arrested that night and were being held at the Central Park precinct. What happened next was incredulous. The lack of blood on the young men’s clothing, the inconsistent timeline of the attacks, and, most importantly, the confessions detectives coerced from them, which were so wildly inconsistent with each other and with even the most basic facts available---such as the clothing Meili was wearing that night and the actual vicinity of her attack---should have alerted the most seasoned investigators. Instead, the lack of evidence itself became evidence. Investigators, as Burns points out, had already decided on their guilt before evidence could even be collected. Detectives in the homicide (Meili’s condition was so bad that the doctors treating her didn’t think she’d survive the night) and Sex Crimes units were brought onto the case. Seasoned investigators take it as a given that once they think a potential suspect has been caught lying during an interview that the suspect is the “guilty party,” then move toward a tactic that employs “minimalization” and “maximalization” techniques, which is a technical way of describing the good cop/bad cop routine. Most criminal investigations often rest solely on confessions, therefore the reputations of “good police” is dependent on their ability to get confessions. However Burns reveals this is more myth than actuality. In fact, as she writes, that while detectives think “they are experts at separting truth from lies, [but] studies have shown that this is a false confidence.” Once an investigator thinks you’re guilty, all the denials, even the lack of evidence, most likely won’t sway him.
Individuals who have not had much experience with law enforcement or understand their rights as citizens will often be the most vulnerable to coercion. This is doubly so if the defendants are teens, which was the case for the Central Park Five. Out of the five who were eventually charged with the rape, Korey Wise was sixteen, old enough according to state law to be interrogated without an adult guardian (Wise was also mentally underdeveloped and had a hearing problem). However, adult guardians were hardly protective barriers for these young men, since many were as equally disadvantaged. The mother of Raymond Santana, Jr., whose family came from Puerto Rico, had a language barrier to overcome, a fact which his investigators exploited, while others had to come and go during the long duration of the interview due to work and other obligations or suffered from illness. The young men, who would later complain of being bullied and harassed by their investigators, eventually confessed to either being at the scene of the rape or accused the other teens of the actual crime, in exchange for being let go. Though investigators denied during the trial that they physically bullied the defendents or gave the young men the impression that they’d be let go if they confessed (which would have thrown the confessions and thus the case out of court if such an offer was explicitly stated), neither they nor the prosecutors could substantiate why it took hours to eke confessions from them since, as they claimed, the young men volunteered that information almost immediately. Burns explains both the interrogation techniques used by detectives and the tricks, just this side of legal, that they used to convince suspects to waive their Miranda rights with enough probing detail that it is hard to see how these teens could have stood a chance under the onslaught of skilled manipulation.
The book gets even more incredulous when the prosecution’s office, run under Linda Fairstein in the Sex Crimes unit, takes over. Elizabeth Lederer, the ADA who prosecuted, certainly gets the award for the most dogged prosecutor, especially since there were a number of times when red flag warnings were raised regarding the validity of the case. For instance, the confessions of the young men were so wildly inconsistent that Lederer had to plan her witness statements not only so some of the young men could avoid incriminating themselves on the witness stand but so that the inconsistencies wouldn’t be so blatantly obvious. And when the FBI lab conclusively ruled out the semen found on Meili’s sock did not belong to any of the charged, she still forged onward, claiming the lack of evidence was due to the fact that all five men simply did not ejaculate. Burns nails the prosecutor’s behavior: “Despite a prosecutor’s obligation to seek justice, it seems that at that moment, winning the case trumped investigating the evidence. The incriminating statements by these five teenagers were so convincing to the detectives and prosecutors that no one felt the need to question their conclusions, which had been so easy to jump to in the hours and days after the rape.” Their unwillingness to notice the cracks in their theory led them to overlook a far more obvious suspect, Matias Reyes, a serial rapist whose crime spree “took place near where Trisha Meili had been attacked, and who used strikingly similar methods.” Reyes, as it turns out, was Meili’s attacker, but this would not be known until twelve years later, when Reyes finally confessed to his involvement in that crime. By then, Reyes was already serving life for two other rapes and the murder of a young pregnant mother (there were many other attacks for which he was not convicted). Burns final conclusion on the behavior of the prosecutors and investigators is obvious: had they done their job thoroughly, Reyes might well have been caught and young lives spared from his reign of terror.
