Convictions in Central Park jogger case should be reversed

Friday, December 6, 2002

NEW YORK -- Citing DNA on a sock, prosecutors asked a judge Thursday to throw out the convictions of five young men found guilty of beating and gang-raping a jogger during a 1989 "wilding" spree in Central Park that exposed the city's deep racial divide to the rest of the nation.

District Attorney Robert Morgenthau's recommendation came 11 months after a convicted rapist who had never before come under suspicion in the case confessed. Also, DNA tests confirmed that his semen was on one of the socks the victim was wearing 13 years ago.

Morgenthau stopped short of declaring the five innocent, but said the confession and the tests create "a probability that the verdicts would have been more favorable to the defendants." And he said no purpose would be served by retrying them.

The decision of whether to throw out the convictions rests with state Justice Charles Tejada, who is expected to rule by Feb. 6.

Racial struggles

The attack on a white 28-year-old investment banker, allegedly by a gang of black and Hispanic boys from Harlem, became emblematic of New York City's struggles with crime and race relations in the late 1980s.

The five defendants, who were 14 to 16 at the time of the attack, are now mostly in their late 20s and have already completed prison terms ranging from six years to 11 1/2 years for the crime.

But throwing out of their convictions could clear the way for them to sue the city and would free them from having to register as sex offenders for the rest of their lives.

Their families and lawyers called for an immediate ruling from the judge.

"We are truly moved by this decision," said Sharonne Salaam, mother of one of the youths. "But we also feel like we've been victimized, like the Central Park jogger. We all feel we were denied justice."

Through a spokeswoman, the victim declined comment. Despite remarkable recovery from severe brain injuries, she has said she remembers nothing of the attack and was unable to help police identify suspects.

The victim was left for dead in a pool of mud and blood on April 19, 1989, after dozens of teenagers descended on the park to mug runners and bicyclists in a crime spree dubbed "wilding." She was in a coma for 12 days.

The randomness of the spree terrified many New Yorkers. It was another blow to a city struggling with a soaring crime rate and it came during a string of high-profile racial incidents, including Bernhard Goetz's shooting of black youths on the subway and attacks in the Howard Beach and Bensonhurst neighborhoods.

Some questioned whether the Central Park youths were rounded up because of their skin color and suggested police would not have pursued the case so aggressively had the victim been black or Hispanic.

Police said all five confessed -- four of them on video -- and that evidence proved devastating at trial.

"We all took turns getting on top of her," Antron McCray, then 15, told police in one tape.

Defense attorneys said the youths were coerced into bogus confessions by police who kept questioning them for hours. But until January's confession, there seemed to be little chance of overturning the convictions against McCray, Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana, Kharey Wise and Yusef Salaam.

The confession came from Matias Reyes, 31, who is serving a life sentence for raping three women near Central Park and raping and killing a pregnant woman. He said he broke his long silence after finding religion.

Reyes told investigators he raped the jogger, crushed her skull with a rock and left her for dead. He also said he followed his usual pattern of acting alone.

"I was a monster," Reyes said in a recent TV interview. "I did some real bad things to so many people and harmed them in so many ways."

DNA test results returned in May corroborated his story and Morgenthau said one of his pubic hairs was found at the scene. The same tests -- more sophisticated than methods available a decade ago -- failed to link the five youths to the crime scene.

The former prosecutor in the case, Linda Fairstein, recently said she has no doubts the five are guilty and that Reyes merely finished the assault.

At trial, the only physical evidence connecting the boys to the attack was blond hair found on one of the youths that prosecutors said matched that of the victim. But Morgenthau said new tests showed the hair was not hers after all.

Moreover, the district attorney said the boys' alleged confessions had "serious weaknesses." Their accounts "differed from one another on the specific details of virtually every major aspect of the crime -- who initiated the attack, who knocked the victim down, who undressed her, who struck her, who held her, who raped her, what weapons were used."

The prosecutor said "it is clear that Reyes is the person who tied the jogger with her own T-shirt ... strikingly similar to the way he tied another of his victims."

Defense attorneys said there was clear wrongdoing by police in the case, but nothing in the 58-page recommendation from prosecutors questioned the methods used by detectives in securing the confessions.

"This new evidence -- all it does is implicate an additional perpetrator," said Michael Palladino of the Detectives' Endowment Association. "None of the evidence exonerates or eliminates the additional five."

The youths were also convicted of attacking several other people in the park that night, but Morgenthau said those should also be dropped.

The jogger, a former employee of Salomon Bros., is now 41. She lives in a Connecticut suburb and works for a nonprofit organization. She has been married for five years and is said to have a book due out in April.

Deloris Wise, the mother of Kharey Wise, said her son entered prison as a bewildered youth and left a bitter and broken man.

"He doesn't even realize what's going on today," a tearful Wise said. "He doesn't care. Why should he?"

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