BROOKE GLADSTONE From WNYC in New York, this is On The Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD And Bob Garfield. This year is the 30th anniversary of a criminal case that indelibly stained and, with every ensuing year, seems more to define our society.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT Police believe a gang of about 12 young hoodlums is responsible for the vicious rape and beating of a 30 year old investment banker, Trisha Meili, who was jogging in Central Park last night. [END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD On a springtime evening in 1989, what began as a spree of hooliganism ended with felony arrests of Raymond Santana, Kevin Richardson, Antron McCray, Yusef Salaam and Korey Wise. Quickly branded the Central Park Five, the teenagers were tried and convicted in the press and then in the courts for a gruesome assault on a jogger left for dead. Those verdicts, despite zero physical evidence, connecting them to the crime scene. Zero eyewitnesses and an implausible prosecution map and timeline of the events. What sex crimes prosecutor Linda Fairstein did have was video of confessions coerced from the teenagers following hours of interrogation without a lawyer, or in some cases, even a parent present. But then a twist, the 2002 confession by the real perpetrator. A serial rapist and a DNA match confirming his guilt. Their story is the subject of a new Netflix series directed by Ava DuVernay called "When They See Us." The release of the film has brought the events of 1989 back into focus and outrage has ensued–much focused on the ex-prosecutor, who since has achieved success as a crime novelist. An online protest using the hashtag #CancelLindaFairstein has boycotted her books and led to her resignation Tuesday from the Vassar College Board of Trustees. And now activists, including New York City public advocate Jumaane Williams, are calling for an investigation into other cases involving Fairstein and trial prosecutor Elizabeth Lederer. The film had a personal resonance for New York Times columnist Jim Dwyer. He covered the trial for New York Newsday back in 1990. Jim welcome to OTM.
JIM DWYER Thank you Bob.
BOB GARFIELD The narrative, at the time–as laid out by the police and prosecutors, was of a rampage. Thirty Harlem teenagers running wild in Central Park harassing and assaulting white passersby, culminating in the savage beating and rape of Patricia Meili. The press, more or less, passed along that narrative.
MALE CORRESPONDENT Some of the young men told police they were just out 'wilding.'
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT 'Wilding' is a word you won't find in Webster's.
MALE CORRESPONDENT 'Wilding.' The New York City police say that's new teenage slang for rampaging in wolf packs, attacking people just for the fun of it.
MALE CORRESPONDENT The district attorney--[END CLIP]
BOB GARFIELD When the press covered this, how uncritically did it treat the prosecution's narrative?
JIM DWYER The fact is there was a kind of rampage in the park that night. There were 33 or so teenagers running through the park. In one case a homeless man was beaten up and his food was taken from him. In another case a jogger at the Central Park Reservoir, a man, was badly beaten. There were other encounters with bicyclists. Before all of these things had finished, the police were on the scene or on their way. That's how some of the kids were rounded up as they were running from the park. I think it was pretty well established that that was true. What wasn't true was that they then culminated the night by gang raping and nearly murdering Patricia Meili. And that part was accepted uncritically for quite a while.
BOB GARFIELD Is it true that only one of them was identified by an eyewitness?
JIM DWYER I mean I don't want to tell you how to do your job, but you're asking the wrong question. At least two of the five admitted that they went into the park to rob people. So that was admitted in the parole hearings. Were they involved in it? I think that's a very important fact to understanding what happened in the jogger case. Because the defense wanted to avoid any connection with these other crimes, they went for an all or nothing verdict.
BOB GARFIELD Ah.
JIM DWYER And the best defense, the most real defense, was that they could not have raped and assaulted the jogger because at the time that that most likely happened, they were elsewhere in the park causing other trouble. The defense did not raise that at trial.
BOB GARFIELD There's no evidence at all of these kids were guiltless but in no way connected to the attack on Patricia Meili.
JIM DWYER Ed Conlon, a really good writer and a former police officer, wrote a couple of years ago that it's like saying, 'you committed 100 shopliftings, therefore you strangled your grandmother.' That's the quantum of difference between the bad activity that the group was involved in elsewhere in the park and the attack on Patricia Meili.
BOB GARFIELD You were covering the story for the late lamented New York edition of Newsday. How would you characterize your coverage during the course of the investigation in the trial?
