Central Park Five Settlement Serves as a Reminder of the Need for Reform
By Julia Rossi and Shannon Vavra, Public Policy Undergraduate Interns

On Thursday, June 19, a group of five men, now known as the “Central Park Five,” agreed to a settlement of $40 million with New York City for their wrongful conviction in the Central Park jogger case of 1989. Justice has been long delayed for these men, and their case is one that exposes several flaws in our law enforcement infrastructure.

The story of the Central Park Five began 25 years ago, when a young woman was brutally attacked and raped while jogging in Central Park. She was left with significant brain damage and no memory of the incident while police scrambled to piece together the details of the crime. Within days, they concluded that a gang of as many as 30 young men had assaulted the young woman. Soon, the police had arrested five African-American and Hispanic adolescents, ranging from ages 14 to 16. The police interrogated each of them, without the presence of a parent or a lawyer, from 15 to 30 hours. Eventually, the young men were led to believe that they would be allowed to go home if they confessed. Tired and confused, they obeyed, and implicated one another in a series of contradictory statements.

Although all five youths recanted their statements as soon as they understood the situation, their fates had been sealed. Newspapers condemned the group as a “wolf pack” of merciless criminals, sparking nation-wide outrage. Prosecutors presented the confessions as incontrovertible evidence, which overcame substantial evidence of the young men’s innocence that was presented at trial, including that the DNA found at the crime scene matched none of the five adolescents. The Central Park Five were convicted of various charges, ranging from rape and assault to attempted murder. Eventually, in 2002, a man named Matias Reyes came forward and confessed to having committed the crime alone. His DNA matched the evidence collected at the crime scene, and the convictions of the Central Park Five were finally overturned — after the five young men had each spent between seven and 13 years in prison for a crime they had not committed.

Part of the problem in this series of events is that most juries do not understand the psychology behind false confessions; most people assume that the accused value self-preservation and would not confess to a crime he or she did not commit. Juries tend to dismiss the notion of false confession claims, although according to the National Registry of Exonerations, nearly 1400 exonerations have been achieved between 1989 and June 2014. Nearly 170 of these exonerations have been based on identifying false confessions, and those are only the ones the registry cites.

While the settlement is nearly finalized, this case starkly reveals the myriad costs of poor criminal justice practices. After filing suit in 2003 with New York City and accusing police and prosecutors of false arrest, malicious prosecution, and civil rights violations, administrative hurdles impeded a swift delivery of justice. The Bloomberg administration consistently fought the civil rights lawsuit filed by the Central Park Five, maintaining that the police and prosecutors had sincerely believed that they were pursuing justice. The new mayor, Bill de Blasio, on the other hand, has long insisted that an expeditious settlement is in order. “We have a moral obligation to right this injustice,” de Blasio explained while he was running for office.

At The Constitution Project’s Constitution Day panel discussion last September, Executive Director of the Mid-Atlantic Innocence Project Shawn Armbrust explained that most false confessions do not end in exonerations; they end in extensive prison sentences, ruined reputations, and bleak job opportunities. Indeed, the ultimate exoneration of the Central Park Five is actually rarer than their wrongful conviction. Most wrongfully convicted people serve their entire sentences, which can last a lifetime.

Many have voiced complaints about the large price tag of the settlement in the Central Park Five case. $40 million is, of course, quite a sum, and it provides approximately $1 million for each year of incarceration for each of the exonerated men. But the settlement money itself pales in comparison to the societal costs that stem from incarcerating innocent people. These costs are not limited to the financial burden of incarceration, but also pose a threat to public safety. These same resources spent on prosecuting and incarcerating innocent persons could be funneled into finding the real perpetrators of crimes and bringing them to justice. Moreover, false convictions prevent innocent people from contributing to society in a productive manner. According to a 2010 Pew Trusts study, two-thirds of all imprisoned men, regardless of their innocence or guilt, were employed prior to their incarceration, and more than half of these men were the primary breadwinners in their families. Such collateral costs of imprisonment are enormous, and our justice system should strive to ensure that innocent people and their families are not subject to these financial burdens.