Racism, class, and fears of crime and violence certainly plagued the case from the start, but the media deserves as much of a drubbing for poisining the well. In this area Burns does not disappoint. She points out the precise language used by many of the newsprint engines to gin up the outrage. From the start, the local press and broadcast media painted the Central Park Five in terms that left no question as to their guilt, removing such journalistically, time-honored terms like “alleged” to describe the defendants’ roles in the crime. Burns correctly reveals how much of this language harkens back to a time when black men were routinely lynched for allegedly raping or having sexual relations with white women, reducing them to animalistic terms that denied their humanity. Words like “wilding” (a misused teen slang “for acting crazy” but in less than violent terms), “wild thing,” and “wolfpack” were routinely used in reference to the rape and beating. The teens themselves were described as “’bestial,’ ‘savage,’ ‘brutal,’ ‘bloodthirsty,’ ‘evil,’ and ‘mutant.’” Even the venerable New York Times, which had largely eschewed such language in its reporting, led with an editorial headline that read: “The Jogger and the Wolf Pack,” notably without the quotations marks around the most damning word. The media created an environment in which getting the facts was next to impossible. Once the trial commenced, both the press and the public were ginned for frontier justice, including arguing for a return of the death penalty in New York, nevermind the fact that the Supreme Court in the 1979 Coker v. Georgia decision, ruled that, in cases of rape, the death penalty was unconstitutional. Yet, as Burns also rightly points out, “[T]he tradition of death as a punishment for rape has historically been reserved for a particular affront: the rape of a white woman by a black man.”
Defenders of the Central Park Five do not come off any better in Burns’ account. While many within the black community supported the five defendants, their behavior within and outside the courtroom hurt the cause more than it helped. Supporters routinely harassed and heckled ADA Lederer as she left the courtroom and, in one case, the mother of one of the defendants had an outburst in court which led to her permanent banishment throughout the duration of the rest of the trial. The Amsterdam News, a member of the local black press, was less interested in the investigating the case, which would have yielded important evidence that could have exonerated the young men, and was more determined to make political points about racism and the lack of services provided to poor young men of color. Their main argument was that the violent attacks supposedly committed by these young men was the direct result of the city’s neglect toward the poor. While there is truth in such an argument, it had little bearing on the Central Park Jogger rape, since none of the teens charged had actually committed the crime and, more or less, came from rather stable homes. Unfortunately, the teens’ legal counsel were either incapable or had their own political agendas or personal ambitions to adequately defend their clients. Far too many mistakes were made and little effort was done until the last moment to poke serious holes in the prosecution’s case. Sadly, Santana, Jr., Wise, McCray, Richardson, and Salaam were convicted and wound up serving their full terms before they were fully exonerated in 2002.
The Central Park Five is a gripping cautionary tale of justice gone wrong. And while the story ends on an upbeat note for the people involved, from the former defendants to the victim, Burns does not allow for any hope that this nightmarish account is all in the past. The lessons it tells disturbingly go unlearned. As she writes, “Though New York and the country have changed---in many ways for the better---since 1989, who is to say that a rush to judgment like this one could not happen again?” The rush to believe the atrocities supposedly committed by poor blacks in the Louisiana Superdome during Hurricane Katrina by politicians and the media alike suggests that these pernicious attitudes have not gone away. The Central Park Five is an important work that quietly sets the record straight. One can only hope that this time its lessons will finally be heeded, but one cannot help but think that in far less public cases such rushes to judgment are occurring every day.