JIM DWYER I would characterize my coverage as not skeptical enough and not following the doubts that I did raise to their logical conclusion. On the day the jogger herself testified, she came into court. It was clear that the reason she was brought into court had nothing to do with proving the case against the five boys, or actually at that point three of them are on trial. She had no memory of the event. She had suffered traumatic brain injury. She couldn't see very well. She had a lot of problems walking. It was evident to me at the time that the jogger could offer no testimony or evidence against the defendants who were on trial. But it served to fill the emotional hole left by the absence of any physical evidence. So the other issue to me in the coverage of the trial was the written confessions that were presented in court prior to the boys being videotaped. They all had to sign written statements. They were not the language of 15, 14, 16 year olds. The language was something like, 'we did, all together, one in the same, with the same intentions, proceed Northwest by North.' Cop-ology. It was just implausible that these words ever sat on the lips of any 14 year old. And the eldest of the group, Korey Wise, had a very significant hearing deficit. Watching his videotaped confession, you can follow his face as he's trying to read the lips, trying to get cues from the prosecutor who's interrogating him.
BOB GARFIELD The actual perpetrator, Matias Reyes, confessed to the crime and his DNA match that found on the victim. The prosecutor in the case, Linda Fairstein, says that, 'oh no, they have not been exonerated. The one culprit has confessed. The others were properly prosecuted.' What are we to make of this?
JIM DWYER When the Manhattan District Attorney's Office led by Robert Morgenthau, the same person who was in charge during the original prosecution, took the newly available admissions from Matias Reyes and put them into the picture, it showed to him the no guilty verdict against those five would have been sustained. In fact, Morgenthau told me that he could not have reached probable cause, which is the standard for indictment to charge those five given the information that Reyes had presented to them. It exposed all the weaknesses in the case. I think there's no way that any reasonable person can say that this was good law enforcement when a predator who had attacked a woman in that same area of the park two days before and was identified by that victim and then goes on to attack four more people and murder one, that this was a successful prosecution, that this was a wise and efficient use of law enforcement.
BOB GARFIELD As I watched this film, the holes in the prosecution are so gaping. Exculpatory evidence was withheld from the defense. The lack of a DNA match. The defense didn't know about until they heard about it at trial. Beginning with you, why did you not seize on it more? You say you mentioned it in your coverage but you didn't go on a reportorial tear, did you?
JIM DWYER No I didn't. I accepted the narrative that there had been a gang rape. I just did not accept the plausibility of some of the individual accounts of it. That was my fatal error. Why didn't I? Well, I don't know why didn't. I think all of us have learned a lot in the last 30 years about the ability of people to be coerced or pressed into giving statements against themselves. That's been very evident from the era of DNA exonerations that we've been living through. It was not as evident to me. It was counterintuitive to me that three boys would go on video cameras with their parents sitting in the room and confess to this awful crime. Today it does make sense, a lot more sense. Not because of this case alone but because of many, many other cases. And the reality is that voluntariness is much different concept than reliability.
BOB GARFIELD We've discussed your experience covering the story and lingering regrets about what you did not do. In the intervening time, among your many books, one is on wrongful conviction. Was it that case that put that into your head?
JIM DWYER I would say that my interest in--in the workings and misworkings of the justice system was stimulated before I realized how badly the Central Park Five case had been bungled by the system and by the reporters like myself. And my interest was certainly enhanced when I realized how screwed up we had gotten it later on. I had forgotten that I had any doubts about the case when they were exonerated, sad to say.
BOB GARFIELD You know, I was prepared to ask you why it's lingered with everybody else, but now that you mention it, I don't think it has lingered. I think it happened. It was in the public's eye and mind at the time. But now with a of Ava Duvernay's mini series they're back. And I'm--I'm tempted to say with a vengeance.
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JIM DWYER You know what, there's a lot still to learn about this case. And I intend to learn it.
BOB GARFIELD Jim, thank you.
JIM DWYER You're welcome.
BOB GARFIELD Jim Dwyer is a columnist for The New York Times.
BROOKE GLADSTONE Coming up, unmasking an American disaster hiding in plain sight–the eviction crisis.