Sizeable compensation payouts for wrongful convictions lend an additional burden to the taxpayer. According to the National Registry of Exonerations, defendants who were exonerated for wrongful convictions had collectively spent 12,500 years in prison between 1989 and 2013, with corresponding costly ramifications to the state treasury. A 2011 study conducted by the Better Government Association and the Center on Wrongful Convictions found that between 1989 and 2010, the state of Illinois alone had spent a total of $214 million on payouts to wrongfully convicted persons, and that is one of the 29 states in which compensation is regulated.  Statutes vary widely from state to state, and some states apply restrictions to the compensations they award in an attempt to save on costs. According to The Innocence Project, falsely convicted persons in Texas are entitled to $80,000 for each year of wrongful incarceration, with additional compensation of $25,000 for each year spent on parole. California awards up to $100 per day wrongfully incarcerated, but does not compensate those who falsely confessed or pleaded guilty. In Louisiana, awards are capped at $150,000, regardless of time served, although the state does provide some job training, medical care, and access to education. These alarming numbers reveal the enormous financial implications that unfair trials carry for the taxpayer.

In TCP’s recently released report, Irreversible Error, we laid out a set of 39 recommendations to improve the fairness and accuracy of death penalty proceedings, several of which focused on minimizing the rate of wrongful convictions. Videotaping interrogations, the report explains, constitutes a critical step on the road to reform. The use of video recordings will increase transparency in the interrogation system, thus revealing false confessions, encouraging fair interrogation tactics, and resulting in more informed trials. Moreover, it is important that police record interrogations in their entirety. In many cases, including those of the Central Park Five, suspects are recorded only when they confess — which often follows hours of intensive, bewildering questioning. “Of the 312 wrongful convictions in the United States that have been overturned based on DNA evidence, as of March 2014, nearly 25 percent involved a false confession or false incriminating statements,” the report states. That 25 percent could easily be reduced with improved interrogation practices, saving innocent people from cruel sentences and reducing the litigation costs that come with evaluating the validity of a suspect’s statement.

The Department of Justice has long opposed efforts to memorialize the entirety of a custodial interrogation, insisting that recordings of interrogations would inhibit rapport-building between police and the accused. The Federal Bureau of Investigation also claimed that because courtrooms accepted unrecorded interrogation transcripts, there was no need for a change in policy. But this argument discounted judges’ criticism of unrecorded interrogations, and the fact that courtrooms continue to reveal wrongful convictions based on false confessions. The FBI also used to caution that recording interrogations would reveal practices that the public may find unethical, and that the logistics of implementing a new interrogation recording policy would be too burdensome to enforce. These justifications, however, are woefully inadequate. The fact that the public may find current interrogation practices to be unethical should serve as motivation for amending these practices, rather than hiding them. Moreover, recording devices are so accessible and inexpensive in the digital age that implementing a new videotaping policy hardly poses a logistical problem.

This May, however, the DOJ announced the reversal of its long-held policy banning recording devices in interrogations, to take full effect July 11, 2014. States have long looked to the FBI and federal agencies as models for best practices, and as such, this change on the federal level could have far-reaching ramifications for increasing transparency in criminal proceedings. Recorded confessions provide a protection for the accused against police misconduct while simultaneously protecting law enforcement officials from false accusations. This shift in the DOJ’s interrogation practices marks an important step toward transparent interrogations, which could, in turn, lower the false conviction rate in this country.

Although no monetary compensation could possibly make up for the Central Park Five’s wrongful convictions and the long years they spent in prison, the settlement highlights New York City’s commitment to addressing mistakes it has made. Moreover, the settlement money represents an acknowledgement of the real costs behind wrongful incarceration. The members of the Central Park Five spent their youths in prison, away from their families and unable to work, while the real perpetrator evaded trial. The settlement stands as a strong reminder of the costs of wrongful conviction for all states, which should serve as an incentive for them to reexamine their law enforcement and conviction practices. As New York is demonstrating, justice should not be about getting the job done – it should be about getting the job done right.

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