Coerced confessions and fightbacks: the new norms of bourgeois ‘justice’

A few days ago the Central Park Five, a group of five young Black men who were framed up for the rape and assault of a jogger in New York’s Central Park in 1989, won a settlement of $41 million in their civil case against the city for compensation for unjust imprisonment.

New York City Hall, June 27 2014. Central Park Five and their supporters announce $41 million settlement. Yusef Salaam, centre, white shirt, flanked by Raymond Santana  (pink shirt) and Kevin Richardson (blue shirt). Photo: Bebeto Matthews AP

New York City Hall, June 27 2014. Central Park Five and their supporters announce $41 million settlement. Yusef Salaam, centre, white shirt, flanked by Raymond Santana (pink shirt) and Kevin Richardson (blue shirt). Photo: Bebeto Matthews AP

Twenty-five years after their unjust conviction, the wounds still run deep. Tears welled in the eyes of Kevin Richardson, one of those jailed, as he recalled the slanderous and hysterical press campaign that fed the frame-up. “People called us animals, a wolf pack. It still hurts me emotionally. They dehumanised us.”

He continued, “But we’re still here. We’re strong.”

This weekend I watched a documentary about this case made by Ken Burns, David McMahon, and Sarah Burns, released in 2012. Based on extended interviews with the five men and their families, the movie is an outstanding anatomy of a frame-up, and is well worth watching for that reason alone. But an even more compelling aspect of the movie is watching the transformation of the Five themselves, from naive fourteen-to-sixteen-year-olds, innocent in every sense of the word, into articulate, courageous fighters for justice.

On the evening of April 19, 1989, Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam Raymond Santana, and Korey Wise had been in Central Park, hanging out with a larger group of about thirty youths on the eve of a school holiday, most of whom were unknown to them and to each other. Some of the others in the group got involved in some anti-social behaviour, throwing rocks at cars, harassing a couple on bicycles and beating up a homeless man. Police arrived, and arrested a number of youths in connection with these incidents, including the Five.

Several hours later, the jogger was found, badly beaten, near-naked and seemingly on the brink of death from hypothermia and loss of blood. She was later named as Trisha Meili, 28, an investment banker. She survived, but with severe permanent injuries and disabilities.

The assault on Trisha Meili was a shocking crime. As news of it spread, the police, who had apparently been about to charge the youths they had arrested earlier with minor crimes and release them, decided to hold them, and began a concerted effort to tie them to the assault on the jogger.

Inflammatory headlines played to fears of gang violence

Inflammatory headlines played to fears of gang violence

This mostly involved aggressive, hectoring, right-in-the-face interrogations by pairs of cops, extending over many hours of detention – 30 hours straight for one of the boys. Each of the boys – who were between fourteen and sixteen – was separately told that the others were accusing them of being ‘the one that did it,’ and each was told that implicating the others was the only way to clear himself. Some were denied the right to have their parents present during questioning.

Provocative headlines described the accused as a 'teen wolfpack'

Headlines described the accused as a ‘teen wolfpack’

Gradually their insistence that they knew nothing about a female jogger was worn down. Before very long each of them was persuaded to sign a statement, the details of which were dictated by the police, and which implicated themselves and their co-accused in the rape. “He told me to say it so I could go home,” the young Kevin Richardson told his sister when she asked why he had signed the incriminating statement.

The film’s co-director Ken Burns explains, “The thing to understand is that there were many, many kids rounded up as a result of them going into the park on the evening before they had the day off from school, and a felony was committed. Most of the kids that were picked up had already been in the system before and they knew exactly what to do – they knew to ask for a lawyer; they knew to stop talking; they knew to ask for their parents.

“These (the Central Park Five) were in fact good kids. They hadn’t had any experience with the system. They didn’t know what to do and their attempt to please the people who were yelling at them and threatening them was so intense, as it was on the part of their parents, that I think we ended up in the circular firing squad that took place in those five separate interrogation rooms.”

central_park_five wolf packMeanwhile, a hysterical press campaign had been set in motion, describing the arrested youths as a marauding wolf pack. Millionaire businessman Donald Trump weighed in on this, taking out full page advertisements in the major newspapers under the heading “Bring back the death penalty.”  Describing “a world ruled by the law of the streets, as roving bands of wild criminals roam our neighbourhoods,” Trump said “I want to hate these muggers and murderers. They should be forced to suffer and, when they kill, they should be executed for their crimes. They must serve as examples so that others will think long and hard before committing a crime or an act of violence.”  This press campaign played to a city where the fear of street crime had long been an issue played upon by local capitalist politicians.

Full-page advertisement bought by Donald Trump

Full-page advertisement bought by Donald Trump

In the atmosphere whipped up by this campaign, the outcome of the trials was a foregone conclusion. All evidence indicating doubt about the veracity of the confessions – such as the important fact that semen found on the victim did not match the DNA of any of the Five – was brushed aside.

One of the jurors speaks in the movie, a man who could see that “some of the detectives were obviously lying through their teeth” about the circumstances under which the confessions had been obtained. He also noted other weaknesses of the prosecution, such as the contradictions in the confession statements. “No blood on the kids, no one could identify them. It was just a question of believing the confessions or not. And it was very hard to imagine why anyone would make up something that not only incriminates them, but is full of details that sound like they actually happened…In the end I just went along with [the majority of the jury] because, frankly, I was just wiped out.”

sketch of trial of Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana, and Antron McCray, by Christine Cornell

sketch of trial of Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana, and Antron McCray, by Christine Cornell

All the Five were convicted and imprisoned. As juveniles, Antron McCray, Kevin Richardson, Yusef Salaam and Raymond Santana were sentenced to five to ten years. Korey Wise, being sixteen at the time, was sentenced as an adult to five to fifteen years. McCray, Richardson, Salaam and Santana served about seven years before being conditionally released.

