By: Hugh B. Price
National Urban League
"Don't do the crime if you can't do the time," went the popular saying of a few years back.
But what if you didn't do the crime? Do you still have to do the time?
That is one of the many larger questions thrown up against the canvas of American society by the dramatic, stunning turnaround in the notorious Central Park Jogger case.
The case, involving the brutal beating and rape of a young white investment banker and the arrest and conviction of five black teenagers, aged 14 to 16, for the crime, ignited a racial firestorm in New York City thirteen years ago.
This year, years after the teens, now men, having served their sentences, were released from prison, it has returned to raise haunting questions about the administration of justice then—and now.
For now, the Manhattan District Attorney, after months of investigation, has issued a lengthy document recommending that the convictions of the five be vacated—dismissed from the official records.
The action came after another man, Matias Reyes, now serving a 33-year-to-life sentence for three rapes and the murder of a pregnant woman that occurred shortly after the Central Park attack, confessed that he was responsible for that crime, too.
His confession, the District Attorney's investigation declared, has been corroborated by his knowledge of the crime scene in the park, of how the crime developed—and, most tellingly, by the fact that his DNA matched that found on the body of the Central Park jogger just after she was discovered. Ironically, Reyes himself had surfaced as a suspect but was never interviewed by the police at the time.
By contrast, although the five teens, arrested that night on suspicion of staging numerous assaults against joggers and bicyclists in the park, made statements incriminating each other—but not themselves—their accounts of how the crime actually occurred were inconsistent and contradictory. And no semen from them was found either on the victim or at the crime scene.
Now, it is clear, they were not guilty of that crime. They have suffered a grievous injustice.
In saying this, I do not for a moment forget the horrible pain and injury the Central Park jogger suffered. Her agony should not be forgotten: She was found semi-conscious in a pool of blood on a muddy horse path. Her body temperature was 84 degrees, her skull had been fractured, and she had lost 75 percent of her blood. The person responsible for that crime deserves decades in prison.
But Matias Reyes, although he did commit this horrendous crime, and although he is serving a decades-long prison sentence for his other brutal crimes against women,
cannot be brought to justice for this crime. The statute of limitations has expired.
We've recently been discovering in one tragic instance after another the cost to us all of individuals charged for and convicted of crimes which they did not commit, including convictions for murder which brought a death sentence.
The cost is the intolerable compounding of the tragedy of a crime being committed with the tragedy of a person innocent of the crime being nonetheless swept up in the criminal justice system, and, often, the further tragedy of the actual perpetrator of the crime not being brought to justice at all.
Newsday this very week has published a four-part series about men who, having spent years in prison for crimes they did not commit, are now trying to put their lives back together.
These cases of individuals found guilty—until proven innocent, often after having served years and even decades in prison—are too numerous to pretend any longer that they are the random accidents of a smoothly-working and just criminal justice system.
For example, the Innocence Project, based at New York City's Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, has played a leading role in the use of DNA testing to "prove innocent" 102 people wrongly convicted of rape and murder during the past decade.
As Rob Warden, director of the Center on Wrongful Convictions at Northwestern University Law School, asked recently, "how many hundreds, thousands of people are languishing in prison for crimes they did not commit?"
Those who are interested in the fair administration of justice and the safety of all people from crime cannot afford to ignore the warning signs—like the Central Park Jogger case—that something is seriously wrong with our criminal justice system.
Think of the travails of the Central Park jogger, and of the five men stigmatized for a crime they did not commit. And then think of the three women Matias Reyes raped and the one woman he murdered after eluding the attention of the police who were focusing on the wrong people.
We've already gotten too much evidence that for too many people—those victimized by crime and those wrongly accused of crime—what we have now is a criminal injustice system.
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