Central Park Five: Guilty After Proven Innocent
October 10, 2016 (Fault Lines) — Donald Trump says a lot of stupid things. But Fault Lines is about criminal law, not politics, so we’re going to focus on something that’s curently about #7 on the list of the stupid things he’s said that are on our collective radar. Specifically, he stated to Miguel Marquez of CNN that he believed the Central Park Five were guilty:
“They admitted they were guilty,” Trump said this week in a statement to CNN’s Miguel Marquez. “The police doing the original investigation say they were guilty. The fact that that case was settled with so much evidence against them is outrageous. And the woman, so badly injured, will never be the same.”
Indeed. Donald Trump is clearly an expert on the terrible injuries that can be inflicted by strange men who commit sexual assaults upon women. Irony aside, though, it’s worth taking a look at the details of the case to figure out how wrongful convictions happen and why some people are so reluctant to change their mind about them even in the face of conclusive evidence.
The rape occurred on the night of April 19, 1989, when Trisha Meili, a jogger, was beaten and raped n Central Park. The attack on Meili was one of a series of crimes that night committed by a gang of about 30 teenagers, and the five accused of the rape were arrested and brought in for questioning. After the police worked on them for most of a day, without the benefit of attorneys or their parents, all five eventually confessed; though not to the rape or assault, but to being present when it occurred and by doing things like holding the victim down…a classic example of the Reid Technique.
“I would hear them beating up Korey Wise in the next room,” recalled [Yusuf] Salaam. “They would come and look at me and say: ‘You realize you’re next.’ The fear made me feel really like I was not going to be able to make it out.”
There was DNA evidence (the attacker’s semen), but it didn’t match the DNA of any of the accused. Nevertheless, based on the confessions, and physical evidence such hair “consistent with” Meili’s on their clothing, all five were convicted. Four of them got 5-10 years in a juvenile facility; the fifth, Korey Wise got 5-15 as an adult.
The rest of the story is straight out of The Shawshank Redemption. In 2001, while in prison, Korey Wise met Matias Reyes, a serial rapist. In 2002, Reyes confessed to the rape of Meili, and his DNA was a match to the semen found on her body. The five convictions were vacated and they were released from prison, though the city fought the resulting lawsuit for ten years until it was settled in 2014, after the election of Bill DeBlasio.
Still, the path of the case is less important than the attitude of the people who refuse to change their mind about it. Sometimes it’s obvious, such as the City’s legal position. Once they admitted they had screwed up, out came the checkbook. On an individual level, for the police and prosecutors, it’s also pretty easy to understand. As Jeff Gamso put it:
And really, there’s only one possible reason why.
THEY DON’T WANT TO KNOW THAT THEY MAY HAVE FUCKED UP.
And, maybe more to the point, they don’t want the rest of us to know that the Emperor has no clothes.
Back when the rape happened, Trump took out a full page ad in the New York Times calling for the reinstatement of the death penalty, one of his first forays into public affairs. So it’s fairly easy to understand, again, why he needs to believe in their guilt despite conclusive evidence to the contrary. Nobody likes having to admit they’re wrong.
As far as the Central Park Five go, it isn’t such a big deal. They’re out of prison, they got their settlement, and they’ll go on with their lives best they can. Trump’s bloviating is no doubt disconcerting to them, but it doesn’t have any legal effect. Even in the context of choosing a President, it doesn’t matter that much, as neither the President (nor even the Attorney General) personally prosecutes defendants.
But it does matter when it’s prosecutors, police officers, judges, and other people actually involved in the day to day operation of the criminal justice system. Trump, or Nancy Grace, can jabber on about things they have no clue about, but when their stupidity filters down to infect real cases, that’s one more step down the road that leads to the erasure of the line between law and politics.
 And I’m writing this before the debate, so by now it might have fallen way farther than that.