Wise served his sentence in adult prisons, and was the last to be released. It was this accidental circumstance that led to the unravelling of the frame-up thirteen years later. At Auburn prison Wise got to know another prisoner, Matias Reyes, in late 2001. Reyes began telling other prisoners that he had done the crime for which Wise was in prison. Eventually he gave a statement, which included details of the crime which could only have been known by someone who was there at the time. An exhaustive re-examination of the case was begun. The DNA evidence matched Reyes. Reyes said he had done the crime alone. This fitted the pattern of a series of other rapes he had committed, including one only two days before his attack on Trisha Meili in Central Park.

Eventually, in 2002 a motion by lawyers for the Five to overturn their convictions was granted, and the last ones still in prison were released. Lawyers for the Five filed a lawsuit for compensation.

Donald Trump

Donald Trump

At that point, the frame-up machine went into damage-control mode. The press which had bayed for blood in 1989 was muted in reporting the overturn of the convictions. One of the prosecutors stated that she stood by the convictions, claiming that Reyes did not act alone. The city administration of Mayor Michael Bloomberg fought the claim for compensation for years. The police investigated their own conduct of the case, and concluded that they had done nothing wrong. Donald Trump, for his part, recently called the $41 million settlement a disgrace. “Speak to the detectives on the case and try listening to the facts. These young men do not exactly have the pasts of angels,” he wrote.

By continuing to insist that the Five were guilty in the face of all the facts now known, Trump and the prosecutor were revealing what they really meant by ‘guilty’ all along: guilty of being young and Black. By insisting that there was nothing wrong with their conduct, the police were in effect giving the official stamp of approval to methods of interrogation that had brought about five false confessions.

And in the years since this frame-up unravelled, ever-greater reliance on confessions, extracted under threat of more serious charges – so-called plea-bargaining – has become central to the policy of mass incarceration in the US. Today some 97% of criminal convictions in the US are obtained without the case even going to trial, under the plea-bargaining system. Coerced confessions are now the norm.

No change, then, in the behaviour of the Donald Trumps of the world, their venal press, and their police and justice system. The routine bullying, the casual disregard for facts, the deliberate lying, the direct buying of influence with vast quantities of money, the racial profiling of young Black men as criminals, the career-building of lawyers, mayors, and journalists at the cost of wrecked lives, all this continues just as before. Nor did – or do – any of these practices serve the interests of Trisha Meili or any other victim of rape. With the Five locked up and the case closed, Reyes went on to commit a series of other brutal attacks on women.

In stark contrast to this picture of generalised rottenness and moral degeneracy was the conduct of the Five and their loyal mothers, fathers, sisters, and other supporters, as they came together to fight the injustice.

This comes through in a striking way in the film, as the Five describe how they re-grouped after each new blow. As the terrible ordeal unfolded, as they fought to maintain the innocence they had been tricked and coerced into signing away, the Five soon lost their naïveté. But they lost none of their honesty and integrity, and they quickly gained experience, resilience, and great moral strength. They talk about having to learn how to cope with the hell of prison life and life after prison, the tragic family splits that occurred when the cops succeeded in convincing a relative of their guilt, how they responded to the promise of early release on parole if they would only ‘show remorse’ – meaning, admit their guilt – how they took advantage of the limited educational and work skills opportunities that were available to them in prison. Above all else, it was the great moral authority that they earned in this way that eventually shattered the frame-up – by convincing the real rapist that he should confess. Today, Kevin Richardson and Raymond Santana are health-care workers and unionists, members of health workers union 1199 SEIU. They, along with Yusef Salaam and Korey Wise, are active in the Innocence Project, helping others who have been wrongfully convicted. Kevin Richardson spoke the truth in announcing the settlement on June 27: “They dehumanised us. But we’re still here. We’re strong.”

This is the lasting impression left by the film: through this story of five young men, picked more or less randomly from among the crowd in Central Park that night, we get a glimpse of the inexhaustible reserves of courage, strength, solidarity and moral leadership that lie – latent, for the most part – in the working class and oppressed nationalities. It is these reserves that the working class will draw on when the time comes to sweep away the Donald Trumps and their ilk, along with the whole rotten structure on which they stand.

Teina Pora

Teina Pora

Footnote: Readers of this blog in New Zealand may have noticed the striking parallels with the case of Teina Pora, who was wrongfully convicted in the case of the 1992 rape and murder of Susan Burdett in Auckland, New Zealand. Like the Central Park Five, the 17-year-old Pora was convicted (of murder) on the basis of a false confession, taken without a lawyer present, despite the fact that DNA evidence found on the victim cleared him. As in the case of the Five, a serial rapist was later found to have been responsible for the rape. Malcolm Rewa was convicted of Burdett’s rape in 1998, based on DNA evidence. Rewa was convicted of a total of 24 separate rapes, and in every case he had acted alone.

Yet at this point, Pora’s murder conviction still stands. He was jailed for 21 years, before finally being released on parole in April this year. He is awaiting the opportunity to present an appeal of his conviction to the Privy Council.

As the latest in a long series of injustices, it has recently been revealed that the Parole Board imposed on Pora, as a condition of his release, a life-long ban on his speaking to the media about his case. They have justified this decision as a concern for Pora’s privacy – the same Parole Board that saw fit to publish details of his sex life last year when he was on weekend release. Another rotten ‘justice’ system goes into damage control.

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