Central Park Five Settlement: Was Justice Served?
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Now, we turn to the latest chapter in a crime story that riveted and divided New York City more than 20 years ago. We are talking about the Central Park Five - that's the name that was attached to the group of black and Latino teenagers who were convicted - wrongly, it turns - out of raping and beating a female jogger in the park back in 1989. Eventually, another man confessed to the crime but that only came after the young men had spent years in prison. In 2012, we spoke with one of the Central Park Five, Raymond Santana, about the lawsuit that the group filed against the city. And this is what he had to say.
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RAYMOND SANTANA: Now the civil suit is going into its 10th year and, currently, we're in the deposition stages, which means that we still have some ways to go. And what happened is that because the city likes to use these stall tactics. And they have been implementing these tactics for the past nine years now and so it's currently at a standstill.
MARTIN: Well, the standstill ended last week when the city reached a $40 million settlement with the group. Here to talk to us about that and the case in general is Sarah Burns. She's the author of "The Central Park Five" - the untold story behind New York City's most infamous crimes. She's also co-producer of "The Central Park Five" documentary. Welcome back to the program, Sarah. Thanks for joining us once again.
SARAH BURNS: Thanks for having me.
MARTIN: What - do we know why this - after all this time - a settlement finally came together? What do you think were the critical factors?
BURNS: I think it was the new administration made all the difference. The entire 10 years - first 10 years of this case - was under the Bloomberg Administration. And I don't think there was any pressure on the city's law department to settle this case. In fact, it seems like their intention was to drag it out as long as possible. But during the mayoral campaign last year, Bill de Blasio - who ultimately became the mayor - commented on it during the campaign saying that he thought that there was a moral imperative to settle this case. And so there was - once he won - an obligation, I think, to come in and actually address this. And so from early on, you know, he appointed a new Corporation Counsel for the city and they began talking about settlements, I think, pretty much as soon as he came in. It was - they were going to address two things things - this case and stop-and-frisk. And they settled both of those lawsuits now within the first half a year.
MARTIN: Now obviously this is a complicated case, which is why you wrote a book about it and also produced a documentary about it because there was many elements to it. But briefly as you can - from the beginning, there was little physical evidence to connect these men to the crime, so what led to their convictions?
BURNS: Right. There was no physical evidence connecting them but they were coerced into giving statements that implicated themselves. They all thought they were going to be witnesses, you know, and implicate other people whom they often didn't even know. And so, you know, they were 14, 15, and 16 years old and I think very vulnerable to these seasoned detectives who interrogated them. And the problem is that everyone jumped to conclusions too quickly. The detectives - these kids had been in the park, part of a larger group who had harassed and assaulted some people - and so they were obvious suspects. But then it just snowballs and once everyone's decided they're guilty, the real facts - once the evidence comes back - the negative DNA tests don't change anyone's mind. And by then it's already a huge, sensational media story.
MARTIN: Why do you - tell us again about why this became such a sensational story? I mean, obviously, you know, one's heart goes out to this young woman who was, you know, grievously wounded and attacked and had suffered years of, you know, recovery as a consequence of it. But what do you think about this so gripped the city?
BURNS: Yeah, I think there were a lot of factors. As you said, the crime itself was a brutal, horrific crime. The fact that she survived at all was really miraculous. She was in a coma for several weeks and had no memory, of course, of the attack. But it was that it had happened in Central Park which is, you know, even at the time that was the butt of jokes about crime - nonetheless, a safe party of the city and a place that people thought of as, you know, a place to get away - this idyllic setting. And then there were these race and class issues. You have the accused are these young black and Latino teenagers from East Harlem. You have a victim who was a white woman, who was an investment banker. And it's this sort of clash of all of these things that are going on in the city that really made it perfect fodder for the tabloids.
