It has been 30 years since a group of five teenagers were accused and prosecuted for raping and beating a female jogger in New York City’s Central Park. What followed was one of the biggest mismanagements of a criminal investigation in the history of the United States.
Five teenage boys, four of whom were black and one of Hispanic heritage, saw their childhood end on April 19, 1989. That day also marked the beginning of a nightmare that dragged on for 13 years. Not only were the boys wrongfully accused and terribly mistreated by the New York Police Department, they were demonized by the media for crimes they did not commit.
After their arrest, the teens were interrogated for nearly 30 hours and as Yusef Salaam, one of the suspects, later recalled “the police deprived us of food, drink or sleep for more than 24 hours.” In addition to the conditions by which they were treated, the five accused were individually coerced to admit their part in the assault, some without the presence of their parents. Despite videotaped confessions from each of the five, none of their initial stories lined up with each other, which later raised questions about the tactics police used and the diligence they used to solve the crime.
What followed the interrogations and confessions, was nothing short of a media frenzy and social circus. Newspapers were quick to condemn the boys and one headline asserted their affiliation with a gang or “wolfpack” was used in the media circuit at the time, also NYC
mayor Ed Koch was on record calling the boys “animals.” Even future U.S. president, Donald Trump, paid for a full-page ad that ran in four New York newspapers in 1989, calling for the return of the death penalty in New York because of the five boys.
Trump’s fiery rebuke of a case that hadn’t even been tried was just the tip of the iceberg, even after their sentences were vacated due to DNA evidence and a confession by the man who committed the assault and rape.
In a TV interview, Trump said he hated the alleged rapists and “maybe hate is what we need if we’re gonna get something done.” His disdain went one step further when he penned an opinion piece in the New York Daily News in 2014, calling the settlement of the Central Park Jogger case a “disgrace.” He even doubled-down during his 2016 run for the presidency, echoing his remarks from his appearance on TV during the controversy.
When the verdicts were handed down, after two trials that spanned over four months, the boys were given sentences that ranged from five to 10 years. Then, in 2001, a prisoner named Matias Reyes who was serving a life sentence for multiple attacks (including rape), came forward and gave an unprovoked confession that he had raped and assaulted the Central Park jogger and he acted alone. The next year, once DNA evidence linked Reyes to the rape, the sentences for the five accused were vacated and they were released, as men.
This case, as well as countless others, demonstrates the flaws in the U.S. justice system and the systemic racism that exists, even to this day. Not only are black people more likely to be incarcerated for rape then white people, they are also wrongfully convicted as well.
According to report by National Registry of Exonerees,59 percent of sexual assault
exonerees are African Americans, four-and-a-half times their proportion in the population; thirty-four percent are white. To give more perspective, innocent black people are 3.5 times more likely to be convicted of sexual assault than their innocent white counterparts.
In addition to the disparity of convictions and wrongful accusations, the African American community is also plagued by police brutality and shootings of innocent civilians. Movements such as Black Lives Matter are raising awareness of these atrocities and social media helps shine light on a problem that existed for over century in America. For as much progress as the Civil Rights Movement made in the 1950s racism and racial bias is still prevalent.
One of the biggest lessons that can, and should, be learned from the Central Park Five case is the importance of transparency and diligence on the part of police and other public services. Some police departments require a new method of training to prevent future racial biases or assumptions that are often made about people because of their skin color.
While the racism may never go away, it is imperative that Americans band together to point out the instances when someone is being singled out or otherwise affected by racist behavior or bias. Hatred should never be brushed under a rug or hidden in silence; we should all use our voices to speak for the voiceless out there.