Prosecutors want convictions tossed in Central Park jogger assault
Dec. 5, 2002 01:20 PM
NEW YORK - Citing new DNA evidence, the district attorney asked a judge Thursday to throw out the convictions of five young men in one of the nation's most racially charged cases: the 1989 attack on a Central Park jogger who was raped, beaten and left for dead.
District Attorney Robert Morgenthau's recommendation came 11 months after a convicted rapist who had never before been under suspicion confessed and said he acted alone in committing the crime that had been blamed on a gang of "wilding" youths. DNA tests backed his claim.
Morgenthau said those tests convinced him to nullify the convictions. The evidence "creates a probability that the verdicts would have been more favorable to the defendants," he said.
The final decision on the convictions rests with state Supreme Court Justice Charles Tejada, who is expected to announce his ruling Feb. 6.
The five men, who were 14 to 16 at the time of the attack, have already completed jail terms ranging from six years to 11 1/2 years for the crime. The final defendant was released in August.
Exoneration could open the door to civil suits against the city and free the men, now mostly in their late 20s, from having to register as sex offenders for the rest of their lives.
The youths were also convicted of attacking several other people in the park that night, but Morgenthau said those should also be dropped. Prosecutors said "no useful purpose" would be served by a retrial for any of the crimes.
Word that a 28-year-old white investment banker had been attacked by a gang of black and Hispanic youths turned into one of the most racially charged cases in the city's history and it drew attention across the country.
The victim was left for dead in a pool of mud and blood on April 19, 1989, after dozens of teenagers descended on the park to mug runners and bicyclists in a crime spree dubbed "wilding."
That the attacks happened in Manhattan's bucolic oasis and were so random terrified many New Yorkers. They were also another blow to a city struggling with a soaring crime rate and a string of racial incidents, including Bernhard Goetz's shooting of black youths on the subway and attacks in the Howard Beach and Bensonhurst neighborhoods.
Some questioned whether the Central Park youths were rounded up because of their skin color and suggested police would not have pursued the case so aggressively had the victim been black or Hispanic. The boys were all from Harlem.
The victim has always said she had no memory of the attack and was unable to help identify any suspects.
Defense attorneys said the youths were coerced into bogus confessions by police. But until January's confession, there seemed to be little chance of overturning the convictions against Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Raymond Santana, Kharey Wise and Yusef Salaam.
The confession came from Matias Reyes, 31, who is currently serving a life sentence for raping three women near Central Park and for raping and killing a pregnant woman. He said he broke his long silence after finding religion.
Reyes told investigators he raped the jogger, crushed her skull with a rock and left her for dead. He also said he followed his usual pattern of acting alone.
"I was a monster," Reyes said in a recent television interview. "I did some real bad things to so many people and harmed them in so many ways."
Test results returned in May confirmed Reyes' DNA matched semen collected from the jogger's body. The same tests failed to link the five youths to the savage crime scene.
The woman lost three-quarters of her blood, and her body temperature dipped into the 80s. She was bruised from head to toe; on a scale of 3 to 15 used by neurologists to measure brain function, she was rated a 4. She spent 12 days in a coma.
The former prosecutor in the case, Linda Fairstein, recently said she has no doubts the five are guilty and that Reyes merely finished the assault.
Investigators said blond hair found on one of the youths matched that of the victim. But there was no match on semen samples, or other compelling physical evidence.
The men were convicted anyway in 1990 after jurors watched their videotaped confessions. "We all took turns getting on top of her," McCray, then 15, told police in one tape.
The defense insisted those confessions were forced out of the youths by police who kept them under questioning for hours.
Over the past year, the defense had said Reyes' confession, along with police knowledge that he had attacked another woman in the park two days earlier, were sufficient to nullify the convictions. But police and prosecutors said there was no guarantee he was telling the truth.
The jogger, an employee of Salomon Bros., is now 41 and has since made a recovery, lives in a Connecticut suburb and works for a nonprofit organization. She has been married for five years, and reportedly has a book due out in April.