Why 'Almost No One Got It Right' In NYC Rape Case

Trisha Meili was brutally beaten and raped while jogging in Central Park 23 years ago. The media frenzy and trial led to the convictions of five young men of color, dubbed "The Central Park Five." They were later found to be innocent. Host Michel Martin discusses the crime and its implications with Sarah Burns, author of a recent book on the case.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We're turning now, to a brutal crime from more than 20 years ago that reverberates to this day. If you lived in New York or visited New York in the '80s and '90s, then you probably remember the terrible story about the Central Park jogger.

On the morning of April 20, 1989, a young woman was discovered in Central Park. She'd been attacked the night before, beaten so badly, she lost nearly 80 percent of her blood. Within days, five black and Latino teens were picked up by police. They confessed to raping and beating her.

Despite the fact that their confessions contained numerous inconsistencies and inaccuracies, and that no DNA or eyewitness evidence tied them to the crime, they were tried as adults, convicted and sentenced to prison. They served their entire sentences before the truth came out. They were all innocent.

How this happened is the subject of a book and a forthcoming documentary by Sarah Burns, "The Central Park Five: The Untold Story." The paperback is just out and she's with us now from NPR West.

Sarah Burns, thanks so much for joining us.

SARAH BURNS: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: You know, this is one of those stories that I think people might associate with the 1940s and the segregated south, you know, something like the Scottsboro, you know, boys or something like that.

So could you set the stage for me? Tell us, what was the environment like in New York in that time?

BURNS: Sure. Well, New York in the 1980s in particular was very tense. There was a lot of racial tension. There were a number of these incidents that had sort of ratcheted that up, these violent incidents. A lot of people will remember Howard Beach and Bernie Goetz, the subway vigilante. A number of instances of police brutality and we were in the midst of a crack epidemic. And so, that increased crime - and people were afraid.

MARTIN: But you have some disturbing anecdotes in the book about the attitudes that some of the investigating officers had, like once these boys - and they were boys - they were all teenagers - were picked up, you know, you reported some of the comments that some of the investigating officers made openly that suggested that they had really prejudged this before the whole thing had even been fully investigated. Could you just give us one or two stories?

BURNS: I think that it was very easy for people to believe that these kids were guilty. And that had to do with that time, as you said, though I think that still goes on now - these same kinds of assumptions about, you know, black and Latino teenagers. And so I don't think the police really took the time to look at this carefully. They jumped to conclusions and then really went with that with a kind of tunnel vision.

MARTIN: Tell us about these so-called "confessions." And, you know, I put that in quotes. What were some of the clues that they were false? And did anybody, at the time, notice?

BURNS: Each of them gave written statements, though actually Yusef Salaam never signed one. His interrogation was interrupted, but they gave written statements and then the four gave videotaped statements, as well, but they had huge problems, as you mentioned before. They were inconsistent within themselves. They got details about where the crime had taken place wrong. They thought it was at the reservoir because that's where they actually were in the park, and not where it was, which was nearly half a mile away.

They got wrong who was there, and what had happened and what was done to the jogger. And, I mean, many details that were inconsistent with the facts of the case and the evidence, and also with each other's statements.

They really should have figured that out, I think, there was ample evidence that this stuff was totally wrong and then they also did DNA testing. It was a very early form of DNA testing, but it was available and it did not match any of them - and yet they went forward with the case.

MARTIN: Did nobody within the law enforcement apparatus around this, notice any of this?

BURNS: No one noticed. No one changed course or seemed to question it, but I would love to know if anyone did have suspicions and, if so, why they didn't speak up. It seems sort of obvious, that someone should have noticed this if anyone was really doing their job well. Almost no one got it right.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're talking about "The Central Park Five." That's the title of a book chronicling the notorious Central Park jogger rape that happened more than 20 years ago, today, and the mistaken convictions of five young men of color in connection with that crime. Our guest is author Sarah Burns.

Now, how did the errors finally come to light?

BURNS: Well, in 2002 - it's actually an amazing story. Matias Reyes is a serial rapist and murderer who is serving a life sentence, and he is the rapist of the Central Park jogger - was the rapist - and he bumped into Corey Wise, one of the Central Park five, while Corey was at the very end of his 13 years in prison. And Reyes realized that this guy was still serving time for a crime that he had committed.

Reyes had been convicted of a series of other crimes from around the same time and had been in prison since then, also. And he came forward at that time, after meeting Corey in prison, and the district attorney's office began a reinvestigation. They tested his DNA and it matched, and they went back and looked at his statements about this. And, even 13 years later, his statements about the crime, where and when and how - it did actually fit the evidence in a way that the statements of the five never had, even in the days afterwards.

MARTIN: But what about their lives? I mean, what's happened to them since? I mean, you noted in the book that they had had trouble getting work because they had been listed as sex offenders, and they had gone through a lot of emotional turmoil because they were expected to express remorse, which many of them could not do because they knew they were innocent. So what about now? How are they?

BURNS: You know, it's been very, very difficult for them. And as you said, you know, they - even after they got out of prison, they were registered sex offenders, and so it was incredibly difficult for them to get their lives back on track - even then.

Since the convictions were vacated in 2002, it's been somewhat easier. But I think that there's still a stigma attached and some people continue to argue that they are guilty, which makes it impossible for them to really move on and to truly feel like they can be free of this. And I don't think they every will be.

They are moving on with their lives, though. You know, they have jobs and some of them have families and they're trying to make a go of it.

MARTIN: And what about this young woman?

BURNS: She really made a miraculous recovery. She was left for dead and nearly died. As you said, she lost 80 percent of the blood in her body and was in a coma for nearly two weeks. They didn't think she would survive, or wake up from the coma, or walk again and she ran the New York City marathon in 1996, so...

MARTIN: Wow.

BURNS: She made a really extraordinary recovery.

MARTIN: That's great to hear. But finally, what about the reputation of law enforcement in New York? Has that made a recovery? I mean, has anything been done to, kind of, keep something like this from happening again?

BURNS: The fear of crime is different. It's an incredibly safe city, especially relative to what it was in the late '80s and early '90s. But I do think that something like this could happen again, and that's because the practices in law enforcement have not really changed.

Interrogations, I think, are still done in the same way. And because, you know, the Innocence Project argues that - and many others - that all custodial interrogations should be videotaped, and that that would be a good protection. And I think that is the case, and that has not been adopted in New York, though I believe there's a limited pilot program where they're exploring that. I think that would be a very good thing.

But also, I think, because these suspicions of black and Latino teenagers remain, that they can be seen as suspicious just for being black and Latino teenagers. And that, I think, is what allowed everyone to believe that they were guilty of this crime. And I think it's the same thing that we see in the Trayvon Martin case, today, that a black teenager is seen as suspicious - for no reason.

MARTIN: Sarah Burns is the author of "The Central Park Five." It is just out in paperback. She is also working on a forthcoming documentary about this case, which will be presented at the Cannes Film Festival this year. And she was kind enough to join us from NPR West.

Sarah Burns, thanks so much for speaking with us.

BURNS: Thanks for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: Coming up, a musician who discovered her passion by actually listening to her mother.

RASHIDA JOLLEY: I had studied different instruments, violin, piano, flute. And, one day, she just said, harp is the one, so I ended up falling in love with this instrument and never letting go of it.

MARTIN: Now, Rashida Jolley uses that harp to create a sound that's all her own. That's ahead in a special performance and conversation on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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