MARTIN: What happened, though? The fact is this - that the person who - a person did claim responsibility for this. Unfortunately, this happened after - as I understand it, as I recall - most of the young men had served most of their sentences. But he did claim responsibility. It turned out he had a lengthy record of violence that did include sexual assault. It's my understanding that to this day, there are some people who do not believe these men are innocent. Why is that? Any ideas?
BURNS: Yes, that's true. You know, mostly the people who say that have some stake I think in that initial verdict. So you hear it from people who were involved in that original case for whom admitting that they're innocent would mean accepting that they had failed, that they had gotten this wrong, had made a mistake and that they are responsible for that. And so I think that's certainly a factor. And I think part of it is this sort of lingering racism that you see - that we saw in this case, initially, which is that it was far too easy for people to believe that these kids were guilty in the first place, I think because of who they were and what they looked like and where they came from. And I think that there's a kind of lingering sense of that now where it's hard to believe that they're innocent, even when the facts point in that direction.
MARTIN: What are they going to do now? What are their lives now? How have they been living these past couple of years?
BURNS: Yeah, I mean things have certainly been different for them since the convictions were vacated in 2002. That made it easier for them to get jobs. They're no longer registered sex offenders and don't have to, you know, put down their convictions on a job application. But that doesn't mean that life has been easy for them, certainly. I think they've all adjusted in their own ways and have had varying degrees of success. You know, they're working and some have families and stuff like that. But I think that having a settlement in the case - not just about the amount of money and what that does for their lives but really the fact of the - hopefully some closure for them and maybe the ability to move on and try to put this behind them to the extent that that's possible is really the significant thing.
MARTIN: Has the city put that behind it? Has anything changed as a result of all that went on then?
BURNS: You know, I think that New York City is, in some ways, a very different place than it was in 1989. Certainly, crime rates are a fraction of what they were then and so some of the accompanying fear of crime has also diminished. But I think that we still see a lot of the same racism that led to, I think, the reaction to this case in the first place. I mean, we've been talking a lot about stop-and-frisk in the last couple of years here and I think that that reflects a similar suspicion of black and Latino teenagers that we saw back then. So, in some ways, not much has changed and I don't think we've really learned the lessons of this case yet. I think we are more aware of false confessions and wrongful convictions thanks to all the exonerations that have taken place in the last 20 years. That seem to be speeding up all the time. But, you know, I think we still make some of these same assumptions and so we're still - we're still working on that.
MARTIN: What has been the response to the settlement? I understand that certain high-profile figures - for example, Donald Trump has been critical of it. What has been the reaction to the settlement so far? It's very new information but what are you hearing?
BURNS: Sure. And it's not even, I think, - I mean - we're not even - this isn't official news. We don't actually know. It's not confirmed yet. But it certainly seems like that's where things are headed is towards a settlement. Why we're even asking Donald Trump what he thinks of this - I'm not sure. But, you know, for the most part I think the response has been very positive. Everything that I've read - or just about everything - has been we know that these guys are innocent and that it's been a very - you know it's been 25 years since we got this wrong and it's now time to finally try to make it right a little bit. So that's mainly been the response. I mean, I think other than people who, again I said, are invested in that original outcome. I think people are now coming to understand what really happened in this story.
MARTIN: Very briefly, Sarah, if you don't mind my asking - very briefly if you can -you've invested a lot of your own time in reporting on this story. I was just wondering why it captivates you so much.
BURNS: Yeah, you know, I have. It's been over a decade now. I first wrote about it as an undergraduate. It was my senior essay in college. And then I kind of couldn't let go of it. You know, it seems like such an important story and at the time when it really hadn't been told I think that people knew the story of the Wilding in Central Park and the Central Park Jogger Rape and these kids who've been convicted. And when they were - turned out they were innocent, that wasn't the story. And that bothered me.
MARTIN: Sarah Burns is the author of "The Central Park Five" and she's co-producer of the documentary of the same name. And we reached her at her home office in New York City. Sarah Burns, thanks for speaking with us.
BURNS: Thanks for having me.
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