To the Editor:
The Manhattan district attorney, Robert M. Morgenthau, regrets that his office was unable to test for DNA 13 years ago, a test that apparently would have exonerated those convicted in the Central Park jogger case (“Likely U-Turn by Prosecutors in Jogger Case,” front page, Oct. 12). The blame for those convictions belongs to his office and the tactics by both police and prosecutors.
One of those convicted, Yusef Salaam, 15 years old at the time of the crime, was kept alone in a precinct room while his mother, aunt and “Big Brother” were forbidden from seeing him during questioning.
Detectives falsely told Mr. Salaam that they had fingerprints from the jogger’s clothing. Mr. Salaam succumbed to this pressure and gave the statements upon which his conviction was based. The conviction was affirmed on appeal, but a lone dissenting judge criticized the “undisguised intention to exploit the defendant’s youthful vulnerability.”
Instead of wishing for DNA testing, the district attorney should examine the tactics used by his office and the police.
Center for Constitutional Rights New York, Oct. 13, 2002
Text of Article
Likely U-Turn By Prosecutors In Jogger Case
By JIM DWYER OCT. 12, 2002
A sweeping re-investigation of the 1989 Central Park jogger attack, including new DNA tests and admissions from a murderer never suspected in the crime, has persuaded senior prosecutors and detectives in Manhattan that the convictions of five Harlem teenagers cannot stand, according to three officials involved in the inquiries.
In an interview yesterday, the Manhattan district attorney, Robert M. Morgenthau, stressed that he had not yet made up his mind about the case but said that if the claims of the murderer, Matias Reyes, continued to hold up, he would go along with a request by defense lawyers to vacate the convictions. The jogger, a 28-year-old investment banker, was beaten, raped and left for dead in the park on a night when other runners and bicyclists were being attacked and robbed by bands of youths.
”We always knew there was someone else out there, but I didn’t expect this,” Mr. Morgenthau said. ”If the facts require us to consent, we’re going to do that. We won’t hesitate.”
The new inquiry, which began in January, will not be complete for at least another month, but the findings to date have essentially backed the account of Mr. Reyes, a serial rapist who says that he alone was responsible for the attack on the jogger, Mr. Morgenthau said in an interview.
The man’s story ”hangs together pretty well,” Mr. Morgenthau said. ”He says, ‘I’m a monster.’ If only we had DNA 13 years ago.”
Before he decides on what position his office will take, Mr. Morgenthau said he wanted to see the results of another round of DNA tests that were under way. He declined to say what other evidence was being tested. His office is still looking for witnesses and retired police officers from the original investigation.
The district attorney said that the verdict might be set aside for legal reasons that had nothing to do with the guilt or innocence of the five convicted people. He noted that lawyers defending the teenagers did not know that a nearly identical crime had been committed two days earlier in the same area — information that could have helped in their defense. The attack involved a lone rapist, and Mr. Reyes said he was responsible for that as well.
Although the prosecutors and detectives involved in the jogger case in 1989 and 1990 did not know about that rape either, the Police Department did have a record of it. ”That could be a basis for setting aside the verdict,” Mr. Morgenthau said.
On the night of April 19, 1989, the jogger left her apartment around 9 p.m. Nearly five hours later, she was found unconscious and writhing in a muddy puddle, north of a drive that crosses the park at 102nd Street. Her skull was fractured, her body temperature was 84 degrees and she had lost 75 percent of her blood. She had been raped.
Already in custody at the station house of the Central Park Precinct was a group of 14- and 15-year-old boys who had been rounded up leaving the park earlier in the night by police who suspected that they had been involved in the random attacks. They became the focus of the investigation.
Over the next two days, 10 of the teenagers eventually gave videotape statements, and four admitted to participating in the attack. A detective said that a fifth teenager, Yusef Salaam, made admissions but refused to write them down or record them. Mr. Salaam, Kevin Richardson, Antron McCray, Raymond Santana and Kharey Wise were convicted in two trials the following year.
Mr. Morgenthau said that anyone who watched the videotapes could see that there was no coercion by Elizabeth Lederer, the assistant district attorney who asked the questions. Asked whether there had been pressure in the 20 hours or more before the cameras were turned on, Mr. Morgenthau said: ”That’s one of the things we’re looking at. I don’t think anyone’s leaning too hard on them.”
The accounts given in the videotapes are inconsistent on where and when the crime took place and who participated. Even so, prosecutors urged the jurors to consider the admissions with other evidence, especially a few strands of hair that had been found on the clothing of one of the teenagers. That hair ”matched and resembled” the victim’s, Ms. Lederer had argued. She said that other hair found on the victim’s body seemed to have come from another teenager. However, none of the semen collected from the victim could be linked to the teenagers.
When the woman recovered, she had no memory of what had happened to her.
Mr. Reyes was arrested in August 1989, more than three months after the jogger attack. He pleaded guilty to murdering a pregnant woman, raping three others and a robbery. He was sentenced to 33 years to life.
Last January, Mr. Reyes told a prison guard that he wanted to talk about the Central Park attack, and an investigator from the state Department of Correction interviewed him. The information was turned over the district attorney’s office in Manhattan, which arranged a DNA test of Mr. Reyes.
In May, the results came back: Mr. Reyes’s DNA matched semen collected from the jogger’s body. Other DNA tests showed that the hair evidence did not, in fact, link the teenagers to the crime, as prosecutors had argued in the trials.
In prison interviews, Mr. Reyes insisted to investigators that he alone had attacked the jogger, raped her and crushed her head. This was typical of his other crimes. Later, he retraced the crime for them in the park. ”I think if anything is clear, it’s that he was there,” Mr. Morgenthau said. ”We’ve got to make sure of the rest of his story — that ‘I did it alone.’ ”
Mr. Morgenthau said that reopening the case had been difficult for the detectives and Ms. Lederer but that his office openly faced errors before.
The district attorney said he had no worries about the results of the inquiry into the jogger case. If the investigation shows that the five men are not guilty or if it finds evidence that might have helped their defense, he will seek a new trial, he said.
”Whatever it is, it is,” Mr. Morgenthau said.