Tuesday, May 3, 2016

The Central Park Five
            On April 19, 1989, a woman, later to be revealed as Trisha Meili, was running on a pathway in Central Park. During her jog, she was struck over the head with a tree branch and subsequently dragged into the woods of Central Park. In the shrubbery of Central Park, her assailant raped her. Five boys were charged with the assault, rape, and sodomy of Trisha Meili. These five teenagers, however, did not commit the crime.
            On the evening of April 19, 1989, a group of over twenty-five teenagers entered Central Park. The group was violent; throwing rocks at cars, harassing people on bikes, and beating the homeless. Five boys of African American and Hispanic descent were part of this group; Antron McCray, Raymond Santana, Kevin Richardson, Kharey Wise, and Yusef Salaam. Their ages ranged from 14 to 16 during the time of the attack. When the police appeared at the scene, the boys ran. Initially, Richardson and Santana were the first of the five boys picked up and taken to the Central Park Precinct for unlawful assembly. Just as they were to be released, passersby found the woman in the park, and the detectives kept the boys at the station, under the guise of paperwork issues. McCray, Salaam and Wise were picked up the next day, though Wise was not initially a suspect in the case. The officers say the two of them hanging around together, so they brought him down to the precinct with Salaam. McCray was taken from his home later the next day.
            The issue in this case is clear; these children were arrested for a crime that they played no part in. However, what is more appalling is the role the detectives and prosecutors had in the indictment of the boys. The detectives began the interrogation of the boys with the belief that they had sexually assaulted and abused Meili. The boys initially began the interrogation insisting on telling the truth, that they had no knowledge of who this woman was. But the detectives were persistent and unyielding in their attempts to get the boys to support the narrative that they believed in. They screamed, yelled, spit on the boys, and told them things like “oh this is the prick right here. Yea he don’t wanna tell us what happened. You know you fu*king did it. You stuck your fu*king di*k in her.” They told the boys blatant lies, like Salaam’s prints were found on the woman’s pants. The interrogation of these boys lasted between 14 and 30 hours. The police officers purposefully tried to wear the suspects down with abusive and unfounded tactics. They knew that putting the boys in a state of despair would encourage them to say anything that would allow them to be released from the precinct. McCray’s father even told his son to tell the cops whatever they wanted to hear so they could go home.
            The police officers further placed pressure on the boys by playing the prisoners’ dilemma with the teenagers. In separate rooms, they told the individuals that the other males were placing the place on blame on them. It was only at this point that the boys let go of the truth, that they were innocent, and began making up stories that condemned the other boys. The cops coached the boys, asking them leading questions, such as “where was Kevin?” At that point, the boys simply played along because they wanted to go home. When an undeveloped juvenile is stressed and placed in an overwhelming situation, all his or he brains is calculating is how to go home.
            Furthermore, the prosecutors in this case, Elizabeth Lederer and Linda Fairstein, operated not only as prosecutors but also as investigators with the Manhattan North cops.  When it was first discovered that the boys did not commit the crime after the true perpetrator, Matias Reyes, confessed, 13 years after the conviction, the police department commissioned a panel to go over what happened during the case. The commission found that the prosecutors and detectives did nothing wrong, only furthering the problem of institutional protectionism. It was extremely important for Fairstein to be sheltered, as her entire career was built on this case. Lederer teaches at Columbia Law School, and the school removed all mention of the case from her biography, though it still allows her to teach there.
            The prosecutors in this case eventually discovered that there was no DNA evidence present to support that the boys were anywhere near Meili during the time of her rape. Even knowing this, the prosecutors decided to proceed with the case and based it entirely on the false and forced confessions of the teenagers.
            The injustices present in this case stem from the shortcomings in the criminal justice system. The abuse of authority, both by the detectives and prosecutors in this case, was not rectified even after Reyes admitted to committing the crime. There was no person or group that held these officers accountable to their misuse of power. We see this problem rampant in society even today, with cases such as Freddie Gray. Police brutality is an obstinate problem that has seen little to no change. Oversight is the only way to fix this abuse of power, and not just selective oversight. Everyone must be held to the same standards in order to ensure that each person is provided and protected by the rights that they intrinsically have by being a US citizen. 
            Perhaps the most important consideration as to why this injustice occurred is the answer to why these specific boys were prosecuted for the crime. Reality and justice were not the reason for the conviction, but rather their roles as proxies for other agendas. In the late 1980s, racism and classism was rampant in New York. The city was divided into those flourishing from the economic boom, and the criminal underclass. Crack was introduced to the city in large doses in 1984, and those blamed for the crimes in the City were actually the victims of these horrifying crimes, black and brown kids. The racism environment during the time made it easy for the prosecution to paint a picture for the jury; a group of black and Hispanic kids raped and maimed a white woman. The public was not concerned with finding the truth, but rather blaming the scapegoat.

            The most important way to combat these injustices is education. Educating the public, educating youth of the rights they have when speaking to the authorities. New York City public school teacher Jeena Lee-Walke was just recently fired for doing exactly that, for teaching her students about the injustices found in The Central Park Five case. On an individual level, students can rally behind Lee- Walke and sign a petition to disagree with her termination(http://action.18mr.org/jlw-doe/). Additionally, there is a petition circulating to fire Lederer from Columbia Law School(https://www.credomobilize.com/petitions/columbia-university-law-school-fire-elizabeth-lederer-as-lecturer-in-law). PBS also sponsors a discussion on the issues present in the case(http://www.pbs.org/kenburns/centralparkfive/discussion/).

Works Cited
"The Central Park Five"- directed by Ken Burns, Sarah Burns, and David McMahon, produced by Sundance Selects, WETA, Florentine Films, PBS, and The Central Park Five Film Project

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