The City of New York, after eleven years of litigation, finally agreed to pay $41 million to settle a case involving the wrongful conviction of five former prisoners who were juveniles at the time of their arrest. One of the men received $12.25 million and each of the other four received $7.125 million. As part of the settlement agreement, the city did not admit any wrongdoing – though the record demonstrates otherwise.
The infamous “Central Park Jogger” case involved the brutal April 19, 1989 rape and assault of Trisha Meili, a 28-year-old investment banker, while she was jogging in Central Park. Meili was allegedly attacked by a “wilding” pack of teens; the crime was cited as an example of growing lawlessness in New York City, and put tremendous pressure on the city’s police department to solve the case. Investigators focused their attention on five black and Hispanic teenagers – Kevin Richardson, Antron McCray, Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana, Jr. and Korey Wise – who confessed during interrogations. After a contentious trial, all of the defendants, who became known as the Central Park Five, were convicted and sentenced to prison terms ranging from 5 to 15 years.
However, they continued to profess their innocence, claiming that their confessions had been coerced. Following the arrest and conviction of Matias Reyes in 2002, who admitted to raping Meili after being linked to that crime by DNA evidence, the Central Park Five were exonerated. They then filed a federal civil rights suit that dragged on for more than a decade.
Their complaint set forth the scope of misconduct by the New York City police officers and prosecutors who conducted the interrogations: “These methods, specifically described below as to each individual adolescent plaintiff, included ... coercion, isolation, intimidation, manipulation, suggestiveness, deceit, false promises, sleep and food deprivation, actively shaping the statements’ contents before they were formally given,” and telling the plaintiffs what facts to include in their “confessions.”
Additionally, the complaint accused the defendants of “fabricating statements, falsely recording oral statements, withholding certain information from the plaintiffs and their family members, distracting family members during the interrogations when they were at a critical juncture, and misleading the adolescent plaintiffs and their parents and family members about the true intent behind the defendants’ questioning.”
That was not the full scope of misconduct in the case, though. Incredibly, even after law enforcement authorities had arrested and convicted Reyes – the actual rapist – city officials, including then-New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, continued to resist the Central Park Five’s claims of innocence, causing them to spend additional time in prison.
Current New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio campaigned on a promise that he would settle the long-running litigation, which had become an increasing embarrassment for the city, and shortly after his election the settlement was announced.
“This settlement is an act of justice for those five men that is long overdue,” de Blasio said in a gross understatement. Also as part of the $41 million settlement, the law firm of Beldock, Levine & Hoffman LLP, which represented the Central Park Five, received $285,000 for additional litigation expenses.
Following the settlement, the State of New York moved to intervene to prevent the disclosure of discovery materials in the case, and the New York Times also sought to intervene to unseal the same materials. The district court denied the state’s motion on March 31, 2015, and that same day the court awarded attorney fees and costs of $237,997.50 to Lennox S. Hinds, who had also represented the plaintiffs. The Times’ motion to intervene was denied in July 2015 after counsel representing New York City agreed to produce the requested documents. The case remains pending on post-settlement motions and an appeal related to attorney fees. See: In re McCray, U.S.D.C. (S.D. NY), Case No. 1:03-cv-09685-RLE.
Although the settlement agreement was finalized in September 2014, the Central Park Jogger case continues to make news in political circles, including in the current presidential primaries. Specifically, presidential candidate Donald Trump had called for the reinstatement of the death penalty in New York as a result of the Central Park Jogger case – including the execution of the Central Park Five, before they were exonerated.
“He was the fire starter,” said Yusef Salaam, referring to Trump and the full-page ads that Trump ran in four New York City newspapers soon after the Central Park Jogger case made headlines. “Common citizens were being manipulated and swayed into believing that we were guilty.”
“I want to hate these muggers and murderers. They should be forced to suffer and, when they kill, they should be executed for their crimes. They must serve as examples so that others will think long and hard before committing a crime or an act of violence,” Trump wrote in his ads. New York did bring back the death penalty, which was later abolished before any executions were conducted.
“Had this been the 1950s, that sick type of justice that they wanted – somebody from that darker place of society would have most certainly came to our homes, dragged us from our beds and hung us from trees in Central Park. It would have been similar to what they did to Emmett Till,” Salaam was quoted as saying in a February 17, 2016 article published in the U.S. edition of The Guardian.
Nor has Trump backed down from the incendiary comments he made in his 1989 ads. In a June 2014 editorial in the New York Daily News, Trump called the settlement in the Central Park Jogger case a “disgrace,” stating, “Settling doesn’t mean innocence, but it indicates incompetence on several levels.” He added the Central Park Five “must be laughing out loud at the stupidity of the city. Speak to the detectives on the case and try listening to the facts. These young men do not exactly have the pasts of angels.”
“To see that he has not changed his position of being a hateful person, to see that he has not changed his position of inciting people, to see that he’s still the same person and in many ways he has perfected his sense of being that number-one inciter, you know, I was scared,” Salaam told The Guardian.
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Related legal case
In re McCray
|U.S.D.C. (S.D. NY), Case No. 1:03-cv-09685-RLE