‘Justice delayed is justice denied,’ – Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
The five men whose convictions in the brutal 1989 beating and rape of a female jogger in Central Park were later overturned have agreed to a settlement of about $40 million from New York City to resolve a bitterly fought civil rights lawsuit over their arrests and imprisonment in the sensational crime.
The agreement, reached between the city’s Law Department and the five plaintiffs, would bring to an end an extraordinary legal battle over a crime that came to symbolize a sense of lawlessness in New York, amid reports of “wilding” youths and a marauding “wolf pack” that set its sights on a 28-year-old investment banker who ran in the park many evenings after work.
The confidential deal, disclosed by a person who is not a party in the lawsuit but was told about the proposed settlement, must still be approved by the city comptroller and then by a federal judge.
The initial story of the crime, as told by the police and prosecutors, was that a band of young people, part of a larger gang that rampaged through Central Park, had mercilessly beaten and sexually assaulted the jogger. The story quickly exploded into the public psyche, fanned by politicians and sensational news reports that served to inflame racial tensions.
The five black and Hispanic men, ages 14 to 16 at the time of their arrests, claimed that incriminating statements they had given had been coerced by the authorities. The statements were ruled admissible, and the men were convicted in two separate trials in 1990.
In December 2002, an investigation by the Manhattan district attorney, Robert M. Morgenthau, found DNA and other evidence that the woman had been raped and beaten not by the five teenagers but by another man, Matias Reyes, a convicted rapist and murderer who had confessed to acting alone in the attack. Concluding that the new evidence could have changed the original verdict, Mr. Morgenthau’s office joined a defense motion asking that the convictions be vacated.
If approved, the settlement would fulfill a pledge by Mayor Bill de Blasio to meet a “moral obligation to right this injustice.”
The proposed settlement averages roughly $1 million for each year of imprisonment for the men. That amount would suggest that the city was poised to pay one of the men, Kharey Wise, who spent about 13 years in prison, more than it has in any wrongful conviction case.
The other four men — Kevin Richardson, Antron McCray, Yusef Salaam and Raymond Santana Jr. — served about seven years in prison.
The lawsuit had accused the city’s police and prosecutors of false arrest, malicious prosecution and a racially motivated conspiracy to deprive the men of their civil rights, allegations which the administration of Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg denied and fought vigorously for more than a decade in federal court.
In contesting the suit, the Bloomberg administration argued that the authorities had acted in good faith and with cause, and should not be held liable. In 2011, a senior corporation counsel lawyer said that the charges had been supported by “abundant probable cause, including confessions that withstood intense scrutiny, in full and fair pretrial hearings and at two lengthy public trials.
In early 2013, the city’s Law Department echoed those views. “The case is not about whether the teens were wrongly convicted,” a department spokeswoman said. “It’s about whether prosecutors and police deliberately engaged in misconduct.”
But in January, lawyers for Mayor de Blasio asked the court to delay the litigation so that the new corporation counsel, Zachary W. Carter, could “get up to speed on the facts and the circumstances” of the case. Later, the mayor said that Mr. Carter was “committed to making sure we get to that settlement quickly, some complicated issues, but we’re going to work through them very, very quickly.”
If the proposed settlement is approved by the comptroller, Scott M. Stringer, it would then be submitted for approval to Judge Deborah A. Batts of Federal District Court in Manhattan. In 2007, Judge Batts rejected the city’s motion to dismiss the suit and allowed most of the claims to proceed.
In such settlements, the city typically does not admit liability or wrongdoing; and any settlement with the five men would presumably include the legal fees and costs. Aides to Mr. de Blasio, Mr. Carter and Mr. Stringer all declined to comment on Thursday when asked about the discussions, as did Jonathan C. Moore, a lawyer representing four of the men. A lawyer for the fifth man did not return a message seeking comment.
The proposed deal comes not long after the city said it would settle two longstanding lawsuits involving the Police Department’s stop-and-frisk practices. In that litigation as well, Mr. de Blasio reversed the city’s long-held position, and he agreed to sweeping court-ordered reforms that the Bloomberg administration had tried to block on appeal.
The mayor made that announcement at a news conference in Brownsville, Brooklyn, where stop-and-frisk tactics had been widely used. He appeared with Mr. Carter; the police commissioner, William J. Bratton; and, in a show of unity, lawyers with groups that had sued the city.
It is not yet known if or how the mayor might announce a settlement of the Central Park lawsuit, if it is approved.
Over the years, the men have consistently maintained their innocence in the rape of the jogger, Trisha Meili, who was left with no memory of the attack. (Years later, Ms. Meili revealed her identity and wrote a book, “I Am the Central Park Jogger.”) In prison, three of the men — Mr. Richardson, Mr. Salaam and Mr. Santana — maintained their innocence in the rape at parole hearings, where such a stance hurt their chances at a reduced term. At the hearings, the men acknowledged being in the park as part of a group of teenagers, some of whom committed assaults unrelated to the attack on Ms. Meili, and most expressed regret for the events, without going into specifics, transcripts show.
Mr. Santana indicated in his hearing that the larger group was out to rob people. “I took part in with the beatings of that man,” he said of one victim, adding, “If I could go back in time and not do it again, you know, it would have been a whole different story.”
The men’s lawyers have long said that their clients committed no crimes in the park that night.
In recent years, the case remained in the public eye, largely through a documentary, “The Central Park Five,” made by the filmmakers Ken Burns; his daughter, Sarah Burns; and her husband, David McMahon.
Blackamericaweb.com writes that Harlem’s Rev. Al Sharpton, who worked with families and supporters to overturn the convictions in the 90’s, says he’s glad that the men have finally been able to enjoy the victory they fought so hard for. “We took a lot of abuse for that, and the toll on these men and their supporters was terrible,” he told the New York Daily News. “I want to know we have things in place so that this doesn’t happen again.”
“This chapter of our racist history needs to be closed and never repeated again,” said Harlem Sen. Bill Perkins. “Hopefully this will never happen to anybody ever again.”
As recently as last Friday, about 100 people gathered at the Brown Memorial Baptist Church in Brooklyn to view the film and to hear a talk by one of the men, Mr. Salaam. He described the stigma of living with the brand of being a rapist. “It wasn’t a popular thing to be one of us,” he said. The film, he added, “really gave us our lives back.”
At one point, he addressed the lawsuit. “Mayor de Blasio has said that he will settle this case for us and there has been some positive motion,” Mr. Salaam said, adding, “We’ve been waiting for 25 years for justice.”