Real jus­tice for the Cen­tral park jog­ger?

Real Crime - - Contents - Words Robert Walsh

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

Back­ground

‘ 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.

TURN­ING POINT

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.

Af­ter­math

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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