1989: THE CENTRAL PARK FIVE RAPE CASE. PART I
2016: LESSONS WE STILL HAVE NOT LEARNED!
Summer. 1989. Central Park. New York City. White woman is beaten, raped, left for dead. Five 14, 15 and one 16 year old Black and Latino kids arrested. Confessed to the crime. Tried, convicted, sent to prison. All maintained their innocence. 13 years later all charges against all five ware dropped. They were, in fact, innocent all along.
It’s 27 years after Salomon Brothers’ VP Trisha Meili was brutally raped and beaten, left for dead and spent a week in a coma. It’s 14 years since all charges were vacated and the Central Park Five released.
It’s 2016 and nothing much has changed. Since 1989. We’re talking. Sort of. But still nothing much.
Happened to catch a rebroadcast of Ken Burn’s excellent documentary, “The Central Park Five,” late the other night, (in reality, early the other morning) and I was struck again (I had seen it before) at how relevant his film is today, if not more so, than when it was originally broadcast back in 2012. A sad, even tragic case of injustice writ large, the case of the Central Park Five illustrates just how insidious are the problems in our justice system all the way from your local beat cop, Police Department errors and malfeasance, through our District Attorney and Public Prosecutor edifices, our jury system and the plight of minorities in our justice system. It’s all rather discouraging. [Ken Burns’ “The Central Park Five” is available on Netflix but is also rebroadcast on various PBS stations.]
If you’ve been following the Presidential campaigns – and it’s hard not to given the 24/7 coverage of The Donald – you will know that criminal justice reform is one topic that comes up occasionally. Nothing like the “building a wall” or “banning Muslims from entering America” for sure, but it’s there, mainly in debates and mainly on the Democratic side of the divide. But the issue has been mentioned by Republicans, if only marginally.
There is good reason for this nascent discussion. Our more recent history in the justice arena has arisen mainly from the killings of unarmed Black men at the hands of the police. This has activated a more general conversation about the overall fairness of our judicial system. Facts, in this discussion, do matter. The United Sates has more people in prison on a per capita basis (716 per 100,000) than any other of the world’s nations. Our prisons house 22% of the world’s incarcerated folks, yet we have only 4.4% of the world’s population. These facts have sparked a related conversation, incarceration among America’s minority groups. African Americans, who make up 13% of the U.S. population and Latinos who account for 17% of our population, or together about 30%, account for a whopping 60% of all prisoners. Prison terms for Black and Latino Americans convicted of a crime are longer than for Whites convicted of the same crime. Much of the rise in arrest and incarceration rates, as well as the privatization of our prison system, is the result of the “”War On Drugs” kicked off during the Nixon Administration in the 1970’s and continued through every administration since.
Those are the facts. Notwithstanding the right wing’s “Well, if Blacks/Latinos just obeyed the law, they wouldn’t be searched/arrested/shot,” their go to favorite reason for these disparities, it has been recognized that these results are racially motivated, not as a result of a character flaw in the genetic makeup of Blacks and Latinos, and are endemic throughout every level of our criminal justice system.
Back in the 1970’s and 1980’s the country was awash in serious crimes – robbery, assault, murder – due primarily to crack cocaine and the bulge in the U.S. population of folks in the age group who historically commit most crimes. (There is a very strong, statistically significant correlation between age – in this case, the 15 – 30 year age group – and the incidence of crime.) It was the time when “three strikes and you’re out,” “mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines,” and a huge explosion in prison construction were legislated.
Like the rest of the country, New York City in 1989 was no stranger to robberies, assault and murder. Like most American cities at the time, the “crime prone age” population was shifting through our society with devastating results. So when Trisha Mieli was found bloody and battered in Central Park late that summer evening, New Yorkers were outraged. They, in the words of Donald Trump, had had enough. He took out full page ads in several New York newspapers urging the reinstitution of the death penalty. In an “aberration” of NY police departmental policy of not releasing the names of juveniles charged with crimes, the names of all five were released to the press. The arrest of the Central Park Five, all teenagers, four 14 and 15 year olds, one 16 year old, was greeted with headlines like these:
In other words, they are Black and Latino, therefore, they are guilty. Less politely, “Niggers and Gang Bangers all.” They were convicted by the public before their trials and by the police, district attorneys and public prosecutors in the case and by the entire criminal justice system.
They were simply guilty and everyone knew it. Case closed.
End of Part I.