Real justice for the Central park jogger?
Desperate to break the case, cops pinned the near-deadly rape of a Big Apple banker on the wrong guys
The attack on New York banker Trisha Meili was undoubtedly a hideous crime, but it resulted in a serious miscarriage of justice
‘ Wilding’ was a phenomenon in New York City in 1989. Juvenile gangs prowled public spaces finding people to intimidate, rob or worse – as Trisha Meili discovered.
Out for her evening jog, Trisha was set upon. She was stabbed five times, severely beaten, raped and sodomised. She was found naked, bound and gagged. The first police officer to see her was appalled and said, “She was beaten as badly as anyone I’ve ever seen beaten. She looked like she was tortured.”
With such severe injuries doctors gave her the last rites. The New York Police Department listed the attack as a probable homicide. But she miraculously survived.
Public outrage and pressure to catch those responsible was enormous. On the night of 19 April a gang of 30 teenagers had rampaged through Central Park attacking whoever they came across.
Leading the outrage was Donald Trump. Specifically referencing the Central Park attack, he placed adverts in major New York newspapers calling for the reinstatement of New York’s death penalty. He also lambasted what he saw as the disparity between the rights of criminals and victims.
The NYPD swept the park making a number of arrests, including Raymond Santana and Kevin Richardson. Antron McCray, Yusef Salaam and Korey Wise, identified by others, were arrested later.
Before long they were accused of attacking Trisha Meili. They later claimed innocence, accusing police of denying their legal rights and intimidating them into confessing. All were convicted.
As juveniles Salaam, 15, McCray, 15, Richardson, 14 and Santana, 14, received the maximum sentence of five to ten years. Wise, 16 years old, received five to 15 years. But their convictions soon came under fire. Tests suggested Meili’s attacker was a single unidentified suspect whose DNA didn’t match any of the teenagers. The NYPD was accused of racism and of framing them.
The scales of justice tipped in 2001 while convicted serial rapist Matias Reyes was doing time in Auburn Correctional Facility. At Auburn Reyes met Wise, then serving his sentence. Reyes confessed in 2002. On further investigation Reyes’s DNA matched that of the attacker. He also knew very specific details of the attack.
Reyes claimed he’d acted alone. Already serving life imprisonment for several similar crimes, further similarities emerged with the Central Park attack. Meili had been tied up using her own T- shirt in a way similar to Reyes’s other victims. Other evidence corroborated much of his confession.
That Reyes couldn’t be prosecuted also worked in the defendants’ favour as his confession was unforced. Under New York law the statute of limitations ( a time limit for bringing prosecutions) had passed. Reyes had nothing to lose by admitting the crime, but Richardson, Santana, Wise, Salaam and McCray had everything to gain.
Strands of hair from Richardson’s underpants were also re- examined.
They didn’t match those of the victim as prosecutors had claimed at his trial. Reyes’s testimony, albeit coming from a serial violent offender described by psychiatrists as incapable of telling the truth, weighed heavily in their favour.
Although Reyes couldn’t be prosecuted for Trisha Meili’s attack, the convictions of Salaam, Wise, Richardson, Santana and McCray could be vacated.
District Attorney Robert M. Morgenthau withdrew the charges against the boys, citing the DNA evidence, Reyes’s unforced confession and the dubious confessions at their original trial. On 19 December 2002 New York Supreme Court Justice Charles Tejada acted on the recommendation, vacating the convictions.
But this was not the end for all concerned. In 2002 New York City Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly enlisted prominent lawyers Michael Armstrong and Jules Martin, along with Stephen Hammerman ( the city’s deputy police commissioner for legal affairs) to produce the ‘ Armstrong Report’ on the case.
The report disputed Reyes’s claim to have acted alone, suggesting it was most likely that either Reyes took advantage of the situation after the boys had already attacked Trisha Meili, or that he was working with them. As Armstrong himself later stated regarding the group’s original testimony and confessions, “It seems impossible to say they weren’t there at all because they knew too much.”
In 2003 Santana, Richardson and McCray sued the city, requesting $ 250 million in damages. City lawyers stalled the case until 2013, when Mayor Bill de Blasio agreed to settle for a total of $ 41 million dollars. Wise, who served the longest sentence, received $ 12.2 million. Richardson, McCray, Santana and Salaam each received $ 7.1 million. The city, meanwhile, has yet to admit to any wrongdoing in the case.
Trump, meanwhile, maintained his position on the case. Again he publicly blasted what he saw as criminals enjoying greater protection than the victims. During his 2016 presidential campaign he continued asserting their guilt and blasted the city for settling the case. Members of the Central Park Five, particularly Salaam, were highly offended by his remarks. Republican Senator John McCain later cited them as one of his many reasons for withdrawing his endorsement of Trump.
Not surprisingly, Trisha Meili herself suffered the most. Some of her injuries were permanent. Others took months and years to heal. The mental anguish is likely to remain forever, but she has overcome her ordeal by working as an inspirational speaker and collaborating with a sexual assault and violence intervention programme.
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