Black History Month Reflections from Fr. Brown: Central Park Five

By Rev. Timothy Brown, S.J.

Scene from Central Park with a tree and a streamI love teenagers. A friend of mine says: They congratulate you when you have a baby, but they don’t tell you that it will be a teenager. My first class were eighth graders and once I got to know them I loved them. They are thinking and curous and ready to try anything. They love responsibility and a reward for an accomplishment. Through teenagers I met the horrors of the prison system.

Karey Wise and Antron McCray came to our Community Center every day after school. Karey was thoughtful and helpful. Antron was a good student. One day they were snatched up as suspects in the Central Park Jogger Case. A business woman jogger had been found raped and half-dead along a path in Central Park. The teens were thought to have assaulted her. There were trails and videotaped confessions and televised discussions. There was no DNA match, but even Donald Trump demanded the death penalty.

Seven years later after all six had been sent to prison, Karey Wise encountered the real perpetrator. They had a terrible fight. Then the man came forward and confessed that he had attached the jogger, and his DNA matched. Cardinal O’Connor had tried to help the teens in any way he could. I visited him with Antron’s parents. They felt that Antron would never get to go to college. The Cardinal promised that he would pay for Antron’s college.

I loved those teens, and I suffered along with them. When they were acquitted, I hoped that the police officers who had pressured them into confessing to something they had not done would be held accountable. They never were.

In 2012 there appeared a documentary produced by Sarah Burns and Ken Burns, The Central Park Five. The film explored the way the teens were interrogated and how they were coerced into making confessions. The appearance of Matias Reyes who said that he had raped the jogger and left her for dead confirmed the innocence of the five teens. DNA evidence also confirmed it. District Attorney Robert Morgenthau threw out the convictions and State Supreme Court Justice Charles Tejada signed off on requests by defense attorneys to vacate the convictions and dismiss all charges against the Central Park 5.

Nevertheless, the New York Post in an editorial applauded Mayor Michael Bloomberg for refusing to settle the lawsuit, and for defending the “meticulous” police work in the case. The police had not connected the action of Matias Reyes with a rape and murder in the same area two days earlier. The Post called Morgenthau’s move “foolish.” Burns begs to differ. After years spent interviewing the Central Park Five and poring over transcripts and other evidence from the case, she believes that Morgenthau’s office finally did the right thing in 2002.

Asked why, despite the exoneration, a newspaper like the Post is still hanging on to the original version of the crime, Burns was blunt: “Just as the NYPD doesn’t want to admit they got it wrong back in 1989. “It was standard operating procedure back then for police to get a confession, then begin a videotape,” Scheck said. Now, he continued, we know better. “Every interrogation should be videotaped.”

“If this had been mandated in 1989, they wouldn’t have been able to coerce those confessions from those juveniles,” said Scheck. “There is almost nothing more powerful that can go in front of the jury than a confession. Hopefully jurors are becoming more aware that false confessions are something that happens.”

Cheryl Wills, a NY1 reporter commented that the taped confessions boosted news ratings and that was all they cared about—not the teenagers caught in the middle. No one even asked, “Could those statements have been coerced?”

Read other Black History Month Reflections by Father Brown

A Lucille Clifton Poem

A Langston Hughes Poem

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