More than two decades after five teenagers confessed to raping and brutally beating a Central Park jogger, those same five are poised to receive millions from New York City.
Despite the confessions, the five were ultimately exonerated and later sued New York City for $US50 million each. That lawsuit is nearing a settlement, meaning the five defendants could get large payouts soon.
The long history of their notorious case, known as the Central Park Five, has raised questions about why people make false confessions and who’s to blame for them.
On the night of April 19, 1989, a 28-year-old white woman was viciously raped and beaten to the brink of death while jogging in Central Park. Hispanic and black teenagers Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana, Yusef Salaam, and Kharey Wise were convicted and sentenced to prison based on videotaped confessions.
The five convicted teens served between five and 13 years in prison. But then in 2002, a man named Matias Reyes admitted to committing the crime alone. His DNA was linked to the crime scene. In the early 2000s, a judge dismissed the five convictions based on recommendations in a court filing written by Assistant District Attorney Nancy Ryan.
Ryan wrote in that filing that the original confessions were deeply flawed: “A comparison of the statements reveals troubling discrepancies … the accounts given by the five defendants differed from one another on the specific details of virtually every major aspect of the crime.”
In 2003, the five freed men filed a lawsuit against the city, alleging police had forced their confessions and seeking $US50 million each in damages. The plaintiffs’ attorney has said the city was happy letting that case drag on for a decade because it did not want to admit detectives and prosecutors didn’t do their jobs. “If, in fact these five young men were innocent, no one wants to explain how they were made to confess to a crime they did not commit,” Attorney Jonathan Moore told The Huffington Post in 2009.
This week, New York City lawyers said they intend to complete settlement talks by May to resolve the mens’ decade-long wrongful conviction lawsuit against the city, according to The New York Times.
In 2009, The Guardian’s Jill Filipovic gave this explanation for why five boys would confess to a crime none of them had committed:
“The Central Park Five all took back their confessions upon being formally arrested. They were kids who had been kept awake for nearly two days and interrogated without attorneys present; they were told if they confessed, they could go home. The stories they told in their confessions were inconsistent with each other and with the physical evidence. Several of the boys said they stabbed the victim, but there were no knife wounds. Their stories varied on the location of the crime, the description of the victim and the timeline of the crime itself. There was little physical evidence tying them to the rape and beating.”
One detective, Tom McKenna, admitted lying to one of the teens by telling him police found his fingerprints on the jogger’s clothes, which wasn’t true. “We are allowed, by law, to use guile and ruse, and we do,” McKenna said, reported by New York Magazine. “People only give things up when you tell ’em you got ’em.” However, deceitful interrogation, including one method known as the “Reid Technique,” has been criticised in the past for its tendency to produce false confessions.
Ken Burns has directed a new documentary, “The Central Park Five,” which argues the coercive and manipulative interrogations did indeed cause false confessions. In a short video on the documentary’s PBS webpage, one of the five said detectives asked endless questions and deprived him of food, drink and sleep. “It just kept going on and on and on,” Kevin Richardson recalled. “We stopped a few times because I was crying. I had no protection, my father didn’t do anything. I was scared.”
“What happened over the next day or so was just merciless interrogation by the city’s most dedicated professionals,” Ken Burns said in the same video. “They worked these kids and it was kind of a circular firing squad. They said, ‘Look, we know you didn’t do it but another guy that you’ve never heard of is saying you did it, so if you tell us that he did it then we’ll let you go.'”
That video also featured Social Psychologist Saul Kassin, who commented on the effects the lengthy interrogation, lasting 14 to 30 hours, had on the 14- to 16-year-old boys. “When you are stressed, when you are tired, when you are a juvenile and not fully mature and developed, you’re thinking, ‘Right now, I just want this to stop.'”
According to the Innocence Project, approximately 25% of DNA exoneration cases involve innocent defendants who originally made false confessions or statements, or even pleaded guilty. The Innocence Project said false confessions are a result of many factors, such as:
- Exhaustion from lengthy interrogations
- The misguided belief that they will be released after confessing, so they will have time to prove their innocence later
- Some are told they will be convicted even without a confession, but a confession would mean a lesser sentence
- Interrogators tell some suspects that a confession is their only way to avoid execution
- In the case of juveniles, they may have less awareness of the situation and are more easily manipulated
But what about suspects who give detailed false confessions that match real occurrences at the crime scene, even if they were never there? The Innocence Project’s answer for that is a phenomenon it calls confession contamination, where interrogators reveal specific facts about the crime to their suspect during the course of the investigation. That allows an innocent suspect to make a false yet detailed confession by simply repeating the account given to him by the interrogator.
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