October 18, 2002
BOB GARFIELD: Thirteen years ago the rape and beating of a jogger in Central Park shocked New York City and the world. When a group of black and Hispanic teenagers for the crime, shock turned to rage. But recently another man has stepped forward to claim responsibility for the crime, and a re-examination of the confessions and evidence that helped convict those teenagers raises lots of questions.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:So far the latest chapter in the story of one of New York's most notorious crimes has played out like many wrongful conviction stories --the questions center mostly on why the kids would confess to a crime they didn't commit and why DNA evidence that didn't match was ignored. But we thought it would be instructive to look back on another aspect of this case -- the atmosphere in 1989 and the media frenzy surrounding the original case. Newsday columnist Ellis Hennican covered the Central Park jogger case in 1989 and he joins me now. Ellis, welcome back to the show.
ELLIS HENNICAN: Thanks, Brooke. Good to be with you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Okay. Let's consider New York in 1989. Bensonhurst and Howard Beach had ceased to become merely the names of neighborhoods and had become practically synonymous with racial strife; Al Sharpton had become a household name. What's the right way to describe the city before the attack?
ELLIS HENNICAN: It was a tough time! I mean a lot of racial bad feelings on both sides, and then there was the overlay of the worst crime wave in the history of the city. You're talking about 2,000 murders a year in those days; this is the height of the crack epidemic. So if you're a white person in New York, you're thinking boy, crime is out of control. If you're a black person in New York you're thinking boy, is crime out of control, and boy are the police out of control too. So you throw all that together with a little urban demagoguery tossed in, and you have a lot of tension in the air and a big time for the tabloid press.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:And then you've got the assumption that it was kids who did this crime and, and the word "wilding" became popular. This was on the cover of all the tabloids, and it was both an explanation and an accusation!
ELLIS HENNICAN: The Central Park jogger case was an irresistible story at that time. I mean and--you - there's so many elements of it. It's in Central Park which is everybody's back yard. It is cross-racial -- you've got young black defendants against an upper class white victim - horribly beaten and raped and abused - and there are always those kinds of attitudes that we all bring to a story like that, and one of them is the assumption that a group of young black kids running around in the middle of the night in Central Park is -- and people reach for these terms all the time -- but it's almost "animalistic." So when a, when a cop tells a reporter the kid said something like "We be wilding" -- that was an irresistible term for the front page of every newspaper in this town.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:By the way, here's the first sentence of an article from the Daily News which ran just a few weeks ago -- the-- it says "One of the most savage entries in New York's crime annals, the 1989 Central Park wilding attack on a female jogger may have to be re-written." It still sticks with us.
ELLIS HENNICAN: Well you know that word is a troubling word. We never heard it directly from any of these kids, and I've got to tell you, it was a term that I had never heard before, and I've really never heard anybody say again except in connection with that case.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: How much do you think the media fed this frenzy and how much do you think the media are to blame for the convictions?
ELLIS HENNICAN:Well, secondarily. I mean there's, there's some - certainly some blame that we deserve in terms of promoting feelings that were out there but, but, but let's not go overboard with that. I mean the police made this arrest in a hurry before the first reporter wrote the first story. They had supposedly extracted confessions from these kids while this thing was just bubbling into the, to the papers. The trial proceeded with, with great public outroar -- I mean you had feminists marching on the steps of the courthouse demanding justice for the jogger; you had the normal racial pandering back and forth on a story like this.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Do you have any regrets about the way you covered the story?
ELLIS HENNICAN:Well you know-- [SIGHS] -- I think we were naive. I think that we had a case that the detectives and the prosecutors tied a nice big red ribbon around, and as a result of what we now-- appears to be sloppy police work, overzealous prosecution and a gullible press, we ended up with a bunch of kids in jail for a crime it now seems they did not commit. Anyone within a hundred miles of that ought to feel that they have a little bit of, of guilt on their hands because of it and I, I count myself on that list.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Well Ellis thank you very much.
ELLIS HENNICAN: Oh, thanks -- it's a nasty story but we gotta be back at it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Ellis Hennican is a columnist for Newsday.
BOB GARFIELD:Coming up -- why it's important to get facts straight when writing fiction and a new interface opens the world of video gaming to the blind.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media from NPR.